Thirty years ago, violinist Billy Bang began to redefine his instrument?s place in jazz history. A singular voice, he soon joined that handful of individuals who have inventively adapted the violin?s timbre and super soprano range to demanding improvisational music. As such, it is easy to draw a straight evolutionary line from jazz pioneer Stuff Smith through Leroy Jenkins and end up at Billy Bang, but to do so would be a simplistic historical cop out. For although Bang is acutely aware of what came before ( A Tribute to Stuff Smith
, Soul Note, 1992), his instrumental virtuosity encompasses multiple jazz genres just as the breadth of his influence transcends his instrument and his social awareness reaches beyond the music. With an international touring schedule second to none, NYC appearances this month at the Vision Festival and Up Over Jazz Café¬ scheduled studio time to record the sequel to his award winning Vietnam: The Aftermath
(Justin Time, 2001) and perhaps most importantly a new sense of self, Billy Bang is in top form.
For all Bang has done to define his instrument?s place in jazz, the violin has repaid him in kind. As a child growing up in Harlem and the Bronx during the ?50s and ?60s, William Walker, a.k.a. Billy Bang, showed musical promise. Playing bongos and dancing in the NYC subways gave way to a flirtation with classical violin. A New England boarding school followed, but Bang couldn?t relate and the second half of the ?60s found him in the Bronx with music taking a back seat and draft papers arriving in the mail. His front line combat experiences in Vietnam left him with an intractable posttraumatic stress disorder that would continue to plague him until he recently self-treated through musical catharsis. Arriving home, he affiliated with the radical left who welcomed his skills in weaponry procurement until an excursion to a pawnshop changed his life and the face of creative music as well. A violin hanging on the wall called, Billy purchased it and got back into music. With Vietnam haunting him, music became a way to escape. Practicing all day and into the night, he developed his emotive violin voice that can sing sweetly, growl like thunder or evoke all shades of emotion in between. A move to the East Village and a stint as a student with Leroy Jenkins focused Billy on the budding NYC free music/loft scene and the fit was perfect.
Billy relates that reedman Eric Dolphy had a large influence on the development of his style: ?I used to actually bow with Eric Dolphy records, so when he would stop breathing I would stop my bow. My bow was emulating the sounds of the breath, like short strokes and long strokes and that?s how part of my style developed because I use a lot of different bowing techniques?recently I was reading a book on Stuff Smith and found that he did the same thing with Louis Armstrong.? Bang is a seminal force in the development of ?chamber jazz? so prevalent today but as he remembers, an outgrowth of the ?70s loft scene and his highly influential String Trio of New York. ?We were very early in that concept? we wanted to highlight the bowed string instruments...the World Saxophone Quartet was specializing in just saxophones without drums, piano, bass. We approached it from that angle as well?that seemed to be the thing that was coming out of the lofts where people would associate with instruments to try to write music for that form...we found a relationship to [guitarist] Django Reinhardt and Grappelli with Jazz Hot?then we developed the music because Emery [guitarist James] came in and then Lindberg [bassist John] really started organizing it?from a Braxtonian concept?AACM style based around Penderecki [composer Krzysztof] and Bartó« ›composer Bela] not really chamber but a real nouveau modern classic jazz.?
Bang?s recording catalogue is exceptional in its quality and extent. He is able to bring his unique sound and compositional skills as solo performer to group leader or member across the full range of jazz genres. Recent releases and tours bear this out and encompass a dizzying array of sound. From the highly accessible swing and mainstream sound of Bang On
(Justin Time, 1997) and Big Bang Theory
(Justin Time, 2000) to his inventive FAB trio with bassist Joe Fonda and drummer Barry Altschul ( Transforming the Space
, CIMP, 2003) and TriFactor collaboration with multi percussionist Kahil El?Zabar and baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett ( If You Believe, 8th Harmonic Breakdown
, 2002), Bang somehow keeps it all in perfect perspective. ?It?s all a continuum?but yes I do focus in on certain areas of my music when I am in certain environments. I wouldn?t play the same way with Joe Fonda and Barry Altschul as I would with Kahil and Bluiett?I try to be as appropriate to the music as I am to myself. But ultimately it is going to still be Bang.? The eagerly anticipated NYC debut of TriFactor who are fresh from a successful European tour that included Poland, Austria and Italy will occur at this month?s Vision Festival.
Recent winner of The Association for Independent Music?s 2003 Indie award for best mainstream jazz recording, Vietnam: The Aftermath
is a personal and artistic triumph that displays the best of Bang?s abilities: socially meaningful compositions that feature his unique instrumental voice in the context of other world-class musicians. Musically combining Asian cultural signifiers with a full range of jazz and blues, it is the powerful first statement of a planned trilogy that has allowed Bang to begin to restructure his life and provide a forum for others to face their own recollections of that period. ?I was very very reluctant in doing that album?I had been sort of subjugating that whole entire period somewhere way down deep in my mind?not trying to have it come up at all but what I was doing was living as though I was half a person all the time and when it had a tendency to try to come up I would try to dampen it by alcohol or drugs?it brought me to a lot of emotions - tears, sadness, some happiness - it was extremely emotional for me to write the music for that as well as rehearsing it and recording it, it didn?t stop.?
The world premiere of the sequel to Vietnam: The Aftermath
occurs this month at the Up Over Jazz Café ©n Brooklyn. Bang will bring together musicians from the first CD but also plans to include Vietnamese musicians on the recording. ?The core will pretty much be the same group with John Hicks on piano, Curtis Lundy on bass, Michael Carvin on drums, Ted Daniel on trumpet, of course [tenor saxophonist] Frank Lowe is not with us anymore, God rest his soul, but I was talking to Henry Threadgill and it depends on his schedule.? With the second CD scheduled to be recorded this month, Bang is already enthusiastically planning the third piece of his Vietnam trilogy and his return there for the first time since 1968. ?What?s ultimately going to happen is there is going to be a documentary?filmed in the country of Vietnam and there is where I will really be performing with Vietnamese musicians. We are trying to organize this with the National Orchestra of Vietnam where I bring Butch Morris there to conduct them. That?s the real ultimate project?that should be the trilogy that should hopefully resolve this journey that I am on right now.?
A Fireside Chat with Billy Bang
Unsung Hero Profile