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A Fireside Chat with Billy Bang

By Published: November 14, 2003

BB: 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.

FJ: What was the inspiration for your creative outlet?

BB: 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.

FJ: Why free jazz?

BB: 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. 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.

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