Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,022
This is the grave of Billy Bang.
Born in 1947 in Mobile, Alabama, William Walker grew up in The Bronx, where his family moved shortly after he was born, chasing opportunities not available to them in the South. Of course The Bronx was no great shakes either. His parents enrolled him in a musical school when he was a kid. He wanted to play the drums or the sax. But he was just a little guy and so the teachers gave him something they thought better fit his body: the violin. That would become a good choice. His friends started calling him “Billy Bang,” which was based on a cartoon character. Not only would that stick, it would also become his professional name in his life as one of the most important and interesting players in the free jazz scene of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
Bang was a skilled student and got a scholarship to attend the elite Stockbridge School. He hated it. In fact, he blamed it for his future problems with schizophrenia. They didn’t have a music program so he couldn’t work on his violin. He didn’t really mind that though. Imagine being on the street in The Bronx ghetto as a small boy carrying a damn violin. He stated in a 1993 interview, “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.”
At Stockbridge, Bang went to school with some of the richest kids in America and just did not fit in at all, not to mention all the racism he faced from the white kids. So he left after two years. He briefly returned to high school in The Bronx, but dropped out, and was drafted into the Army. This was 1965. It was not a good time to be drafted. He was sent to Vietnam. Two days after he got to Vietnam, he was in battle. He served a tour in combat and rose to become a sergeant. But he saw horrible, no good, awful things that affected him for his whole life.
Bang got out of the military as soon as he could. But to what? He was unemployed. What was there for disturbed Vietnam veterans in New York in the late 60s and early 70s? This was not a good time for these cities. He was also pretty lost personally. He started a law degree but then dropped out. He started medicating himself through the copious drugs available, not to mention booze. Then got involved in Black revolutionary movements in New York. The fact that knew weapons made him a real valuable guy to these groups. Since he knew what he was doing, the groups he worked for sent him on road trips to buy guns at pawn shops. While he was on one of these trips, he decided to buy a violin and start playing again. This would change his life. He became a student of Leroy Jenkins, one of the only models for a jazz violinist at that time, who told Bang he could channel his horrors through his music. Bang listened.
By 1975, Bang was already becoming a known figure on the New York jazz scene. There weren’t that many free jazz violinists in the first place and the instrument brought a tremendous amount to the table, especially in the hands of a genius like Bang. He got hired by one of the all-time greats, Sun Ra. Now, playing for Ra was no way to get rich. A giant band playing experimental music that makes no money does not mean a lot in the pot for anyone. But it did allow Bang to hone his experimentation with one of the great bands of all time.
By 1977, Bang began to release solo albums. With the exception of the late 80s, when he seems to have gone about five years while only releasing one album (not sure why), Bang would be a productive and prolific violinists, mostly in his own bands, but sometimes with others. I don’t know his early work all that way. The first album of his that I own in his 1983 release Outline No. 12, which already demonstrates a true master with a real vision in making vital music. Live at Carlos, from 1986, is another example of his excellent work from this period. On that, he played with some of the best musicians in New York, such as Roy Campbell on trumpet and William Parker on bass. These would be comrades in musical exploration for the rest of his life. That singular late 80’s album, Valve No. 10 is also excellent, with Frank Lowe on saxophone.
But it was in the early 00s when Bang reached his peak. He recorded a bunch of albums with the drummer Khalil El’Zabar during these years and I can definitely recommend. But he also sought to reconcile his history in Vietnam with his music. So getting together a bunch of Vietnam vet jazzmen and some Vietnamese musicians too, he recorded Vietnam: The Aftermath, one of the greatest jazz albums of this century. Released in 2001, it got a ton of attention (at least for a free jazz violinist). NPR reviewed it for instance (that story seems to be from 2004 but all other citations put the album at 2001 so I dunno). He followed that up a few years later with Vietnam: Reflections, which is also quite good though perhaps not as a revolutionary as the first. For him, these albums were catharsis. Like so many veterans, he suffered from PTSD and did not want to talk about what had happened to him. But late in life, he found a way to do so through his music. Another superb album from this era is a trio he did with William Parker and Hamid Drake. This was Parker’s project, which he called his Violin Trio. Scrapbook, released in 2003, is one of both Parker and Bang’s finest albums and really highlights the greatest of both. Very highly recommended.
Unlike everyone else in this series, I actually met Billy Bang in person. My college roommate became his bass player for several years. So when he got married, Bang was there. I never heard him play. But I did shake his hand. So that was pretty cool.
Sadly, Bang died of lung cancer in 2011, at the age of 63. I assume he smoked a lot, though I don’t know that for a fact. I guess you do what you have to do to get through life, but damn cigarettes.
Let’s listen to some Billy Bang.
Billy Bang is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, The Bronx, New York.
If you would like this series to visit other jazz violinists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Stuff Smith is in Jutland, Denmark where you should totally send me. Like Bang, Smith often found more success in Europe so just moved there. In this not jazz loving country, Joe Venuti is in Yeadon, Pennsylvania and Michael White is in Riverside, California. Previous posts in this series are archived here.