Jazz violinist Billy Bang passed away earlier this month at the age of 63, a victim of lung cancer. Bang led a life full of intensity – both on the stage and off.
The first time I presented this masterful musician in concert in D.C., I gained some insight into his complex character. A man who’d battled personal demons as well as the Vietcong, Billy Bang was quite possibly the greatest jazz violinist of his generation. More frenetic than Leroy Jenkins but equally skilled in his improvisational sense, he had an amazing stage presence and brilliant charisma that had to be seen to be believed. Offstage, he had an irascible streak to him that many friends traced back to a torturous tour of duty in Vietnam.
I’d had the opportunity to see Bang perform several times during the late ’90s at the Vision Festival in New York City. Then in 2001, after an arrangement was made with Arts for Art in New York, musicians from the Vision Festival were transported down to D.C., where they performed over the course of three nights at what was then known as Gallery 505 on 7th Street (now it’s the Red Velvet Cupcakery). Two years in a row, the “mini” Vision Fest was held in Washington, and both years the lineup was outstanding. All told, the two festivals included the Billy Bang Trio, Vattel Cherry, the Joseph Jarman & Sabu Toyozumi Duo, the William Parker & Hamid Drake Duo, the Kalaparush Maurice McIntyre Group, the Ellen Christi & William Parker Duo, Noumenal Lingam and Auto Looming.
At that time, the Billy Bang Trio included Joe Fonda on bass and Abbey Rader on drums. I’ll never forget when they rolled into town and pulled up on the afternoon of May 22, 2001. Billy was the first out of the minivan. “Gotta pee, man!” he shouted as he ran through the door of Gallery 505 to the john. Abbey and Joe strolled in quietly, subdued and laidback. As I inquired about their ride down from New York, Joe told me that Billy was “bursting at the seams” to reach D.C.
Anyone who knew Billy can attest to his anxious mannerisms and his seemingly nervous energy. As Abbey and Joe loaded in their equipment, Billy paced back and forth, smoking a cigarette and inquiring about accommodations for the two nights he’d be in town. “You’ll be staying at one of our patrons’ houses: a beautiful five bedroom house that sits on Rock Creek Park,” I said. Billy pulled on his cigarette and raised an eyebrow. “Wait a second,” he said. “Whose house?” I explained how all of the touring musicians stayed at her house, that she was divorced and lived alone, and that the accommodations were more than adequate. “Alright Minsker,” he said, “but if it’s a bum deal you’re getting me a hotel room.”
Bang’s skepticism and questioning eye seemed right in line with the personal background of this gifted musician and sometimes tormented soul. After dropping out of high school in the Bronx in 1965, Bang was drafted by the U.S. Army and sent to Vietnam, where he saw his fair share of combat and devastation. According to friends who knew him prior to his Vietnam experience, the war “inexplicably changed him.” Upon returning to the United States, it was through music that he tried to forget the experience. Just a few weeks before he arrived in D.C. for the Gallery 505 show, Bang had recorded a collection of eight original pieces with five other Vietnam vets. The resultant album, Vietnam: The Aftermath, fuses jazz with southeast Asian music, and its recording served as a type of healing process for the musicians. Many consider it a masterpiece.
The D.C. performance on the night of May 22 was well received, the venue packed to the gills. Billy was working the room with sweeping smiles to match his sweeping bow and swinging melodies. Joe and Abbey are talented players who provided a strong platform on which Billy could perform his musical gymnastics. As Abbey remembers, “Billy had endless power on the stage. I’m guilty of creating bigger and bigger circles and more and more intensity, but Billy always climbed up another notch over that … It seems we were boundless.”
After their performance, we were back stage and I went to settle up with Billy. We were standing next to his bandmates when I handed over a wad of cash: “$1500 was the take tonight,” I told him. Billy grabbed my arm and said, “Come with me.” He pulled me into the small bathroom in the back of Gallery 505 (one sink, one toilet), shut the door and explained that he’d learned early on “never to take any money that you haven’t counted out personally.” After he’d finished counting the money, we both emerged from the bathroom, me feeling a little awkward but Billy smiling from the successful gig.
After a late dinner and some drinks (Abbey always kept an eye on Billy’s intake), we returned to the host’s house. Everyone went in to drop off their bags and get settled; I chatted with Billy outside while he smoked a cigarette. We spoke about his time at the Stockbridge School – a progressive boarding school in Western Massachusetts, where Bang attended for two years along with the likes of Arlo Gutherie and Chevy Chase. He had mixed feelings about the school, known for its early integration, racially mixed classes and unique curriculum. “They tried to be this United Nations school,” he recalled, “but they were so far removed from an urban environment, they really didn’t know much about Black people.” He dropped out after two years to return to the Bronx.
I thanked him for a great performance and told him that I’d be heading home. No sooner had I started my car than he came running back out of the house. He bolted up to the car window and seemed more anxious than before: “C’mon man, you gotta be kidding me, right? The lady’s got no TV! Not a single one in that big house.” I offered him a place at my apartment, but he preferred to stay with the band. With reluctance, he walked slowly back into the house, giving me a sour look as he shut the door.
The next morning, I showed up around 10 a.m. Joe and Abbey were up, having tea with their host. When I asked her what had become of Billy, she said, “Still sleeping. He was up all night listening to the radio.” An hour or so later, Bang emerged from one of the guest rooms with a smile on his face, and after the host gave him some tea and Muesilix, we all headed out for a car tour of D.C. After we left the house, Billy piped up: “Last night was fine, but tonight, you’re getting me a hotel room, Minsker.”
The rest of the band’s D.C. stay was uneventful, and Billy was cheery and talkative through the day, holding forth on everything from the shadow government being run by reptiles to the plight of Mike Tyson. That night, when I dropped him off at a rather low-down motel just south of Reagan National Airport, he was almost ecstatic as I handed him the key. “Now you’re cooking with grease!” Before I left, he asked, “What time is checkout?” I told him noon, and he clarified: “So if you’re paying for the room up till then, don’t pick me up till 12.”
A little over a year later, Billy Bang returned to D.C. to perform in a Transparent Production gig with Kahil El’Zabar at Sangha in Takoma Park. This was in November 2001, just weeks after the release of what some have called his magnum opus, the haunting album Vietnam: The Aftermath.
In addition to the Transparent show, I was able to arrange a gig for the following day: a free daytime performance on the National Mall. After going through the Parks system, we got a permit to set up a makeshift performance space on the lower steps of the Lincoln Memorial, with a power cord supplied for Billy’s amplifier. The event was called “An Offering of Peace: For Those Who Lost Their Lives.” Little did we know our event would coincide with the ending of that year’s U.S. World Peace Walk, in which some 50 or so participants had walked from New York City to Washington, D.C.
Although there were certainly fans who came out for Billy and Kahil, there were also quite a number of peaceniks from the Peace Walk hanging around. After a powerful performance, including Kahil’s spoken-word improvisations and call-and-response with Billy’s violin, the two musicians hung around and talked with fans and other pedestrians on the Mall, including several Vietnam vets clad in motorcycle gear. At one point, Billy was smoking a cigarette with a young hippie who was part of the Peace Walk. I overheard Billy saying to the kid, who couldn’t have been more than 20 years old, “Man, that’s terrible … walking all that way.” The peacenik explained the concept and the significance of the walk and Billy perked up, “Oh, that’s cool then.” He immediately offered the stranger a ride back to New York, as he and Kahil were leaving that afternoon.
Over the past decade, I saw Billy several more times, in concert in Baltimore and New York. Although he was no more than an acquaintance, he was always warm and friendly, recounting details from his times in Washington. When I gave him a CD of the Billy Bang Trio set from Gallery 505, he was overly appreciative and told me, “As long as you aren’t making money off of it, why don’t you release it?”
Unfortunately, we never did release the 70-plus minutes of music from that night. But above you can find the first publicly available track from this performance by a modern American master in the nation’s capital. It is a city whose leaders sent Billy Bang into a war that would stir him to create high art – at a very high price.