A Fireside Chat with Billy Bang
“ 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. ”
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 naivete 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.
FJ: And how soon did you begin your tour in Vietnam?
BB: 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.
FJ: You received minimal training that was geared specifically for the region, when you were in country, did any of it help?