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Billy Bang (1947-2011): An Appreciation

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By S. Victor Aaron

The jazz world suffered a significant loss Monday with the passing of violinist Billy Bang. Reportedly afflicted with lung cancer, Bang, born William Vincent Walker, was 63 years old.

Given his stage name from friends as a youth, a name taken from a cartoon character, Bang's life was anything but comical. He studied violin as a boy but didn't fit into a prep school he earned a hardship scholarship for, and was drafted into the U.S. Army before receiving his high school diploma. Bang arrived at Vietnam during the onset of the Tet Offensive and did a tour of duty there. Back at home, Bang at first struggled to find his place in society, at one point attending law school then dropping out. Eventually, he found his calling by returning to the skill he had abandoned growing up: playing the violin. Bang decided he was going to be a jazz violinist even though he didn't really know about Stuff Smith, Joe Venuti or Ornette Coleman (recall that Ornette is also a violinist in addition to being a saxophonist). Nonetheless, he soon found himself in Sun Ra's Arkestra, and has performed with William Parker, David Murray, Don Cherry and many other luminaries of the avant-garde. He also formed the New York String Trio with John Lindberg (bass) and James Emery (guitar), and eventually made some thirty odd records.

Bang coming into the jazz not having been influenced by his forbears on the violins helped to make it easier for him shape his own voice on the instrument; he as much of an inside player as he is outside. Furthermore, his experience in Vietnam shaped his outlook on life, and as an extension, his music, too. He faced his personal demons head-on with his two Vietnam-themed albums, Vietnam: The Aftermath (2001) and Vietnam: Reflections (2004). These records are rightfully considered the crowning achievements of his oeuvre, and essential additions to any avant-garde collection.

Shortly after The Aftermath, Bang turned his attention to peace—both world peace and inner peace—in a quintet album released less than a year ago, called Prayer For Peace (read our July 27, 2010 review). This would end up being the last album led solely by Billy Bang released in his lifetime.

Recently, he made a record with multi-instrumentalist Bill Cole from a live performance at a university auditorium (read our review from just last week here), but as far as I can tell, it hasn't been put on sale yet. Hopefully it will be soon, so that Bang admirers can get one final new set of performances with which to cherish his memory.

Having seen up close the violence and destruction of war, Bang promoted peace through his music. And now, William Vincent Walker himself is hopefully at a very peaceful place.

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