Billy Bang, R.I.P.
I recently found out that violinist Billy Bang has died, and it's heartbreaking - it was just this past December that I participated in one of his last American performances - a concert at Sista's Place in Brooklyn, as part of a new version of "The Group". My thoughts can't help but turn to the liner notes I wrote about Billy for my duo CD's, "Paired Down, Vol.'s I & II (on which he also appeared), so I've included some of them here:
"In the early 90's, a "conservative New York-based jazz writer" prominent at the time walked into the club where I had just finished the final set with violinist Billy Bang’s Quartet, and the first words out of his mouth were: "Hey, Billy - still playing out of tune?" If he had arrived ten minutes earlier, he would have heard one of the most brilliant music makers on the planet at the top of his creative game. In an entirely ad-libbed, "free association" solo, Billy proceeded to call upon all manners of tradition, experience, and just plain "craziness". He evoked the blues. He emitted squeaks and cries and squawks from his instrument one would never have thought possible. And at one particularly inspired moment, he went about the room, using the various "room props" at his disposal - the bar stool, the picture frame, the table - as sound inspiration for his at-the-moment evocation.
So here it was, ten minutes later, and now all this critic could think to ask was a question regarding Billy’s tuning? The only response I could think of was "well, when Billy was tapping the picture frame he might have been a little flat". Clearly someone who had missed the point of Billy’s playing, which wasn’t about technical perfection (though he certainly achieved this, in his own way), or playing "correctly" or "swinging" (though he did those things, and then some, in his own way, as well) according to some stuffy textbook definition of what jazz is and isn’t supposed to be. Billy’s playing was about the spirit of giving your all; the ability to play consistently on the edge, ever-taking chances, dealing with the pain and joy of his own life experience in an often achingly beautiful, or achingly painful way. It was about true inspiration, forged with awareness of tradition and his own past. And in doing all of these things, it was about playing a music that goes beyond simple categorization, playing a music that can only best be described as "Bang Music"."
Now, of course, Billy and his "Bang Music" - that remarkable universe of musical expression that he created, is gone. May we keep the spirit of his music alive forever.