Childs was born in Los Angeles, the son of two teachers. He grew up in a household immersed in jazz, classical, popular, and Brazilian music, thanks in large part to older sister, playwright Kirsten J. Childs. He began playing piano at four, and by age six was performing publicly. At 16 he was admitted to the USC Community School of the Performing Arts, where he earned a Bachelor of Music degree in composition under the tutelage of Robert Linn and Morten Lauridsen. While still attending school, Childs worked the L.A. jazz scene. He made his recording debut in 1977 on a Japanese tour with the J. J. Johnson Quintet featuring Nat Adderley, documented as The Yokohama Concert.
From 1978 to 1984, Childs served as Freddie Hubbard's pianist and musical director and led the group Night Flight (fronted by Dianne Reeves, whose 1982 debut album he produced, played on, and composed for; their working relationship continues). Childs signed with Windham Hill Jazz in late 1987 and issued his 1988 debut Take for Example This.... He followed with three more dates for the label including Twilight Is Upon Us (1989), His April Touch (1991), and Portrait of a Player (1993) all charted. In 1992, he collaborated with Bunny Brunel, Mike Stern, and Vinnie Colaiuta for Dedication on Musicdisc. Childs also began accepting commissions during the early '90s, his first being a concerto for the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1994.
In 1995, he cut a lone album for Stretch/GRP entitled I've Known Rivers. Produced by Chick Corea, its personnel included guitarist Scott Henderson and bassist Jimmy Johnson. The set drew global acclaim, leading the way to a deal with Shanachie for 1996's critical breakthrough The Child Within. Its cast included Dave Holland, Ravi Coltrane, Terence Blanchard, and Jeff Tain Watts. After touring, Childs dug deep into session work, composing, and arranging. Some musicians he worked with included Gerry Gibbs, Grover Washington, Jr., Carmen Lundy, Paula Cole, and Joe Locke. In 1998, Herbie Hancock selected Childs to replace him for half of the tracks on Return of the Headhunters. The following year, the pianist resumed his role with Hubbard on Above Beyond and continued to work with Reeves on Bridges. In 1999, Childs was a co-billed soloist on the Dorian Wind Quintet's First Glimpses of Sunlight.
In 2000, Childs issued the trio offering Bedtime Stories (A Tribute to Herbie Hancock) on 32 Jazz with drummer Billy Hart and bassist George Mraz. Beginning with 2001's Night Sessions, Childs gained massive public recognition as a core member of trumpeter Chris Botti's ensemble. The pianist appeared on a large selection of the trumpeter's charting albums, including 2002's December, 2004's When I Fall in Love, 2007's Italia, and 2012's Impressions. While working with Botti's group, Childs continued to guest, compose, and arrange for artists ranging from Claudia Acuna and Burt Bacharach to Reeves, Gladys Knight, and Jill Scott. He accepted a wide variety of commissions including Voices of the Angels, for which he received a Chamber Music America Composer's Grant. In 2009, the always busy Childs was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship, and four years later, he was the recipient of the Doris Duke Performing Artist Award.
In 2014, Childs realized a musical dream in recording Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro for Sony Masterworks. The set featured his arrangements and piano on ten Nyro songs. Many paired world-class musicians with singers from the worlds of classical, pop, soul, country, and jazz. These pairings included Yo-Yo Ma with Renee Fleming on the Grammy-winning single "New York Tendaberry." Others included Susan Tedeschi with saxophonist Steve Wilson, Esperanza Spalding with Wayne Shorter, Chris Potter with Rickie Lee Jones, Shawn Colvin with Botti, and Alison Krauss with Jerry Douglas. Childs accompanied vocalists Lisa Fischer, Ledisi, Becca Stevens, and Reeves. The best-selling set peaked at number six on the Top 200 and won him an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award.
In 2017, Childs returned to his roots with the lean Rebirth for Mack Avenue. He led a quartet with saxophonist Wilson, bassist Hans Glawischnig, and drummer Eric Harland. It peaked at five on the jazz albums chart and made numerous critics' best-of-year lists. The following year it took home the Grammy for Best Jazz Instrumental Album. After touring and guesting on country songwriter Brad Colerick's Nine Ten Thirty, Childs returned to Mack Avenue in 2020 for the release of Acceptance. Accompanied by the same core band from Rebirth, Childs included additional players and singers, among them flutist Elena Pinderhughes, vocalists Alicia Olatuja, Aubrey Johnson, and Sara Gazarek, and percussionists Rogerio Boccato and Munyungo Jackson. In addition to new material that drew on earlier inspirations -- advance single "Dori" is a samba based on the work of Brazilian composer Dorival Caymmi (with whom Childs worked in 1994) -- the pianist revisited older works, two of which, "Quiet Girl" and "Twilight Is Upon Us," date back to his first two albums. ~ Thom Jurek, Rovi
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