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How LA shaped Billy Childs and his hybrid jazz

Billy Childs earned two Grammy nominations for his latest album,
Billy Childs earned two Grammy nominations for his latest album, "Rebirth."
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UPDATE: Billy Childs won the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Instrumental Album.


Music fans who don’t live in Los Angeles often disregard its role as a great city for jazz. But L.A. has played a significant role in the history of the genre.

Greats such as Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy and Chico Hamilton got their start here. It was also a center for jazz fusion icons like Steely Dan and Frank Zappa in the 1970s.

Billy Childs grew up during this era of musical cross-pollination. He has had a prolific career as both a jazz pianist and a classical composer, recording and performing with Freddie Hubbard and Wynton Marsalis, among many others. He has also had works commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Kronos Quartet.

Childs’ latest album, “Rebirth,” earned him two Grammy nominations, for best jazz album and best improvisational solo for the song, “Dance of Shiva.”

When Childs visited The Frame, he discussed "Rebirth," his current collaborations and how his hometown influenced his musical growth.

billy childs

Interview Highlights 

On how Los Angeles has influenced his music: 

I was discovering my musical voice, I'd say, around the age of 14 — around the early '70s. And what was happening during that time was this kind of unprecedented inter-genre respect and tolerance between classical, or Western European music, and jazz. [Between] rock and jazz. And even film music had all these different elements blended in. But the whole point of the film music was to be dramatic. So all of this kind of informs my music because this is what I grew up with. I grew up not seeing any difference between a beautifully stated work of art in jazz and in classical. To me, it's all the same thing.

On Los Angeles' reputation as a center for jazz music:

I think Los Angeles gets an unfair rep of being less deep because of a lot of pop music and film music and [the] studio scene, people see that as kind of superficial. They think of Los Angeles as a trade town and New York as the art town. And, you know, the essence of who I am and what I've developed into as a musician is rooted here, in Los Angeles. My jazz chamber group, my style of composing for classical music, my way of leading a jazz band has all been formed here in Los Angeles. And I'm proud of that.

On how he knows when a song is finished:

Sometimes it's not finished when you just finish writing it on the page. Then you have to hear it interpreted or evolving over the course of time. And also with interactions from a listening audience. And then that gives you an idea of how a song is resonating with people. Because, to me, the whole point is to make the song have an impact on the listener — a dramatic impact. And sometimes that's a matter of structure, sometimes it's a matter of changing the harmony. Sometimes it's a matter of altering the melody or getting a different player. Or playing the music itself. There's a number of variables. 

On his daily routine and practice method:

I play once a day, at least. The playing of the piano sometimes is serving the compositional process. So that might be what I play today, and the next day I might run through Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier" or something and actually do some substantive practicing. And then I might play a gig the next day. So I don't go any amount of time without thinking about music. And actually music going on in my head is a constant non-stop thing. 


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