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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?

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