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Billy Bang: Separate Peace

Billy Bang

The defining crisis of the 1960s was Vietnam. Martin Scorsese’s recent documentary on Bob Dylan, No Direction Home, brought back that era, and while his film is about a young folk singer and a counterculture, the war is always there. The movie vividly recalls two corollaries of Vietnam:

how completely it polarized our society and how completely we have moved on.

If Vietnam makes the news anymore, it is in minor stories like when its Prime Minister, Phan Van Khai, met with George Bush at the White House last June to discuss the World Trade Organization.

But for those who fought there, moving on is not so easy.’

“I lived in Vietnam, totally, all the time,” violinist Billy Bang says of the 30 years that followed his Vietnam experience. “I couldn’t get on with my life. I couldn’t even handle the Fourth of July.”

For most of those years, Bang was a busy player on the left-of-center jazz scene, recognized not only for his ability but also for his unusual choice of instrument. Almost no one, including musicians close to him, knew his story.

At 18, after dropping out of high school in the Bronx, he had been drafted into the army, was given six months of infantry training and was sent to Vietnam where, after only three days in-country, he was dropped by helicopter into a firefight near the Cambodian border. Bang was quickly promoted to squad leader, then sergeant. He took out ambushes, “humped the boonies” and became an expert marksman. “When you’re in a squad you move up to the next position when someone above you rotates out or gets hit,” Bang says. “Right after I got there, my squad leader, Fontenot, from Louisiana, got hit. I remember him falling back into the bunker.”

Bang did a two-year hitch, with one year in Vietnam. He got a G.E.D. in the army and after discharge attended Queens College on the G.I. Bill, studying pre-law. But while working in a paralegal internship program, he observed firsthand what he describes as the “legal injustices” of American jurisprudence. “I made one big mistake in my life–fighting against the Vietnamese, a people who had done absolutely nothing to me,” Bang says. “I went all the way to their land to fight them, for no reason. I felt very badly about that. Then when I worked in our legal system and saw that guilt or innocence was really about how much money you had, I decided, ‘I don’t want to be part of this. I don’t want to feel guilty again.'”

He dropped out of Queens College and threw himself into music. It was late to start, but he had received musical education in his youth, when he had played violin in the orchestra of an innovative music school in East Harlem. “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 says 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.”

He moved to the East Village, “practiced 24/7, sounding like shit,” in a basement on East Sixth Street, and started hanging out with other people in various early stages of learning, like William Parker and Henry Warner. Older players like Wilbur Ware and “C” Sharpe dropped by and shared knowledge. “We were teaching each other,” Bang says, “kind of like the AACM, but without a name.” Bang began to find his voice, and he believes that his breakthrough came in the loft-jazz movement of the mid-’70s, when players on the level of David Murray, John Zorn and Hamiet Bluiett accepted him. In the ’80s and ’90s he collaborated with most of the prime movers in avant-garde jazz (Sam Rivers, Sun Ra, Don Cherry), led or co-led several respected ensembles and made over 30 recordings.

But his nights were filled with very bad dreams. There is a clinical term for the problem: post-traumatic stress disorder. Bang sought relief in drugs and alcohol rather than treatment. He spent the late ’90s in Berlin, and when he returned to New York in 2000 he says, “I was financially strapped and called Jean-Pierre Leduc at my record label, Justin Time, and told him I needed a record date. He suggested I do an album about my Vietnam experience. I said, ‘Wait a minute. I don’t talk about that.'”

Bang was frightened of the project, but he also felt a call that had been buried in him for years. He stayed in his apartment for several weeks and wrote the music. “That’s when I started reliving it and crying again and going through the nightmares,” he says. “Everything came back to me.”

Vietnam: The Aftermath was released on Justin Time in 2001. The opening track, “Yo! Ho Chi Minh Is in the House,” establishes the atmosphere of menace and tension (which is sometimes explosively released) that pervades the album. The tune is a wildly careening vamp, Bang’s violin sawing and whining, Michael Carvin’s gong crashing. The Southeast Asian inflections and tonalities suggest an exotic, alien environment, perilous for intruders.

Bang has said that his original intention was to have every instrument played by a Vietnam veteran. As it turned out, six of the nine musicians who appear on the recording, including conductor Butch Morris, were in Vietnam. It is affecting to see their ranks and serial numbers under their names in the liner notes. Butch Morris does not play an instrument but, in Bang’s words, “plays the musicians.” His “conduction,” a patented system (literally) of hand and baton signals, brings players in and out and cues trills, sustained notes and crescendos. In this environment of unleashed emotional extremity, Morris keeps the players together.

“I had been carrying around a lot of baggage,” Bang says. “It was only in the writing and performing of this music that I had to remember things I had absolutely been trying to forget. To write this music honestly, I had to face what I’d been through. Then I finally started feeling lighter. I started to deal with my drug and alcohol issues. It was like coming out of a coma.”

Vietnam: The Aftermath is an extraordinary personal and historical document that stands on its own as art. Pieces like “Tet Offensive” and “Saigon Phunk” are visceral depictions of the madness and panic of combat that achieve in music what works like Apocalypse Now and The Red Badge of Courage achieve in film and literature. The music is not as “outside” as much of Bang’s previous work, because he creates objective correlatives for the war experience in keening, stark, pulsating compositional forms. But within Bang’s structures the players, individually and collectively, give passionate witness. Ted Daniel on trumpet, the late Frank Lowe on tenor saxophone (who both served in Vietnam), Sonny Fortune on flute and John Hicks on piano (who did not) play with burning, focused inspiration.

But for many, the revelation of Vietnam: The Aftermath will be the unique expressive capacity of Bang’s atypical jazz instrument. In his hands, the violin can shriek like demons of the night. But it can also, sublimely, sing. Bang’s subject matter is broader than nightmare. “Mystery of the Mekong” is a rapt meditation with a slow, fervent flute outpouring from Fortune and Bang’s plucked and bowed violin. “I did find some peacefulness once [while I was a soldier] when I saw the Mekong River with the sun setting on it,” Bang says. “It was a moment when I realized, ‘God, if there was no war here, it would be such a beautiful place.'”

“Moments for the KIAMIA,” a lament for the fallen, with Bang’s violin alone over the rhythm section, is wrenching. “People ask for this piece a lot,” Bang says. “When I play it now, I still become emotional with it. It tears me up every time.” His violin weeps, but in an austere, dignified melody that creates the distancing of genuine tragedy.

With an album as potent and thorough as Vietnam: The Aftermath, it seemed that Bang had at last told his story. In fact, the story had just begun. Vietnam: Reflections appeared in mid-2005, also on Justin Time. The strong personnel from the first album is retained except for the reeds: Henry Threadgill (an infantryman in Vietnam) and James Spaulding replace Fortune and Lowe. Reflections is not a sequel, but another step on Bang’s journey to healing and acceptance.

While The Aftermath insinuated tonal and harmonic elements of Southeast Asian music to evoke strains and sonorities new to jazz, Reflections goes further. Bang brings in Vietnamese musicians (Co Boi Nguyen on vocals and Nhan Thanh Ngo on dan tranh, a traditional finger-plucked dulcimer). In three adaptations of Vietnamese folk songs and five new compositions, a cross-cultural synthesis of musical traditions embodies the reconciliation that is Bang’s quest.

If The Aftermath is about existential immediacy, Reflections benefits from a perspective provided by the passage of time. Thirty years have brought enormous changes for the nations and individuals once in conflict. Threadgill and Spaulding play brilliantly (if sparingly), but, as with the first album, the most moving performance places Bang alone with the rhythm section. “Doi Moi” possesses a poignant grace that is hard to imagine coming from any instrument other than jazz violin. “I haven’t been back to Vietnam,” Bang says, “but ‘Doi Moi’ is my imagining of what Vietnam might be like today.”

Bang does intend to return to the country in order to finish what he now considers his Vietnam trilogy. The final chapter will be a documentary, which Bang hopes to begin filming by fall of 2006. “I want to go to Vietnam and assemble an orchestra of musicians who play traditional Vietnamese instruments,” Bang says. “Hopefully there will be some who fought in the war. That will be part of the film: meeting them, meeting their families, meeting their kids and grandkids and just having some rice wine together. Like, the opposite of war. Another part is a musical part. I want these musicians to learn Butch Morris’ system of signals, and I want Butch to conduct the orchestra while my American band plays with them and improvises. It could be an incredible sound and incredible footage, to see that come together. Another part is me returning back to places where I fought, in the jungles.”

One of Ernest Hemingway’s most famous sentences, “I had made a separate peace,” comes from A Farewell to Arms. It is a work of fiction, but Hemingway had been to war and he knew that a soldier’s separate peace is not easily won. Billy Bang’s, surely, has not been.

Perhaps one reason that his Vietnam recordings contain such powerful spiritual resonance is that our society has not moved on as completely as we would like to think. Bang is not alone in carrying baggage from the Vietnam War. Its appalling imagery of agony–all of it in vain–was once inescapable for every American with a television set. That imagery is somewhere in our national repressed memory still. What we finally achieved on April 30, 1975, when the last Chinook helicopter took off from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon (with those desperate Vietnamese civilians scrambling, futilely, to climb aboard), was escape, not closure.

If Bang’s documentary film does get made, and he shares rice wine and makes music with his former enemies, he will have found a most fitting way to close the circle–and not only for himself.

Listening Pleasures:

50 Cent, Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (Interscope)

“I purposely don’t listen to a lot of jazz,” Bang says. “Maybe since the ’80s, when Wynton came along, I stopped listening to the music. I didn’t hear anything anymore. I do listen to WKCR sometimes, but classical. They might put on Arnold Schoenberg from 1927 and I’ll say, ‘Damn, that sounds like it was two weeks ago.'”


Violin: “I have a new violin with a lot of inlaid colors. I think it’s from Canada, handmade. I bought it used at Alex Musical Instruments on 48th [in New York City]. Before that I had a Barcus-Berry.”

Pickup: “I used to have a Barcus-Berry 1320, with the pickup built into the bridge. My man Carlos [Martinez] at Alex just fixed me up with a Barcus-Berry 3100, which goes outside the bridge. It’s stronger.”

Shoulder rest: Wolf Forte Secondo.

Strings: Super-Sensitive Red Label. “They’re cheap but I like them. They sound jazzy.”

Rosin: Super-Sensitive black. Originally Published

Thomas Conrad

Thomas Conrad has a BA from the University of Utah and an MA from the University of Iowa (where he attended the Writers Workshop). He taught English at Central State University in Ohio, then left the academic world for the private sector. His affiliation with publications such as JazzTimes, Stereophile, The New York City Jazz Record and DownBeat has enabled him to sustain active involvement in two of his passions: music and writing.