"The heart of matters"
Pianist and composer Billy Childs took some time recently to talk about two projects he is working on with competing deadlines.
Childs likened them to projects “that you cannot phone in landing at the exact same time.”
Childs was busy making arrangements for Friday’s world premiere of his song cycle “Enlightened Souls,” honoring the 50th anniversary of the first African-American students admitted to Duke University. The song cycle comes at the same time he is preparing to record his new interpretations of the music of song writer Laura Nyro.
Duke commissioned Childs to write “Enlightened Souls,” a tribute to the first five African-American students to attend Duke – Nathaniel White Jr., Mary Mitchell Harris, Gene Wendall, Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke and Cassandra Smith Rush.
To prepare for the composition, Childs spoke to the former students who are still living (Mitchell Harris and Smith Rush are deceased) “to give me an insight into … not just what the times were like, but what they went through,” so he could use it in the work.
“They’re not that much older than I am,” said Childs, born in 1957 in Los Angeles. “A lot of their experiences were similar to my experience as an African-American growing up in the ’60s, being the only black kid in an all-white situation” in school, he said. Childs found great tolerance among white students, “but then the racism would manifest itself in other ways. You couldn’t say it was overt, but the way they felt about you was made through subtle actions.”
Childs has a degree in music composition from the University of Southern California. He began playing piano with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and trombonist J.J. Johnson in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Since then, he has received numerous commissions, writing for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and other ensembles. He has recorded two volumes of compositions with his Jazz Chamber Ensemble. He also has worked with vocalist Dianne Reeves on a Sarah Vaughan tribute and other projects.
For Friday’s premiere, Reeves, the chamber group and Ying Quartet will perform with Childs. Reeves will sing the lines from three poems that Childs chose for “Enlightened Souls” because they echo the Duke students’ legacy.
The first is Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay’s “The White House.” It is “a poem about exclusion, which I thought was an appropriate subject because that’s what we’re dealing with,” he said. “This [event] is in commemoration of breaking a legacy of exclusion.”
The second poem is Diane di Prima’s “Revolutionary Letter No. 20,” which Childs considers “a poem about not settling … desiring a utopia where people can walk free, not based on their color or creed.”
The third poem (not titled), is by Walter Benton, and is “a plea for love because of all the horrible things that are happening in the world,” Childs said.
“I wanted to get at the heart of matters,” Childs said of this composition. “This piece is not a showcase of my writing virtuosity. It’s more about interpreting and commemorating this historic event, and bringing the point across to the audience. …. I just hope I did it justice.”
Childs has recorded two volumes of jazz chamber music. “Enlightened Souls” will be recorded as part of the third volume, he said.
He is preparing to record a “re-imagining” of the songs of Laura Nyro for Sony. Many different artists have recorded Nyro’s songs (“Save the Country,” “Stoned Soul Picnic,” “And When I Die”).
“She’s a huge influence on me,” Childs said of Nyro. “She is not recognized in a way that I would say someone of incredible genius would be recognized.”
He grew up listening to her music, but when he came back to it years later, he appreciated its qualities even more. He compares Nyro’s album “New York Tendaberry” to Joni Mitchell’s “Blue,” or Miles’ Davis’ “Kind of Blue.”
“It’s a masterpiece,” Childs said.
“Enlightened Souls” will be performed in recently renovated Baldwin Auditorium, which can be acoustically adjusted and “tuned” to the needs of smaller ensembles like Childs’ jazz chamber group.
“I’m real excited to play in this hall,” he said.