Jazz violinist Billy Bang Passed Away at 63

Jazz violinist Billy Bang Passed Away at 63


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



Me with my music, I didn’t feel the threatening situation that others felt. I didn’t feel obligated

to have to compromise or the necessity to have to kiss anybody’s ass. I was determined

to be focused in a Billy Bang direction until today, I am the same way. I think that strength

 is what kept me going, that commitment of strength, that conviction.



Albums by Billy Bang


Vietnam: The Aftermath (2001) / Vietnam: Reflections (2005)  / Big Bang Theory  / Prayer for Peace


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Jazz violinist Billy Bang (1947-2011) Passed Away at 63

Remembrances, Interview, a Bio, and Obituary


A Personal Note by Louis Reyes Rivera


I first met Billy in 1998, in The Hague, Netherlands, where we were both part of the Sun Ra All-Stars Project organized and conducted by trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah—Billy, Ahmed, Eddie Gayle, Robert Rutledge, Roger Blank, Radu, Alex Harding, et al, were among those in the ensemble who had played with Sun Ra, along with several who hadn’t, i.e., Cody Moffett, Roland Alexander, and myself.

At the time, Billy was living in Germany, so I didn’t get to meet him at any of our NYC rehearsals until the night of the actual concert, and with a 17-piece orchestra, there was no real way to rub elbows, much less shake hands and chat. It wasn’t until after we hit and attended a reception we were given that I got my first up-close feel for the man. The moment we approached one another in the midst of that crowd, I took an immediate liking to him. He exuded such warmth, sensitivity and sensibility—all of it clearly written in his face, in his demeanor, in his every gesture. I like this guy, I said to myself—no airs, no fronting or shamming, just straight up from the same streets.

Since then, and up until like last year, we’d hit that stage together at least four times a year as part of Ahmed Abdullah’s Diaspora (Dispersions of the Spirit of Ra)—including hits at Sistas’ Place in Brooklyn, Cecil’s in the Oranges, Sweet Rhythms in Manhattan—in Milan, Sicily, Helsinki, D.C., and Detroit—like so. And always there’d be moments when we’d exchange personal notes. Come to find out, among poetry circles, we knew a good number of the same people (back in the 1970s, he told me, he played at the Nuyorican Poets Café, with Pietri, Algarin, Piñero), which gave us initial grounds through which to strike up cigarettes, private jokes, and solid conversation. 

More importantly, from the onset, it was clear to me that we genuinely respected one another as artists and sincerely enjoyed each other’s company. That was Billy—and, were it not for Ahmed, I would not have known such memorable moments on the same stage.

Speaking of which—though much has been written about Billy’s lasting associations with many a stalwart musician, his relationships with folks like Ahmed Abdullah and Craig Harris have yet to be included. And it was with Ahmed’s Diaspora that I got an up-close look at how much Billy and Craig genuinely admire one another.

Believe me, whenever Ahmed conducts that band, and with the likes of Billy and Craig (or, for that matter, Billy and D.D. Jackson or Billy and Salim Washington, or Billy and Alex Harding), the work that emanates from that stage is truly a Music of the Spirit, so chock full of what comes from deep inside every one of them. By the time the concert ends, you can’t help but to leave the given venue amazed, inspired, and cleansed—almost like church, temple, prayer and meditation. It wasn’t the joint that was jumpin’—it was what came out of the respective instruments of musicians who care about their work. 

Moreover, the Ahmed/Billy connection has its own long history, beginning with the 1970s Loft Movement in which they met and collaborated, the time they shared together with the Sun Ra Arkestra, and, especially, in the several ensembles organized and led by Ahmed—The Group (with Marion Brown, Andrew Cyrille and Sirone right beside Billy and Ahmed); the Solomonic Unit (which featured drummer Charles Moffett and Ahmed with Billy, Carlos Ward, Fred Hopkins &/or John Ore on bass); Diaspora (with reed men Carlos Ward, Alex Harding, Salim Washington, trombonist Craig Harris, pianist D.D. Jackson, guitarists Masujaa and/or Ryan Tucker, bass man Radu and/or drummers Cody Moffett, Reggie Nicholson, Brandon Lewis, along with vocalists Miles Griffin, Monique Ngozi Nri and poet me); and via Ebonic Tones (Ahmed, Billy, Alex Blake, Alex Harding, and Andrei Strobert). In each instance, the LPs or CDs released were well received, to say the least.

But here’s the kicker—last December (12/4/2010), Ahmed had booked The Group to do a 25th Anniversary Reunion hit at Sistas’ Place, and in honor of alto saxophonist Marion Brown (who had made his own transition that previous October). The Group Redone included three of the original five (Ahmed, Billy, drummer Andrew Cyrille) plus Bob Stewart on tuba, D.D. Jackson on piano, and Bluiett on baritone (check that out!). And on one of those rare occasions, the place was so packed for both sets that the overspill of people had to be redirected next door where folks could watch the concert via a television monitor. 

Yes, many of us will miss him and what he gifted us all, but especially the people he worked with, as folks who share that art together are equitably a person’s closest family.

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 Fred Jung Interviews Billy Bang


Billy Bang hasn’t had an easy life, but neither is the music he plays. Bang’s improvisations require advanced citizenship. Concentration in an age where the average attention span rivals the box office presence of Gigli (Martin Brest/Bennifer film apparently seen by two people, who told two other people). But to his credit, through difficult times, he outlines below, Bang has continued on. Continued playing his unique brand of jazz and we’re all better for it, even if we don’t have dedication to realize it now. Like all good things, I’m sure the appreciation for Bang (unedited and in his own words) will come in due time.

Fred Jung: Let’s start from the beginning.

Billy Bang: I was born in Mobile, Alabama, but I never grew up there. I grew up in Harlem, New York. As I lived in Harlem in the early Fifties as a kid, I heard music all around me from the jazz clubs and from the candy stores. They had speakers outside the candy stores that they would play music, music like Eddie Harris and once in a while, Brubeck’s “Take Five.” So I started hearing jazz very, very early, and when you lived in Harlem in those days, it was in the blood. It was in the people. It was in the clothing. It was prevalent. As a young man, I bought a pair of bongos and two of my friends and I used to play the bongos on the New York City subway system. We would take turns dancing and playing the bongos and earn some money. That was my professional debut in the music.

I was in special classes in elementary school. There was a brand new music school opening up in East Harlem and that was an extension of an older music school. They were relocating to a brand new music school and they were going around to all the elementary schools up in Harlem, trying to pick out kids that they thought would fit the music department there. They chose me and so when I went to the school, I was handpicked for the orchestra. I was a little bit upset because I wanted to play the drums or the saxophone or something that I was more familiar with and hearing, not the violin. I was put in the orchestra and then they measured the guys up. The tallest guys got the bass and the next size guys got the cello and guys my size got the viola or the violin. They put me on the violin.

This is something that I am not creating, my parents aren’t creating, but it is the system. I was in this orchestra. It was classical for two full years. I don’t remember doing math or English, but I remember this violin orchestra music. In my ninth year, I should have been in this orchestra class and gone on to Juilliard or some other school of music. But I received a scholarship to go to a school with no music department, so I was very, very happy. It was purely academic. I was rubbing shoulders with all the wealthy people’s children in America such as Jackie Robinson’s son. I went there two years and then I became frustrated to basically my naïveté to American racism. I didn’t quite understand the things that were affecting me, but they were horrible at that school. This was more on a personal side.

At the same time, it was a boarding school, so I lived up there. I was coming home on Christmas, Thanksgiving, and the summer, back into the ghetto, back into my neighborhood. So I became an extremely confused human being, not knowing which side of the tracks I was on. I wasn’t black enough to be with the black kids and not white enough to be with the white kids. I was a total mess. I think that was the beginning of my schizophrenia. After I left the prep school, I had to choose a school in the Bronx. I lived in the Bronx. It was just by random that I chose a school and went to it for two years trying to graduate, which I didn’t. I had to go to summer school, which I couldn’t stay in there because it was too beautiful a summer. The next thing I know, I received draft papers in the mail. I had a choice, either go back to school or get drafted. I got so fed up with school that I allowed myself to get drafted.

Fred Jung: And how soon did you begin your tour in Vietnam?

Billy Bang: Six months later. You do six months of basic training. AIT, they called it, which is advanced infantry training, and then I had an extra two weeks in what they call assimilated Vietnam camp, where they teach you more specific things about jungle warfare and guerilla warfare. Then I was shipped to Vietnam after coming home for a few weeks. After that, I boarded a plane that went to California and then Alaska and then the next thing we knew, we were all in Vietnam.

Fred Jung: You received minimal training that was geared specifically for the region, when you were in country, did any of it help?

Billy Bang: I would like to think it did because the people that didn’t get it and they were still sent to Vietnam, maybe they could have used some of it. I don’t know. Every situation varies and it was different, but they must have known that my orders were 11 Bravo and 11 Charlie, and that is infantry. So I think they sent me through all the regiments of Vietnam as an infantry soldier. In other words, they didn’t give me training on typewriters when they knew I would be shooting.

Fred Jung: The vast majority of musicians I have spoken with served in the military, but most were in the band.

Billy Bang: Yeah, a lot of guys were in the band and a lot of guys were in what they called special forces, not the fighting kind, but doing different things. Frank Lowe, my good buddy, was an MP. Butch Morris was a medic. The guys had different jobs. I think I am one of the few guys that actually humped the boonies and lived in the jungle.

Fred Jung: How many tours did you do?

Billy Bang: I did one. One too many. I did one year, the required time. Most people have ideas about Vietnam from watching these silly movies and things, but basically, it was a very lonely time. Although I was involved with the unit, it seemed like you were always thinking to yourself. I was with a great bunch of guys, guys that were just as down as me. That is important because when you hump and anybody panics or freaks out, it can be detrimental to your safety. I was fortunate to be with some strong willed guys, guys that wanted to fight and come back home. We weren’t really fighting for any nationalistic cause. We were fighting to get the hell out of there, at least I was.

Fred Jung: When you are in the midst of a war, how far away was music?

Billy Bang: Oh, music wasn’t even near me. The only thing I heard of music was once in a while, I heard a Vietnamese song in the background. I just heard the music of automatic weapon fire and the syncopation of mortars being hit and things like that.

Fred Jung: Upon your return from Nam, how did your perspective on this country and the world change?

Billy Bang:  Well, I was extremely disappointed with myself and with civilization. I didn’t think I could cope and I didn’t feel like I fit in anymore. There was so much anti-Vietnam fervor around that I didn’t talk much about it, except to close people that knew me. And although I am a gregarious type person and like to speak, I was fairly quiet for a few years. I was withdrawn and just maybe scared in not knowing how to deal with life. I went back to my job and my original job was not there. They told me to come back in a few weeks and I never went back. Theoretically, my job was guaranteed through the army, but I didn’t make a stink. I just left it alone. As a matter of fact, I thought they did me a favor just to walk away. I was kind of a misfit. Also, the two years I was away, it seemed like things had changed.

Fred Jung: How so?

Billy Bang: Well, physically, they definitely changed up in the Bronx. When I left the Bronx, the Bronx was a livable, community-oriented place. When I came back, it was the war zone. There were a lot of burnt out buildings, a lot of my friends had turned into junkies, cats I played basketball with a couple of years ago. In two years, it seemed like there was a radical change up in the Bronx. I didn’t recognize it. I thought it was very strange how things had changed. For the most part, I thought I was in a very safe place in Vietnam because a lot of my friends that did not go to Vietnam, they seemed to be worse off then I was with the drugs.

Fred Jung: When did you interest in the music begin to return?

Billy Bang: That came soon after I got out of the army because I felt like I couldn’t do anything else. I felt like a lost person. I will try to make this as clear as I can without incriminating myself. When I came home, I was recruited by some underground group in the Bronx, an insurrectionist kind of group, not the Black Panthers, but something equivalent to that. There were a lot of people picking up arms and feeling the nationalistic fervor during that period. So they came to me and these were people that I knew and people that knew me from growing up. They asked me if I could help them purchase weapons for them.

Generally, this was a run down South. We would get in the car and drive at least to Maryland and Virginia, where it was easier to just buy a weapon, handguns out of a pawnshop with very little ID, if any at all. They wanted me to look at them and kind of inspect them because I knew about weapons. I was a weapons expert so to speak from Vietnam. One of these pawnshops that I went to, I walked to the back of it and there were these violins hanging up in the back. I honestly, to this day think I heard them calling me. So I ended up back there and saw one hanging and asked the guy in the store how much it was and he said some price like twenty or twenty-five dollars, which I had in my pocket. I gave it to him and brought it home.

Meanwhile, the guys I am with are looking at me very strangely thinking that Vietnam really got to me. I would take the violin out to the park where we played basketball and I would start scratching on it, sounding like shit. These guys would make jokes, but they would respectfully make them because they knew me. I met a sweet, young girl, she was a girlfriend and I told her that I wanted to move down to the East Village because that is where all the musicians were, Andrew Hill, Cecil Taylor, a lot of musicians, and I needed to go where the music was. She said that she moved with me and she did and that is when I really started seriously undertaking my challenge in music. I think I was twenty-one then, which is pretty old to start, but I was very determined. Being determined about playing music helped counteract a lot of the post-traumatic stress disorder that I had from Vietnam. It offset it that I was focused on doing something that I devoted all my time to it and unable to dwell in the negative aspects of Vietnam. I couldn’t stop it from my dreams, but I could do something in real life.

Fred Jung: What was the inspiration for your creative outlet?

Billy Bang: I could be very, very honest with you, Fred. At the time, I was attending Queens College under the GI bill. One of those semester, I was offered an exchange program. I was a pre-law student. They allowed me to work at a legal office. I was a paralegal. I did that during the day time for credits. When I saw all the under the table, underhanded things that happened in the justice system, that really ran me out of society completely. I felt badly enough because I thought what I did in Vietnam was wrong that I didn’t want to join forces with anything else that represented that same unfairness, which was the justice system here in America. I don’t care what they say, it is basically how much money you have. They are right, justice is blind.

So I didn’t want to join up again with something that I knew would be harmful to others, so that propelled me and threw me totally in the music. I left school after that and stayed in this basement from sun up to sun down working on the violin. I started getting my fingers limber and getting dexterity and trying to find my own notes. Basically, I was relearning the violin and teaching myself with the help of others.

Fred Jung: Why  free jazz?

Billy Bang: I did hear violins all my life. I bought the Delmark Records and heard Leroy Jenkins. Then I started hearing all the Joseph Jarman and Roscoe Mitchell. I loved the AACM [Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians]. I loved Delmark for putting them out, Muhal Richard Abrams. This music really turned me on. It seemed very political, very conscious for me at the time and also very free, but with structure. So when Leroy Jenkins came to New York, I tracked him down and I did a little study with him for about six months. It was enough to reshape my direction. I already had a direction, but it really straightened it.

From that point on, I just kept trying to go for it. Nobody would hire me, but that didn’t stop me. I would hire myself and hire a band and we would play at places like lofts in New York. Eventually, loft jazz became very, very big in New York and that catapulted my name and my career. During that period, I did all sorts of things, sitting in with Sam Rivers at The Five Spot. I sat in with Jackie McLean. I just had to be around the music and the cats that I loved and respected. I was disappointed that John Coltrane passed away because I think I would have followed him day after day after day to try and get in his band.

Fred Jung: You spoke of the loft scene, which to the music was a pivotal, but unrecognized period in the music.  

Billy Bang: It was a very big thing. I think that catapulted my name internationally along with the David Murrays, the Henry Threadgill s, the Frank Lowes, the Lester Bowies, the Joe Bowies. A lot of us wrote our own compositions. We weren’t playing standards. The bebop guys had to play standards to be legitimate. We were able to create our own music, direction, and compositions that also helped to lend a more directional input into the music. The loft jazz‘s impact of it came when the Newport Jazz Festival came to New York that year and they didn’t hire any of us, so we had our own loft jazz festival. There were meetings and I remember Archie Shepp  was talking and Rashied Ali was talking. I was very, very happy to be in New York at that time and to be around such a powerful movement with powerful names in it, Braxton, a lot of cats, all the cats that I love.

We started setting up concerts all over, all the places. Sam Rivers  had Rivbea and Rashied Ali had Ali Alley, which is where I played most of the time. When I played there with my Survival group, Werner Uehlinger came from HatHut and he signed me to do a solo record. We were very adamant and strong about what we were doing. We were committed in belief. The World Saxophone Quartet  started. The String Trio of New York started. Air was here. There was a lot of power going on simultaneously. There was a movement going on. We actually saw it in the making. I find it extremely important. The only reason why it does not have as much importance as I see it is because a lot of the writers didn’t pick up on it. Francis Davis from Philadelphia, he did and Stanley Crouch  to some degree. There were people that picked up on it, but it wasn’t enough of a movement.   

The next year, George Wein hired some of the loft guys to play at the jazz festival. I was even offered a gig there with the String Trio. I didn’t make it because I like to hold out. I will be very honest, Fred. After I did my tour in Vietnam, I felt above a lot of the everyday activities in this world. I faced death and I think I had died more than once, so after that, I was sort of an untouchable. Me with my music, I didn’t feel the threatening situation that others felt. I didn’t feel obligated to have to compromise or the necessity to have to kiss anybody’s ass. I was determined to be focused in a Billy Bang direction until today, I am the same way. I think that strength is what kept me going, that commitment of strength, that conviction. They didn’t like the things that I did in the beginning. In fact, I didn’t like a lot of it, but I was committed enough to keep trying and not be shot down by critics, writers, peers, whomever.

Fred Jung: These days, that kind of self-determination and integrity become liabilities.

Billy Bang: That is true. I don’t see it anymore. Cats are trying to be technical. You can exercise all your technical prowess and you sound like what’s been out already. I hear more guys sound like Clifford Brown or Freddie Hubbard  then I heard them do. That was not the thing. We were always going for individual voices and individual sound. That is the only thing that almost made me stop. I didn’t sound like anybody. I thought I sounded so horrible that one particular day, I was ready to smash up my violin and I remember James Jacson James Jacson from the Sun Ra band came in and tried to recruit me and he had a long talk with me. He told me that I had my own sound and that I had a Billy Bang sound. I took that to heart and started working from that perspective and saying that I needed to keep working at it and developing my sound.

Fred Jung: Judging my solely your Soul Note discography, different ensembles, various setting, you are always searching.

Billy Bang: Yes, that is true. I actually tried to outdo the last one too and trying to see what else is there. I was just trying to supersede what I did last and trying to tighten it up and really find exactly what I am trying to say musically. Yes, you are right, you can follow the trail of the albums or the CDs and see the development of Bang.

Fred Jung: You had a close association with the late Dennis Charles.

Billy Bang: Oh, God. I couldn’t hardly play without Dennis during some periods. This man knew. He could anticipate what I was about to do and he just fit so well. We were like two peas in a pod. First of all, Fred, he played melodic. He was a very supportive drummer. He didn’t try to out stage you or outdistance you. He was always trying to do his part to make the music better. He was just a wonderful drummer and an extraordinary human being. On the road, Dennis had super drug problems. We all had some, but Dennis was a lot heavier. Just to watch him go through Europe with me and he was sick and ill, but he did it for the love of the music. He had been around. He had been around the Art Blakeys and the Steve Lacys and the different cats. It was not new for him, but a lot of it was fairly new for me. He was a secret tutor on some levels and then he just followed me in a direction of the music that I believed.

Fred Jung: And Frank Lowe?

Billy Bang: I first worked with Frank on his record called Lowe and Behold. That was a real different kind of record for me to be involved with because he was bringing people from two different camps at the same time. There was one camp that was John Zorn and Eugene Chadbourne and others and the other camp was Joe Bowie, Phillips Wilson, Butch Morris, and myself. What Frank Lowe did was bring everybody together on the same LP. I thought it was really amazing that he could see that far in advance. This was before Bill Laswell. This was way before. So that is when we first began collaborating. He saw me really moving because Frank was my hero and he later saw me as an equal. We talked together and did projects together.

Fred Jung: You returned to playing solo on Commandment, not the easiest of tasks.

Billy Bang: It isn’t, particularly in this music and trying to keep the interest of yourself and the audience, but I was ready for it at that time on the second one, as I am for a third one. I have so many projects right now on the table, I can only do so much. My next big project is doing the follow up to Vietnam: The Aftermath. I am slowly writing for it, but the big push will be in August, September. On this CD, I will include some Vietnamese musicians.

Fred Jung: Vietnam: The Aftermath  is you making peace with your demons on record.

Billy Bang: This was from a CD I did called Big Bang Theory and that was Jean-Pierre’s first assignment with me. During breaks and intermissions and things, we had talked. Somehow he was interested in my Vietnam career and I told him that I don’t really talk about it, but with him I did. I told him I thought about doing some music about it, but never could pull myself together to approach it. Upon moving back to America from Berlin, I came back with maybe a penny in my pocket, literally. Thank God for my daughter because her and her husband allowed me to stay at their house in Queens to get myself back together. I also have to thank Kali Fasteau for hiring me during this time and giving me some gigs. But it wasn’t what I wanted to do at the time. 

I needed to really regroup because it was like starting again. I was at Kali ‘s house, rehearsing for a gig with her and I called Justin Time up and I was on the phone over-enthusiastically asking for a record date because I needed the money to get myself together. This is all practical stuff I am dealing with now. So when I talked to Jean-Pierre, he was very kind and asked me to write about my experience in Vietnam. I wasn’t in the mood for that, but I thought about it and called him back and I agreed to doing it. I needed an advance because I was so broke and needed to eat and pay rent somewhere. That was such an ordeal for me, writing this music because I had to relive Vietnam. I had to conjure up experiences that I have been trying to runaway from since I came home. I had to face it again and didn’t know how I would react and respond.

Fortunately, for me, it made me a very mature person at that time and the music came out honest and well. I got a lot of extra baggage off of my shoulder by doing that record. Shit I have been carrying around, horrible thoughts and bad flashbacks, things I have been avoiding. If I saw something like that, I would go get drunk or use heroine or whatever. I am glad I got a lot of that off of me.

Fred Jung: Are those demons behind you now?

Billy Bang: I think I put quite a few of them back. Not all of them, because it will never end, but enough to function on a better level now, Fred.

Source: AllAboutJazz

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Billy Bang (born William Vincent Walker; September 20, 1947 – April 11, 2011) was an American free jazz violinist and composer. The nickname “Billy Bang,” was acquired as a child from a popular cartoon character.  . . He joined Sun Ra‘s band. In 1977, Bang co-founded the String Trio of New York (with guitarist James Emery and double bassist John Lindberg). Billy Bang explored his experience in Vietnam in two albums: Vietnam: The Aftermath (2001) and Vietnam: Reflections (2005), recorded with a band which included several other veterans of that conflict. The latter album also features two Vietnamese musicians based in the United States (voice and đàn tranh zither).

Bang died on April 11, 2011. According to an associate, Bang had suffered from lung cancer. He had been scheduled to perform on the opening day of the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival on June 10, 2011.—


The Funeral Service takes place on Wednesday April 20, 2011, at Mount Olivet Baptist Church, 201 Malcolm X Boulevard [corner of West 119 St.], in Harlem [212.864.1155]. He’ll be buried at Woodlawn Cemetery following the service [est. at 1 p.m.]. The cemetery is located on Webster Avenue and East 233 St., in the Bronx [718.920.0500].

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Billy Bang, Jazz Violinist and Vietnam Veteran, Dies At 63

By Tom Cole and Patrick Jarenwattananon


Billy Bang, a violinist known for intense performances and a wide-ranging sensibility, died Monday night, his agent Jean-Pierre Leduc confirmed. Bang, who had been suffering from lung cancer, was 63. Born William Walker in 1947, Bang was an important figure on the experimental jazz scene that blossomed in New York in the 1970s. But he gained wider recognition in the last decade for a series of recordings which drew on his military service during the Vietnam War.

His experiences in combat scarred him mentally, and he generally avoided speaking about them until Leduc encouraged him to create what would become 2001’s Vietnam: The Aftermath. The album—and its successor, Vietnam: Reflections —received critical acclaim and proved cathartic for Bang. “There used to be a time where I used to have dreams about it a lot and it’s not as often now,” he told Howard Mandel for NPR in 2004. “But for a very long time, I suffered a lot in my sleep. But to be honest, I think after I faced the ordeals of what I’ve gone through—after completing that music, and after rehearsing it, particularly after recording it—I’ve felt a lot lighter.”

Bang grew up in New York City’s South Bronx, and actually studied the violin as a teenager. He didn’t like it. “I didn’t know what was going on,” he told Tom Vitale for NPR in 1993. “I couldn’t carry it back on my block. I lived on 117th Street. Can you imagine a little guy carrying a violin, and you talk about guys picking on you, man. I mean, they really did. I had to put the violin down, throw a couple of punches, get thrown at me, go upstairs. I hated to practice it. It sounded terrible.”

Despite being offered a scholarship to a boarding preparatory school in New England, Bang never finished high school. He was drafted into the service and, as he told Mandel, he was thrown into combat two days after landing in Vietnam. As a squad leader, he had to maintain intense focus in combat. There was no music in his life then. “Only the music of machine guns,” Bang told Mandel. “The rhythm of that is what I heard. The only instrument I had was an M-79, M-14 and a .45.”

At least initially, the period after his service was hardly any better. In 2005, Bang told Roy Hurst of NPR’s News and Notes that returning was a shock. “When I came home from Vietnam—when I got off the airplane — the next thing I was on was the New York City subway, and that was extremely traumatic for me—I mean, just really destructive to my whole system,” Bang said. “I couldn’t take the sounds. I couldn’t take the people all around. So I finally got home; I didn’t want to come outside for a long time, which I didn’t do. So my mother was coaxing me to come out and sort of—she was trying to help me to get back to some kind of normality. But I still criticize the United States government for not having a real bona fide re-entry program for veterans.”

Bang’s trauma led him to heavy drinking and drug use. He joined a Black Liberation group that drew on his wartime experience to help it buy guns. On one trip to a pawn shop, he saw a violin and that led him back to music. After discovering the way that free jazz artists like Leroy Jenkins and Ornette Coleman were using the instrument, he began taking his own study seriously. He moved from the South Bronx to the Lower East Side and immersed himself in the counterculture of likeminded artists.

Bang proved to be an active, passionate performer. Though he was associated with free improvisation, his concepts also came from more traditional jazz and Latin music, and he often incorporated that language into his playing. Tom Vitale’s 1993 profile of Bang centered on his project paying tribute to pioneering jazz violinist Stuff Smith.

By the new millennium, Billy Bang had already become a well-respected musician within the jazz world. He spent 10 years with an important group called the String Trio of New York, an improvising ensemble with his violin, guitarist James Emery and bassist John Lindberg. The Vietnam albums proved to be more high-water marks for his career. Bang called up fellow musicians who had also served in Vietnam for the recording sessions, including conductor Butch Morris.

“It was quite heavy,” Morris told Howard Mandel. “I’ve never seen so many grown men cry. It’s not only how he brought this thematic stuff back— it’s how he brought the experience back, the experience of being there, the experience of smelling, the experience of seeing, the experience of feeling, the experience of fear, the experience of joy, the experience—he brought back all these experiences. That’s what was so frightening in the studio. He brought back the same experience that each of us had.”

Billy Bang was scheduled to perform at the Rochester International Jazz Festival in June of this year. Last year, he released a well-received album called Prayer for Peace


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Negro Digest / Black World

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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posted 20 April 2011



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