By Ron Netsky on April 12, 2011
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One of Rochester's favorite musicians, jazz violinist Billy Bang, has died at the age of 63. Over the past decade Bang appeared many times in Rochester, including a collaboration with Garth Fagan Dance.
A favorite at the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival, Bang was scheduled to play on the first day of the 2011 festival (running June 10-18). It would have been his fourth festival appearance. "Billy was extremely well liked in Rochester and had an exceptionally loyal following," says John Nugent, festival producer. "We were so looking forward to welcoming him back to the festival. His unique artistry and talent will be missed by us and the jazz world."
Born William Vincent Walker in Mobile, Alabama, in 1947, Bang was a veteran of the Vietnam War. He was also a fiery performer known for his pyrotechnics. But neither of those aspects of his life were the inspiration for his stage name, which came from a cartoon character while he was in junior high school in Harlem.
He played classical violin back then with no vision of using it for jazz. A bright student, he was given a scholarship to attend a private high school in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. But financial troubles led him to finish at a public high school in the Bronx.
In 1966 he was drafted and sent to Vietnam. "I was a tunnel rat. I took out ambushes. I was right in the thick of everything," Bang said in a 2006 interview. "It was one of the hotter times in Vietnam, during the Tet Offensive. I was an infantryman; there was no way out of it."
Bang made it back from Vietnam only to find racial turbulence at home. "It looked like the Bronx had a war up there! There were burned-out buildings. There were riots or something." Bang 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 on one 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."
He bought one for $25, left the militants and began to play. He eventually studied with jazz violist Leroy Jenkins and got involved in the emerging New York loft scene. Although he was initially known for his work on the avant-garde scene, his music became increasingly accessible. His latest album, "Prayer for Peace," featured an irresistible version of the Cuban song "Chan Chan" that got substantial airplay on jazz stations.
That album title was one of several alluding to his war experience. His 2001 album, "Vietnam: The Aftermath," and his 2004 album, "Vietnam: Reflections," were more turbulent --- but still highly engaging --- records. "I tried to relive parts of Vietnam that I've been shunting away from myself," Bang said. "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."
Bang will be remembered for that honest reflection of his life that he brought to every performance. He was a superb player who could have been a classical master if he had chosen that direction.
On stage he expanded the language of the violin, strumming the strings wildly and plucking them pizzicato-style with lightning speed. He bowed the instrument wildly, producing runs that seemed to emerge from somewhere deep inside. And as he played he moved like a whirling dervish.
One time, after a particularly wild solo at the Montage Grille, Bang bolted off the stage (his band still playing) and ran to back of the club, seemingly for air. As he passed by, I could feel the intensity of his energy, the power of projecting a life into music.