Billy Childs: ‘I wouldn’t be able to survive without music’

When I heard that Billy Childs is coming to Australia, the first thing I did was listen to his latest, Grammy-winning album, Rebirth, hailed as a return to his jazz (hard-bop) roots. So the next thing was to check these roots. I went to my record collection and unearthed The Yokohama Concert, his 1978 debut recording as a sideman alongside legends J. J. Johnson and Nat Adderley. It is an album where hard-bop blends with the funk sounds of the era, allowing the then 20-year-old Childs to shift from piano to synthesiser, adding colours to the ensemble’s sound. ‘Colors’ is also the name of a track, featured in the accompanying Vol.2 albumof the same recording, issued in the ’90s. It is a beautiful, lyrical solo tune, which somehow foreshadows Billy Childs’ subsequent forays into classical and jazz, which allowed him to build an illustrious career.

Billy Childs | Photo: Raj Naik

As it happens, Billy Childs has no recollection whatsoever of this piece. “Are you sure it was mine and not J.J.’s?” the voice over the phone asks. I assure him that it is his name in the credits. “I don’t even remember that,” he says. What he does remember though is “how lucky” he was, to be able to play with such legends at such a young age. And he owes it to his education.

“I had very very good parents,” he remembers.

“They were both educators, teachers. And they knew that since I was interested in music I should get a good education.

“They sent me to the best teachers and I was like a sponge, I took everything in; so when I got this incredibly lucky opportunity to work with J. J. Johnson, I was more or less ready at age 20.

“I had talent and I worked hard but without other people helping I would never have the success that I got.”

If he could go back in time and meet his 20-year-old self, what would he tell him?

“You know what? I wouldn’t give advice, because I think that I did things the right way,” he says.

I was really interested in learning, I did the things that my teachers told me to do and I was a good judge of character.

“I could tell if someone was giving me good advice or not, but I was always nice to shake my head and say ‘yes’ to the bad advice and ignore it and only listen to the good advice.

“I guess what I would say is ‘keep doing what you are doing’; ‘keep an open mind’; ‘be curious’; ‘don’t be cynical about anything’.”

This is not a bad set of guidelines for everyone to follow in their course of life, of course, but for Billy Childs it has been an integral part of his journey in music, from jazz to classical and back.

“I’ve always been interested in composition,” he explains. “I’ve always loved putting things together, having a vision and executing it and making people see what the vision is through music and structure and form.

“I’m 62 years old. I grew up in a time when TV commercials had full orchestras and the scoring for TV series were orchestrated; I grew up inundated with the sense of orchestral colour, it was always around me.

“I kind of had an early training just listening to how music can be used as a dramatic tool and I always thought that this was the ultimate goal of music, to give the listener a dramatic experience.

“So in terms of my journey in jazz and classical, I don’t really make a differentiation. I try to make the music that I do to have elements of both, depending on the dramatic needs of what I am trying to say.”

And when it comes to Rebirth, what was the message that he wanted to get accross?

“A kind of an exuberance and the joy of making the music,” he replies.

Rebirth is kind of a return to my small groups. For the past 10-15 years I have been doing these bigger, loftier projects – a jazz chamber group with a harp and a guitar and a string quartet, playing very complex precomposed music that has kind of classical symphonic aims to it.

“And then I did an album reimagining the music of Laura Nyro, who is an influence on me – so I got away from that jazz small group thing that I had loved doing; it was an aspect of my music that I felt that was not being fulfilled, so I wanted to do an album. That’s where the title comes, from a rebirth of that aspect of me.

“I wanted the piano to be driving the music more, I wanted to display more of myself as a piano player.”

Before we hang up the phone, I ask him what is the main thing that he has gained through music.

“Survival,” he says. “I wouldn’t be able to survive without music.

“It’s hard for me to separate myself from the music. It’s not so much that I gain something from music. Its more like I am music. I hope it makes sense.”

Of course it does.

Billy Childs will perform at the Melbourne International Jazz Festival on Thursday 31 May and at the Sydney Con Jazz Festival on Sunday 2 June