Jazz great Billy Bang takes the violin into the stratosphere
When Billy Bang takes the stage at WaterStreetMusic Hall Thursday, October 12, it will be a homecoming of sorts. Anyone who caught the jazz violinist at the 1994 or 1996 Rochester International Jazz Festivals has witnessed the ecstatic reactions Bang receives here.
"Rochester has turned into a special place," says Bang from his New York City home. "I get really good receptions, but Rochester is up another notch."
He even won over one prominent Rochesterian who became a collaborator.
"He is a violinist of the utmost virtuosity in the truest sense of that word," says Garth Fagan, who choreographed three compositions from Bang's Vietnam: The Aftermath. Garth Fagan Dance performed them with Bang's band live at Jazz at LincolnCenter last November. "He loves the instrument, he knows the instrument, he can do all the known required things with the instrument. But he comes up with the most fabulous, unusual, rhythmic sounds," Fagan says. "You don't even think it's a violin, you think it's a whole orchestra."
Born William Vincent Walker in Mobile, Alabama, in 1947, Bang could easily have earned his stage name when he fought in Vietnam. It also would have been an apt description of his violin pyrotechnics. But as it turns out, he was named after a cartoon character while in junior high school. By then, his family had moved to New York City.
Junior high gave Bang something else: his first violin. Why the violin? "I was small," he says now. He played classical music, never imagining the violin could be used as a jazz instrument.
His high IQ earned him a spot at the special Harlem junior high; from there he was selected to go to Stockbridge, a private school in Massachusetts where his classmates included Arlo Guthrie. It was a place of privilege with students destined for the top colleges. Had he stayed, Bang says, "I might have been running with Condoleezza." (He laughs when told that a piano-violin duet with the Secretary of State remains a possibility.) But he had trouble adjusting at Stockbridge.
"It wasn't really a black-white thing," he says. "There were incidents, but it wasn't so much that as it was when I came home on holidays. I was kind of a prep school kid, a 'Peter Prep' as they used to call it. I didn't look right so I was treated differently. I started to intellectualize about things; I wasn't the same as the other kids. I was out of place on both sides."
One reason he left the school was economic. His mother somehow came up with money for a class trip to Quebec, but he didn't see how she could afford the following year's trip to France. He transferred to a public high school in the Bronx, but he found it boring.
The year was 1966, the Vietnam War was heating up, and the next thing Bang knew he was drafted. Because of his prep school background --- he was a team player, good at regimentation --- he made a good soldier.
"I was a tunnel rat. I took out ambushes. I was right in the thick of everything," Bang recalls. "It was one of the hotter times in Vietnam, during the Tet Offensive. I was an infantryman; there was no way out of it. I think I moved up faster than other people because guys ahead of me were getting killed or wounded or going home through rotation. The sergeants and lieutenants picked the people who they thought were most qualified. I guess the spotlight was on me at the time."
Bang rose to the rank of sergeant, but his heart was never in it.
"It wasn't about me being anti-Vietnamese, it was about survival. It was about making sure I got back to America," he says.
He got back, but he did not find peace.
"It looked like the Bronx had a war up there! There were burned out buildings. There were riots or something. I don't know what happened, it just went though a big upheaval. "
Bang got sucked into the unrest, putting his knowledge of weapons to work helping a black militant group buy guns. That ended abruptly when, on a purchasing trip to a Baltimore pawnshop, he heard a strange sound calling him to a back room.
"I don't know if it was on the radio or in my head, but I heard it. I walked back there and there were these old, used violins hanging up on a rope. Somehow it felt natural for me to inquire about it. The guy said $25 and I had the money. I ended up bringing it back to the Bronx and that was my departure from those guys," he says.
But he still had trouble fitting in.
"I started playing the violin at the basketball courts and the word got around the Bronx that I had completely lost my mind in the war. 'He's out here playing the violin on the benches!'" Bang says.
Bang decided to move with his girlfriend to the EastVillage, an enclave of musicians, poets, artists and dancers. He was determined to become one of them. While taking pre-law courses, he studied violin with Leroy Jenkins, whose innovative approach to the fiddle as a jazz instrument inspired Bang.
The loft scene was emerging in the early 1970s and Bang got deeply involved, playing and recording albums with David Murray, Frank Lowe, John Zorn, and others.
For the next two decades Bang became a fixture on the avant-garde scene. But he never could shake Vietnam and he avoided dealing with it.
When Bang was asked by his record label to record an album exploring his experience in Vietnam, he initially rejected the idea. "But then when I thought about it, I've always wanted to do that. I tried to relive parts of Vietnam that I've been shunting away from myself," he says. "Because I didn't confront that all this time, it created problems for me as a human being. I had to bring it to the forefront of my imagination and consciousness. It was painful, but it was very honest and truthful for me. "
He recorded Vietnam: The Aftermath with a band largely composed of Vietnam vets. His most recent, equally strong album is Vietnam: Reflections. Ironically, in confronting his demons, on both albums Bang created some of the most melodic, accessible music of his career.
"I was in this avant-garde camp, but I like to swing, I like chord changes, so I created this music so it could be heard and understood by many people," Bang says. "It wasn't really for a jazz audience. It was the embodiment of the totality of my life and I want to present it to everyone."
Not all of the melodies are Vietnamese, but all have an Asian feeling.
"At one point I took some scales from the Koto, a Japanese instrument, for one composition. I was embellishing those colors with the colors that we have."
Few performers give as much as Bang does on stage. Borrowing a page from James Brown, you might call him the hardest working man in jazz.
Last June at the Montage Grille, during the RIJF, it was clear that Bang could rival a classical virtuoso, but that was just the beginning. He strummed the strings wildly and plucked them pizzicato-style them with lightning speed. He bowed the instrument from stem to stern with runs that emerged from the depths of the earth and soared into a range only dogs could hear. All this while dancing around the stage non-stop like a whirling dervish.
In fact, the Paganini-like intensity of Bang's performances did not escape notice when he toured Germany.
"They would call me 'schwarzer Teufelsgeiger': black devil violinist. They felt I was sort of possessed," Bang laughs. "I let the music take me to places. I've done it enough that I don't have to think about it. I work hard away from the bandstand. Now it's time to engulf oneself into the beauty of the music."
Billy Bang plays Thursday, October 12, 8 p.m. at WaterStreetMusic Hall, 204 North Water Street, 325-5600, $15-$20. Tickets available at Ticketmaster, 232-1900, www.ticketmaster.com.