Billy Bang, R.I.P.

Billy Bang, the great jazz violinist, moved on to the next plane, April 11, 2011.

When I first came to New York, in the early 80s, Bang was the man in the LES jazz scene. Bang was born in Alabama as Billy Walker, but as an infant moved with his mother to Harlem. He was a small youngster, so when he evinced an interest in music as a junior high student, he was given a violin. About this time he began being called Billy Bang after a cartoon character. As a hardship student at a Massachusetts prep school, Bang played drums with his fellow student, the folksinger Arlo Guthrie. Bang was drafted into the service and was sent to Vietnam.

Live at the Knitting Factory, alongside the great Frank Lowe (may he also R.I.P.)

Bang collaborated with saxophonist Frank Lowe and performed often in the downtown lofts that housed the avant-garde music of the 70s. Bang was perhaps best known for his work with the String Trio of New York, which he co-founded in 1977 (with bassist John Lindberg and guitarist James Emery) and played with till 1986. That’s around the time I met him, when he could be seen on a nightly basis frantically making calls from the pay phone at Vazac’s. But who am I too judge, as I too was hanging out at Vazac’s every night. He also played with bassist Bill Laswell’s Material and drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society. Bang also collaborated on various projects with pianist Matt Shipp, trumpeter Don Cherry, guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer, bassist John Ore, drummer Denis Charles, bassist William Parker, the one and only Sun Ra and just about every other downtown New York jazz musician of the last 30 or 40 years.

From 1982’s Memory Serves by Material

Bang hit a new stride in the last 10 years, releasing a pair of albums drawing on Bang’s Vietnam experience, 2001’s Vietnam: The Aftermath and 2005’s Vietnam: Reflections. According to Matt Ship, Vietnam is “is one of the great jazz cds of the last 50 years.” Take care Billy, we’ll miss you.

– Bernard Meisler

Bien Hoa Blues, from Vietnam: The Aftermath


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