A Fireside Chat with Billy Bang

AAJ Staff BY

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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.
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 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?

BB: 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.

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

BB: 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.

FJ: How many tours did you do?

BB: 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.

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

BB: 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.

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

BB: 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.

FJ: How so?

BB: 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.

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

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.

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.

BB: 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 outstage 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.

FJ: And Frank Lowe?

BB: 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, Phillip 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.

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

BB: 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.

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

BB: 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.

FJ: Are those demons behind you now?

BB: 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.

Photo Credit
Claudio Casanova

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