Jazz violinist Billy Bang passed away on Monday at the age of 63, after a struggle with lung cancer. Bang (born William Vincent Walker) was born in 1947 in Alabama, but spent much of his life in the Bronx. Growing up he played violin, flute and drums.
Bang was drafted into the army in 1966 and served in Vietnam. In a 2006 interview he said: “I was a tunnel rat. I took out ambushes. I was right in the thick of everything. 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 was haunted by Vietnam, and told Jazz Times in 2005 that he “lived in Vietnam, totally, all the time.” After returning from the war, Bang lived in the Bronx and turned to drugs, getting caught up in a group of militants along the way. On a trip to a pawn shop to buy guns, he ended up buying a $25 violin, and gradually got involved in the New York scene.
He described the decision to play the violin as like joining the priesthood, and played briefly in the Sun Ra Arkestra, later forming the New York String Trio with John Lindberg and James Emery in 1977.
Bang played with Henry Threadgill, Sun Ra, Kahil El’Zabar, and in the William Parker Violin Trio, the Roy Campbell Ensemble and in his own Quintet. His performances were noted for being energetic, with one reviewer describing him as a "whirling dervish". In a 1988 live review of the Billy Bang Quartet from The Wire issue 51, Ben Watson said: “Tart and direct, Bang’s music may lead to what cultural theorists are calling ‘categorical problems’, but the playing itself – uncluttered, angular, scintillating – brooks no question.”