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Billy Bang
 
Billy BangThe violin is not likely the first instrument that comes to mind when you think about jazz, but that never daunted Billy Bang, who was one of the instrument's most adventurous exponents.

Over the past three decades, Bang's hard-edged tone, soulful sense of traditional swing and evocatively expressive style has enhanced over two dozen albums by top names in a variety of genres, from the blistering funk of Bootsy Collins and the harmolodic groove of Ronald Shannon Jackson's Decoding Society to the intergalactic uproar of Sun Ra.

With more than twenty albums under his own leadership, nearly a dozen more in co-led endeavors, and five more with the String Trio of New York (which he co-founded in 1977 with guitarist James Emery and bassist John Lindberg), Billy Bang was one of the more prolific and original members of the progressive scene.

Born in Mobile, Alabama in 1947, his family moved to New York City's Harlem while he was still an infant.  In junior high school he was nicknamed Billy Bang after a cartoon character, and over his initial protests, it stuck.  Around the same time, his primary interest turned to music, and he took up the violin, switching to percussion in the early '60s when he became captivated by Afro-Cuban rhythms.

While attending a Massachusetts prep school under full scholarship, he met and began playing with fellow-student, folk-singer Arlo Guthrie. Drafted into the army following graduation, Bang was sent to Vietnam, an experience that profoundly affected his life, often quite painfully.  Returning home and radicalized, Billy became active in the anti-war movement, and by the late '60s had returned to music.

Heavily inspired by the exploratory fire of John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman and the liberating energy of the free-jazz movement, Bang returned to the violin as his principal means of expression.  Attending New York's Queens College, and studying privately with renowned violinist Leroy Jenkins, Bang became a key member of the dynamic New York avant-garde scene of the '70s.

Forming his own group, The Survival Ensemble, and working with artists like David Murray, Frank Lowe, William Parker and the legendary Sam Rivers, Billy began to reach an international audience in 1977 with the String Trio, remaining with the cooperative ensemble for nine years.

During these same years he continued to tour and record with his own ensembles, as well as with genre-busting ensembles like The Decoding Society and Bill Laswell's Material (alongside the late guitar giant Sonny Sharrock).  He even briefly led his own funk-oriented band, Forbidden Planet.

He continued to work and collaborate with notables like Murray, Don Cherry and James 'Blood' Ulmer, and in 1982 began a ten-year association with the incomparable Sun Ra, concluding with a 1992 quartet recording for Soul Note, "A Tribute to Stuff Smith," dedicated to the father of the jazz violin.

In 1990, Bang formed the Solomonic Quartet with trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah, and continued to freelance and to lead his own groups.

Relocating to Berlin in 1996 where he lived until 2000, Bang frequently criss-crossed the Atlantic, performing all over Europe and doing five tours through the South and Midwest with percussionist Abbey Rader, three of which included tenor saxophonist and best friend,  Frank Lowe.

He also began a regular working relationship with percussionist Kahil El'Zabar in 1996, performing in duet, and sometimes as a trio with esteemed Art Ensemble of Chicago co-founder and bassist, the late Malachi Favors

Soon after, Bang started recordings for Canada's Justin Time Records, for which he recorded Bang On! in 1997 and Big Bang Theory in 1999.  Vietnam:  The Aftermath (released in October 2001) evoked and confronted the memories of his Vietnam experiences and showcased the fine compositional skills that had always marked his own recordings. This award-winning recording, co-produced with then Justin Time A&R director Jean-Pierre Leduc, came to be after Leduc proposed to Bang the idea of addressing his Vietnam experiences through music, something hitherto unexplored in the context of a jazz recording.

“I’d made two records with Billy before I even knew he’d been an American soldier in Vietnam, and that fascinated me,” adds Leduc. “It didn’t surprise me that he hadn’t told me, as it’s obviously something private. My father was an investigative reporter for many years in Canada, and so I grew up in the 60s and 70s, interested in and aware of the Vietnam conflict and its relation to journalism, politics and the toll it took on soldiers and their families. When I learned this about Billy, I was captivated. I brought it up one day in a phone call, but initially he was quite taken aback.”

Adds Billy, “My entire body and mind came to an immediate halt. Hesitating, I felt a cold shiver pass through my body. I responded with, ‘Uh…I need to think about this. I’ll get back to you.’ A few days, passed, perhaps even a week, until I returned Jean-Pierre’s phone call, and expressed to him that I was ready, willing, and able to embark on the Vietnam project.”

The experience proved to be emotionally cathartic as well as a boon to his career, as it lead to rave reviews the world over, awards from recording societies, and invitations to perform the resulting work at such prestigious jazz festivals as the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal, the Monterey Jazz Festival in California, and the Saalfelden Festival in Austria. A film documentary, chronicling Bang’s return to Vietnam, followed in 2008, with European backing, and has shown in the USA and Canada on the Bravo network.

A second work on the subject of the same Southeastern Asian country and its war with the USA, Vietnam: Reflections chronicled life in America after Bang’s return home. Recorded in May, 2004 in New York, and released May 10, 2005, it featured many of the same players as Aftermath (five of them, including Bang, are also Vietnam veterans) with the addition of James Spaulding, Henry Threadgill and two marvelous Vietnamese musicians, Co Boi Nguyen and Nhan Thanh Ngo.

Choreographer Garth Fagan set Bang’s Vietnam opus to dance, with the resulting work enjoying its world premiere as part of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s 2005-06 season, from November 10-13, 2005. Billy and his sextet performed the works live, accompanying the dancers at each performance.

Bang also toured regularly with the FAB Trio, named for his band mates Barry Altshul and Joe Fonda, and with TRIFACTOR, with Hamiet Bluiett and Kahil El'Zabar.

A dazzling improviser, excellent composer, and provocative leader, Billy Bang remained on the cutting-edge of jazz expression, right up to his untimely passing on April 11, 2011 from lung cancer, which, Bang was convinced, was the result of exposure in Vietnam to Agent Orange. Diagnosed in June of 2009, his last two years were among his most productive, with concerts and recordings in Europe and Japan, as well as throughout North America. His last concert was in February, 2011, in Helsinki.

Billy Bang’s spirit lives on through his music and in the many, many lives he has touched.


 

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