04/12/11

Jazz Violinist Billy Bang Dies

Co-founder of String Trio of New York and collaborator with Don Cherry, David Murray and other creative music notables was 63

Violinist Billy Bang, noted for forging his own way on his instrument, died on April 11. According to an associate, he had been suffering from lung cancer. Bang was 63.

Born in Mobile, Alabama, as William Vincent Walker, Bang was raised in the Bronx and began playing the violin at a very young age. He was given the nickname Billy Bang in homage to a cartoon character.

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Alan Nahigian

Billy Bang

Although he won a scholarship to a prestigious boarding prep school in New England, Bang ended up dropping out and returning to the Bronx. Alienated from formal education, Bang gave up the violin. He was drafted into the Army at the age of 18 and served in Vietnam until his discharge a few years later. Many years later he would put the harrowing experience into his music with a set of albums—Vietnam: The Aftermath (2001) and Vietnam: Reflections (2005), the latter even including contributions from Vietnamese musicians.

Bang told JT’s Thomas Conrad in 2005 that his experience in Vietnam haunted him. "I lived in Vietnam, totally, all the time," the violinist Billy Bang told Conrad. "I couldn't get on with my life. I couldn't even handle the Fourth of July." Although he got his G.E.D. in the Army and studied pre-law and even went to law school for a short time, Bang bounced around at various jobs after his release from the military and eventually picked up the violin again. He dedicated himself to relearning the instrument and became part of the downtown loft-jazz scene of the 70s.

He told Conrad: "The violin was the only instrument I knew, and I wanted to play music. I didn't know about Leroy Jenkins or Ornette Coleman at that time—or Stuff Smith or Ray Nance or anybody. But I said, 'I'm determined to become a musician now. Not a violinist, but a jazz musician who happens to play that instrument.'" Bang said that the decision "was almost like joining a priesthood. I knew I would never be rich. It was like accepting a nonmaterialistic approach to life."

Bang played briefly with the Sun Ra Arkestra. In 1977, inspired by the approach of the World Saxophone Quartet, he formed the New York String Trio with John Lindberg and James Emery, with whom he would play regularly for many years. Bang also developed his own career as a solo artist and bandleader. Over the next 20-30 years, Bang would collaborate with many of the greats of the improvising jazz scene, including William Parker, Hamiet Bluiett, Don Cherry, David Murray and many others. He recorded over 30 albums, including many for the Canadian Justin Time label.

Jean-Pierre Leduc, who worked with Bang at Justin Time, said: "Billy was not only an innovative violinist but also an inspiring one. For too long pegged by many as an 'out' or avant-garde player, the last decade saw him deservedly playing much larger venues and instantly gaining new fans. Composing, rehearsing and then recording the two 'Vietnam' recordings not only renewed interest in Billy's music, but it also helped bring peace and order to his life. Playing even a small part in this healing was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.

"At the Montreal Jazz Festival in 2008 Billy brought the house down at the Salle Wilfred Pelletier - a 2,000-seat venue. Very few in the audience had known his name; now they were standing and cheering. I'll never forget the look on his face when he came offstage: sheer joy."

7 Comments

  • Apr 12, 2011 at 02:37PM C. T. Oakes

    I worked with Billy when he collaborated with Garth Fagan Dance on a full evenings work based on Billy's "Vietnam Aftermath" compositions. Billy and 2 members of his group and I were all Viet Nam Vets. He was a talented musician and a good human being.

    Welcome Home Billy!

    C.T. Oakes
    Viet Nam 1970-71
    U.S. Army

  • Apr 13, 2011 at 11:45AM Robert Posey

    Billy Bang was an inspiration to many & his shows at Sweet Rhythm & the Rubin Museum most memorable. I was happily able to give him a Decoder Society recording he hadn't seen in years. He was even interested when I told him about having pen pals in Vietnam in 1967-1970 when I was 8 through 10 years old. He truly is now "At Play In The Fields Of The Lord!"

  • Apr 14, 2011 at 03:13AM Fritz Langlois

    Very saddened to hear the news. Bang was a favorite musician of mine, scheduled to appear for a few concerts in Europe this summer, or so I hear. This prompts me to listen again to his albums, among which COMMANDMENT (for the sculpture of Alain Kirili), the VIETNAM albums, the MATERIAL album in which he participates, the works with Sun Ra and his Soul Note output like the great, great RAINBOW GLADIATOR from 1981. One that will be truly missed, an irreplaceable. So long BB.

  • Apr 14, 2011 at 03:49AM dmitry man

    Very Special musician, very special human being.
    Made a big impact on all who new him and his music.

    His music will live and inspire!
    Thank You Mr. Bang !

  • Apr 14, 2011 at 10:11AM Lee Mergner

    This information was sent to me by Carolyn Owerka:

    Funeral Services for Billy Bang:

    Tuesday April 19th, 2011
    Viewing at the Funeral Home
    11am-8pm
    Benta Funeral Home
    630 St. Nicholas Avenue
    [corner of 141st St]
    NY NY

  • Apr 15, 2011 at 10:06AM Lee Mergner

    More info on funeral services:

    Wednesday April 20th 2011
    Funeral Service
    9am-10am-viewing
    10am-11:30am--Funeral Service
    Mount Olivet Baptist Church
    201 Lenox Avenue [ corner of 119th St.]
    NY NY 10027
    212-864-1155

    Burial at Woodlawn Cemetery
    Immediately following the service
    [around 1pm]
    Webster Avenue and 233rd St

  • Apr 19, 2011 at 12:39PM Rita Warford

    A few years ago, Billy and I were working together in Germany. He and I never adjusted to the time difference, so while everyone else was sleeping he and I were still up. I remember on my balcony, just before the Sun was coming up, I asked Billy if I could play his violin. He said, yeah. I tried all that I could remember from elementary and high school and failed miserably. Then the Holy Spirit kiced in and I played God Bless the Child.. Billy told me I needed a violin. He said I needed to play. I will always remember his talent, kindness and encouragement.
    Billy Bang Forever

    Rita Warford

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