Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Billy Bang

Quite sad to learn that violinist Billy Bang died yesterday, April 11. Bang was a remarkable musician and a unique person. He studied violin as a child and was granted a scholarship to study music at a performing arts high school in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, but 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 struggled to find his place in society. He turned to drugs and got caught up in a group of militants, where he put his knowledge of weapons to work helping to buy guns. It was supposedly during a gun-buying trip, in a Baltimore pawnshop, that he heard a 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." Bang bought a $25 violin and began playing seriously again. He studied with jazz violist Leroy Jenkins, joined Sun Ra’s Arkestra, and worked with avant garde luminaries Don Cherry, William Parker, David Murray, and many others. In 1977 he formed the remarkable String Trio of New York which he led until leaving the group in the late 1980's.

In the early 2000's, Bang decided that it was time to confront his personal demons head-on and recorded two astonishing albums about his experience in Vietnam, Vietnam: The Aftermath in 2001 and Vietnam: Reflections in 2004. These records are both absolutely beautiful - simultaneously melancholy and angry, melodic and dissonant, and are often considered the crowning achievements of his career. His final record was the haunting Prayer for Peace, release in July 2010.

Bang died of lung cancer at the age of 63.

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