FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
This is News & Notes. I'm Farai Chideya. Today we wrap up our last installment of our jazz series. We've talked about many of the jazz greats, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis. But what about those whose names we don't know? Many jazz artists may not be getting the name recognition that their talent deserves.
Billy Childs is a Grammy Award-winning pianist, composer, and arranger. He's with us to talk about the challenges of trying to make it in a tough music game. Also joining the discussion is singer/songwriter Robert McCarther. He's just released his debut album, "That's Me." Welcome, gentlemen.
Mr. BILLY CHILDS (Pianist): It's good to be here.
Mr. ROBERT MCCARTHER (Singer, Songwriter): Good evening.
CHIDEYA: Well, you know, Billy, we're actually playing your music right now, so let me start with you. You started playing the piano at age six, and when did you know this is what you wanted to do for a living?
Mr. CHILDS: Well, actually I started at age six with piano lessons, but it kind of went in one ear and out the other.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. CHILDS: And then my parents sent me to this boarding school for boys called Midland, and that was around age 14, and in the absence of anything else to do, I saw a piano in there in the kind of mess hall, study hall, and I just gravitated towards it.
CHIDEYA: So have you felt this was kind of a calling, or a job, or you know, what does jazz and playing jazz mean to you?
Mr. CHILDS: It never - it never felt like a job to me. It's always - I guess you would call it a calling. It was something that I knew I wanted to do the moment that I started playing, about age 14 or so, age 14, 15. I knew that I was having so much fun and I couldn't imagine doing anything else, that this is what I wanted to do.
CHIDEYA: And so how do you define success?
Mr. CHILDS: How do I define success? First of all, by discovering what you want to do in life, what you feel passionate about, and then doing it, as in just - I would call success being able to do what you love for a living.
CHIDEYA: Robert, what about you? How would you define success?
Mr. MCCARTHER: I'd almost have to say the same thing. I think success is doing - no, success for me would be performing in jazz clubs, top jazz clubs. That would be success for me.
CHIDEYA: Well, I mean, do you get that opportunity?
Mr. MCCARTHER: Sometimes. The majority of times I'm about people like Donald Wildman, he's really given me a shot at - he had given me a shot before he passed, he was giving me a shot with top musicians, and that was quite enjoyable.
CHIDEYA: Well, right now we're going to listen to your song "That's Me," the same title of your debut album.
(Soundbite of song "That's Me")
Mr. MCCARTHER: (Singing) I think this life's not always what it seems to be. And if you like the sound of what you get is what you see, then I think it's time you all to want to take a chance with me. Don't keep wasting time...
CHIDEYA: So tell me a little bit more about your career path. I mean, you say sometimes you get a chance to play at top venues, but Robert, sometimes it sounds like you don't. I mean, what's it like on the month to month, the year to year, trying to make this a career as well as a passion?
Mr. MCCARTHER: I think you're - when you're - when I started they were using a lot of female artists, and the males were on the back burner. And so I had to go into different revenues, doing background work. I was never able to solo because of singing jazz. And jazz is not for everybody. Everybody can't play jazz. You have to have the musicians to make it believable.
CHIDEYA: Billy, we've asked some of the people who have come on before to give us their favorite artists. We'll ask you about that a little bit later. But what do you think makes an artist amazing, not just good but amazing?
Mr. CHILDS: Wow, that's a hard one. I would say if they play something or sing something or do something that you absolutely have to have in your life, that there's - and amazing is a different definition for different people. What I think is amazing may not be what you think is amazing and vice versa. But the ones that I gravitate towards, that I think are amazing, are the ones that play something that is surprising to me yet works, that has a logic to it, but still manages to surprise me.
CHIDEYA: Give me the name of someone who you think is a great artist but who folks might not know about.
Mr. CHILDS: Well, I would say that, you know, Steve Wilson is a sax player that is amazing. I also think that - like, a lot of people in the jazz community know about him, but in the larger scheme, Kenny Kirkland is a - an incredible - one of the most - he's probably one of the most influential jazz pianists of my generation. You know, he passed away, unfortunately, maybe seven or eight years ago, but he was just a genius.
CHIDEYA: Robert, what about you? Who would you name that's kind of under the radar that we should know about?
Mr. MCCARTHER: One guy that comes to mind is trumpeter Dwight Adams. He's a young guy and really, every time I've seen him, he's just almost spellbinding. And he has mastered his horn at a young age, and he's just great.
CHIDEYA: Do you go out and listen to live jazz a lot yourself?
Mr. MCCARTHER: Yes, I do. In fact, when I'm - whenever, like, somebody like Dwight is in town and he's appearing at a club, I'll go down and, you know, hear him, because he's worth hearing. A lot of times when you're with Dwight you'll see James Carter, because they work together a lot, so it's a double treat.
CHIDEYA: Now, in case folks are just tuning in, you're listening to NPR's News & Notes, I'm Farai Chideya, and we're wrapping up our jazz series by talking about musicians getting their due. With us today we've got Grammy Award-winning pianist Billy Childs and singer/songwriter Robert McCarther.
And Billy, you are not really under the radar. I mean, after all, you've won a couple of Grammy Awards. Your CD "Lyric" was nominated for best jazz instrumental album in 2006. And so let's listen to your Grammy Award-winning song "Into the Fire."
(Soundbite of song "Into the Light")
CHIDEYA: My apologies, it's actually called "Into the Light," and it is - it reminds me of - you know, kind of echoes of some of the medieval music, you know, with lutes and flutes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CHIDEYA: How did you come up with it? But yeah, you know, it dozen have this kind of renaissance, medieval - you know, with flutes and stuff like that.
CHIDEYA: I mean, do you think that it's harder for you because you're mixing genres to find an audience, rather than doing something that's very mainstream? CHIDEYA: Well, I want to come back to you on that point. But first I'll ask you, Robert, both of you gentlemen actually independently distribute your music. Robert, how do you do it, what do you do?
Mr. MCCARTHER: How do I distribute it? Well I'm on the Internet, I have a website. I really just started the website, and I have different people around the country, that's actually heard me. I've been around a while, and they're actually trying to help me. So, I'm sending packages and stuff around to - you know, with the new CD.
CHIDEYA: Do you find that you have to work harder to, you know, get your music out there than someone who's on a label that does the distribution, and the marketing?
Mr. MCCARTHER: Yes, it's a lot harder. You have a lot of guys - I know guys that have CD's that are great, but getting them out, and distribution, is very, extremely hard.
CHIDEYA: Billy, what's your experience with the business end of things?
Mr. CHILDS: Well, I agree with Robert, that it's - you take more on yourself when you do - when you distribute your own stuff. However, I kind of, you know, I've been doing this, like - myself, for a long time. On the one hand, it's kind of a double-edged sword, what's happening now, this new musical paradigm, in the sense that the artist, you know, record company's are just cutting back on - out of necessity, you know, they're taking a beating, basically. The music industry. So only those artists that they know are going to sell, are the ones that get the deals, and the rest of us are kind of left to fend for ourselves, which is cool.
I, you know, I'm motivated - I've always been self motivated, you know, so I, you know, don't - I have no problem with trying to collect the funds to record my own CD. That way I'm answerable to nobody. In terms - just because they invested in money in my project, you know, they've - a lot of times feel like they should have an opinion on how the music should go.
That's alleviated, and then you - the main challenge is marketing your CD, and there's a lot of ways you can market it through the Internet, or through getting a publicist, and printed advertising through, you know, doing interviews like this, you know. It's a - you know, it's open. I look at it in a positive way, it's very exciting to me.
CHIDEYA: Well, Robert, this is the last, the very last in our jazz series, and I want to ask you who do you think folks should tune into, that they may not know about?
Mr. MCCARTHER: I think somebody that should be heard, is Nieme(ph) Shamberge(ph), she's a singer, songwriter, and I think they should really check her out. She's a great vocalist.
CHIDEYA: Billy, what do you think?
Mr. CHILDS: Also there's this amazing vocalist here in Los Angeles, named Dwight Tribble, who I really think is a remarkable singer. You know, he sings with such passion, and emotion, you know. He's really great.
CHIDEYA: And you also told us about someone named Martin Bejerano.
Mr. CHILDS: Yes.
CHIDEYA: And a song - we're going to play a little bit of a song called "Bouncing With Bud."
Mr. CHILDS: Yeah.
(Soundbite of song "Bouncing With Bud")
CHIDEYA: So why do you, I mean, why do you connect to that.
Mr. CHILDS: You know, he just has - you know, I've never met him, I just heard him on a couple of things with Roy Hanes, who he play with a lot, and I heard one of his albums that he put out himself. And he just has this amazing facility, but also he uses a facility in the service of his ideas. Which are really interesting, and brilliant, I think.
CHIDEYA: What do you mean by those ideas?
Mr. CHILDS: Well, you know, ideas - I like to, when I solo, I like to phrase. In other words, when you solo you try to solo as, in my opinion, the best soloinger, the kind of soloing where it emulates someone speaking. You know, in other words, there are things that are phrased, and stop and start. You know, in ways that are surprising, yet logical, you know, and I think he has all that, you know. And another pianist is like Aaron Parks, who also impresses me. Jason Moran, and you know, it's - there are a lot of people who are out there, who are really great.
CHIDEYA: Robert, just briefly, for folks who don't know a lot about jazz, what do you think is a good resource to plug?
Mr. MCCARTHER: For one, WDT, and it's kind of hard to find. But I would frequent clubs like, Cliff Bells, Bakers. You have to find that real jazz, the guys that's really playing, and no sense of sizes, or anything like that.
CHIDEYA: Billy, really quickly, how do you find good jazz?
Mr. CHILDS: How do I find it? I kind of just accidentally bump into it. You know, and I don't know, I just find it on the radio, or someone will turn me on to it. It usually finds me.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CHIDEYA: Well on that note, we're going to end this interview, and series, with a jazz great you play with a couple times. He has a personal connection to News and Notes, here is Grammy, and Academy, Award nominated trombonist, and composer, J.J. Johnson. Who happens to be the grandfather of our director, Kenya Young.
(Soundbite of music)
CHIDEYA: Well gentlemen, thank you both for joining us.
Mr. MCCARTHER: A pleasure.
CHIDEYA: We've been speaking with Billy Childs, a Grammy Award winning jazz pianist, he joined us here on our NPR West studios. And singer, songwriter, Robert McCarther's debut album is "That's Me." He joined us from the studios at Radio Broadcast Services in Royal Oak, Michigan. You can catch our entire jazz series on our website, nprnewsandnotes.org, and tomorrow we begin a new month long series on addiction.