A Fireside Chat with Billy Bang
FJ: You spoke of the loft scene, which to the music was a pivotal, but unrecognized period in the music.
BB: It was a very big thing. I think that catapulted my name internationally along with the David Murrays, the Henry Threadgills, 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.
FJ: These days, that kind of self-determination and integrity become liabilities.
BB: 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 Jackson 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.
FJ: Judging my solely your Soul Note discography, different ensembles, various setting, you are always searching.
BB: 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 supercede 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.
FJ: You had a close association with the late Dennis Charles.