Billy Childs has been playing piano since he was six years old. He has been nominated for ten Grammys and won three. He won a Guggenheim fellowship in 2009 and collaborated over the years with the likes of Wynton Marsalis, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Yo-Yo Ma and Sting.
On Friday, Duke will be audience to a world premiere of his longest composition to date.
Childs was commissioned by Duke Performances to create a composition to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Black Students at Duke. Integration started in the undergraduate school in the fall of 1963 with its first five black students, the Law School in 1961 and the Divinity and Graduate Schools in 1962. Childs will perform on piano alongside his Jazz Chamber Ensemble, four-time Grammy-winning vocalist Dianne Reeves and the Ying Quartet.
The first half of Friday's performance will consist of four songs, including 'Aaron’s Song' and 'Into the Light.' The second half will be "Enlightened Souls," which, at 500 measures and approximately 35 minutes long, is the longest piece Childs has written for a commission.
“It was clear this was an opportunity to showcase a very special performance and connect it with the 50th anniversary of integration at Duke,” said Ben Reese, Chairman of the Executive Committee for the 50th Anniversary of Black Students at Duke University.
Duke Performances Executive Director Aaron Greenwald said he conferred with the Executive Committee to envision this event, and subsequently sought out a fitting artist to showcase.
“It was important that, first of all, we work with a mature African-American composer. The fact that Billy, with the Jazz Chamber Ensemble, could embrace the world of jazz and classical music felt compelling,” Greenwald said. “He has had a lot of experience making projects of this scope.”
The program’s centerpiece is Childs’ composition "Enlightened Souls," which was written for the 6-piece Jazz Chamber Ensemble and the Ying Quartet. Childs noted that this is the first time he has written music for a vocalist in conjunction with his jazz chamber ensemble, a group for which he has written for 12 years.
“Each new commission is always something different. I thought it was appropriate to take poetry that describes the whole situation of commemoration.” Childs said. “I took poetry and set it to music, [and] had Diane Reeves participate and sing in it. She and I go way back.”
The poems that Reeves will sing in "Enlightened Souls" are Claude McKay’s “The White House,” Dianna DiPrima’s “Revolutionary Letter #20” and Walter Benton’s “This is My Beloved: Entry April 28.”
Childs arranged, orchestrated and conducted Reeves’s Grammy-winning album "The Calling: Celebrating Sarah Vaughan." He has also served as her music director.
Childs was approached by Greenwald roughly a year ago about the concept of doing a project for Duke. “It sounded like an incredible idea once I found out what the whole thing was about,” he said. “I started getting down to the nuts and bolts of it a couple months ago. I can’t wait to perform this piece. It’s very ambitious.”
Reese noted that, although the upcoming weekend is the 50th Anniversary's formal finale and includes the closing gala, the nature of the celebration will live on.
“This is the formal ending, but we will continue to reflect on the presence of African-American students and continue to enhance and further a wonderful, world-class institution,” Reese said.
Billy Childs Jazz Ensemble feat. Dianne Reeves with the Ying Quartet will perform "Enlightened Souls: Commemorating 50 Years of Black Students at Duke" on Fri. Oct. 4 at 8 p.m. in Baldwin Auditorium. Tickets are $10 for Duke students.