Billy Bang: “If The Lights Go Out, I’m Still Gonna Make It Work”

Sad to hear of Billy Bang’s passing. I have vivid memories of my first encounters with the exciting string player. Still love that Changing Seasons album. Below is a profile of him I wrote in Musician magazine in the spring of ’89, when he was just starting to get some deeper traction on the LES scene. I think it was right around the time of The Fire From Within (Soul Note). Check the final graf. Methinks the Vietnam discs he made toward the end of his life were a wonderful goodbye (he talks about ’em with JazzTimes here). Guess it’s an afternoon that’s going to be spent spinning Distinction Without A Difference and New York Collage. Destination Out has some nice Bang music as of May 4.

Billy Bang: Scratching At the Avant Garde Hoe-Down.

How can you tell Billy Bang from the  rest of the violinist’s on today’s scene? Well, he’s the soloist whose torso fidgets more than his elbow while in the throes of improvising. He’s the bandleader who looks like he carries the intensity of the whole ensemble on his back. He’s the composer who…wait a minute, how many violinists can there be on the scene right now, five? Let’s make this simple. Note for note, concept for concept, Bang’s the most innovative of the lot.

“I like to hit it hard, definitely,” the 39-year-old string maven admits with a laugh. “When I’m at work, I can get wrapped up in the music. A lot of bands play in concert mode; that’s a little too polite for my groups. We just get on the stage and do hoe-downs and stomps, you know?”

Bang doesn’t pander in the synth-laden smoochy tunes that litter the Billboard jazz charts. Despite that – or maybe because of it – he’s a figure to be reckoned with, partly because he plays an instrument that’s still somewhat exotic within the jazz tradition, and partly because he plays the hell out of it. Like many contemporary improvisers, he’s covered a lot of conceptual ground in his 10-plus years on the NYC scene, from straight ahead quintets to voluptuous trios to scratch ‘n’ sniff duets to tough-as-nails solo recitals.

Last year Bang surprised fans by leaving the String Trio of New York, a precise, earthy collective that helped turn the concepts of classical and jazz inside out. Bang’s self-dismissal comes as a bit of a shock: with a decade of work and five superb records to their credit, the String Trio was surely the most established outlet for his music.

“I was going through some personal problems,” he confesses with typical candor, “but many things prompted the split. I didn’t have any problem with those guys (guitarist James Emery and bassist John Lindberg); we did a lot of fine work together. But celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Trio scared me in some ways. I decided to move on.”

That’s nothing new. Bang likes to keep everything fresh. Born Billy Walker in Mobile, Alabama, he grew up in the South Bronx, spent his formative years in a western Massachusetts prep school, and did time in Vietnam. If art indicates a distillation of experience, Bang has garnered an impressive amount of info.

“I carry it all with me; I’m a quick learner,” he says. “In grade school I felt kinda out of it because the violin wasn’t the hippest instrument. I was small and that’s the ax they handed me. Coming home from the prep school to the neighborhood was tough, too. I didn’t know who I was. After ‘Nam I heard Trane’s stuff and got politicized by the shit going on in the ’60s. Once I got started playing,  I knew I had to leave the Bronx. I’d be walking around with Ornette’s Golden Circle records under my arm and guys would be come by and say, ‘Oh, man. This one’s done lost it.’ I wanted to get serious, so I came down to the Lower East Side.”

Bang showed up just in time to join another movement. Patriarchal improvisers Leroy Jenkins and Don Cherry lived within walking distance. Peers such as Butch Morris, David Murray, Frank Lowe, and Jameel Moondoc were looking to share ideas. Chances were waiting to be taken. Jazz was due for another shaking up, and though a novice on his instrument, Bang wanted to be one of the shakers.

“I met Wilbur Ware and Leroy Williams, and they sensed somesthing in me,” he recalls in a suddenly pensive voice. “I was slightly uneasy about the ideas they were showing me, and told them ‘Hey, this doesn’t sound like Ray Nance, I gotta quit.’ They’d lecture me about not trying to be Ray Nance, but I wanted to get closer to those Ellington ballads.”

No, he wasn’t Nance. Chops-wise, he wasn’t even that competent. Sam Rivers politely fed him some crow on the bandstand one night, a subtle shutdown that opened Bang’s ears. “I’ll always thank Sam for that,” he says, “quite a teacher.” A couple years of intense woodshedding later, and a distinct personality started to creep into Bang’s playing. You could hear influences, certainly, but no overt echoes. A voice that had never really been heard on violin before began to emerge.

“I came through Leroy Jenkins of course,” he points out. “He actually helped me with my physical technique. And Ornette, too. A lot of people thought he was kidding with the violin, but I dug it. I consider my style to be a synthesis of those two. Jenkins has the perfect notes, Ornette the non-perfect. Each was legit. See, I’m trying to perfect the non-perfect notes. Right in the middle, that’s where I want to be. The charanga cats, the Puerto Rican string musicians, were also real important to me. That’s from the Bronx. Remember, we’re all a product of our environments.”

“Coming downtown and playing free was hard for me. I came out of both a Latin thing and Temptations type of bag. Everything had a beat – everything! So when I was attempting to play this other kind of music, I came to a feeling of syncopation. I consciously wouldn’t put it in. That was wrong, too. Balancing those elements has been a priority. When people play on the beat all the time you can anticipate what they’re going to do. There are no surprises. That’s a bore, that’s not for me.”

Still, it’s the inviting rhythm of swing that keeps Bang working in the New York clubs. Whatever textural corners his various ensembles examine, their book usually contains some flat-out blowing vehicles: “recognizable” jazz has never been a problem for the violinist. “I like to bridge the distance between myself an the audience. You wouldn’t go to Japan and try to speak German, would you?”

“Ultimately I come out of a hard bop thing. I’m not trying to trick anyone – we’re just going from here to there,” he points out.  “My strength is not in the vehicle. It’s going through the vehicle to get to the music’s outer limits. And I try to get there as fast as I can. Two notes, boom. Let’s go, man!”

Among the more traditional Bang gangs was a quintet with bassist Ware, pianist Michelle Rosewoman, drummer Dennis Charles, and saxophonist Charles Tyler. Mainstream with a twist, they perform a version of “Loverman” that Leonard Feather might herald. It’s this kind of mature flexibility that should have major labels sniffing around Bang’s door.

“Yeah, that band was hip,” he says. “I like cats that are players. You have to know how to read music of course, and I’m not ashamed to say that my own reading could be a lot better. But if the lights go out or someone snatches my paper, I’m still going to make it work. I’ve trained myself that way.”

That’s an understatement. Bang the soloist is a guy who is always up to burn the place down. One knee in the air, crotch rocking crudely, bow in  a blur, lines of energy building, building, building. “I try not to restrain myself,” he laughs, “I’m at home on stage. I want my music to be palatable, but I also want take the wildest solos – 362 bars of fire! That’s the core. But I do try to keep a connection between the solo and the starting point. There has to be  a logic.”

One distinguishable part of Bang’s musical personality is his tone. Vinegary but vibrant, slightly off in the Jackie McLean sense, it’s a sound you’re not likely to confuse with any other. Bang says it’s a style formed largely by circumstance.

“My seventh grade teacher said I surpassed the other string students, so he moved me to viola. That was a weird blessing, because when I came back to the violin, I wasn’t sure of the positions any more. I was playing wider intervals. There are a lot of notes between C and C#, and I take advantage of them.”

Though the instrument is usually associated with classical music, there’s nothing highbrow about Bang’s sound. If his lines are at times romantic, his tone is straight from the street. His essentially folky strains incorporate Eastern drones and his voicings range from Africa to the Appalachians.

“I’ve always been a cat who related to the populace,” says the dude who once recorded “Skip To My Lou.” “I don’t want people to have to study to get into my stuff, just groove. I wish I could go to the hills and hang out with those Appalachian cats for six months, then go down with the Cajuns – some harmonies they’ve got sound just like bagpipes. I just got back from Japan. Some of my plucking techniques are very oriental, and they heard it over there. There’s an aboriginal thing in my stuff, too. Don Cherry helped me with that; sympathy notes from India, four-note things from Ghana. Music evolves, right?”

Though Bang utilizes all these tinges, he’s essentially a riff writer. Stating the theme and then taking it out is the general rule. When he applies himself to a more formal composition, however, he produces arrangements that hang as sturdy as his solos. The clarity and daring of his 11-piece Outline, No. 12 revealed a previously untapped side of his personality. For the moment, though, he’s not ready to claim composition as his main turf.

“Threadgill, Murray, Anthony Davis – they’re the writers I respect. My pieces are minimal by comparison. But I extract so much music from the players who work with me, I guess you could say it’s another way of composing.  A lot of guys are still trying to prove to the community that we are as strong as the composers we’ve studied in school. That kind of game-playing was the downfall of Eddie South. He thought he had to prove he was a violinist. I don’t care about that. I’m just trying to live the music as it really is.”

“Some people put me down in a very polite way by reminding me that Wynton Marsalis is playing classical and jazz. They want to know why if I can play the violin, I don’t try to do that. Man, that’s not my thing. If we can prove to people that we’re technically proficient, great. But feeling is where I’m at. And I honestly think that as great as he is, if Wynton and I went to Mars and played for some aliens, they’d understand me better. I’m trying to connect, make a statement within the tradition.”

He still has a lot of music to get out of his bones. Bang’s recent projects include a tribute to Stuff Smith and writing the score for Three Views of Mount Fuji, a new Ntozake Shange work. He and his current unit play at art galleries and supper clubs alike. “In the next five or ten years I’m looking to become one of the cats,” he says with a sparkle in his eye, “and it’s not about getting rich. It’s about leaving a legacy.”

4 responses to “Billy Bang: “If The Lights Go Out, I’m Still Gonna Make It Work”

  1. Pingback: Billy Bang, Jazz Violinist And Vietnam Veteran, Dies At 63 | Music Headlines

  2. Jordan Richardson

    Really nice post. I’m currently checking out Billy Bang’s recording with Bill Cole and actually just heard about his passing. Your post has been immensely helpful in contextualizing it.

  3. Pingback: “A Cat Who Related to the Populace” Rest In Peace Billy Bang « Come Sunday: Jazz, Trouble, Hallelujah

  4. What a moving post! I just referred folks to it in my blog. So happy to have stumbled upon this, thank you!

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