Happy birthday to Billy Bang, avant-jazz violinist of the NYC downtown loft jazz scene of the '70s & '80s and beyond. A unique presence, his style merges contemporary "classical"/avant-garde, fire music/free-jazz, blues, swing and funk and he always chose great sideman. He could work well as a solo performer, in duos, jazz combos, as part of an orchestra or with dancers (he himself was a great dancer onstage).
Born William Walker in Alabama, he grew up in the Bronx & Harlem. He was given a violin because he was small. He learned to play it as a youth but quit it in high school. In the early 60s he switched to playing Afro-Cuban percussion and played drums with Arlo Guthrie while Bang went to high school in Western Massachusetts.
At 18, he dropped out to join the army, an experience that haunted him greatly, exasperating his schizophrenia. Upon discharge he became a radical and was involved with the anti-war movement and joined a revolutionary group, utilizing his weaponry training to procure guns for the cause. On a gun buy at a pawn shop he picked up a violin and decided to returned to the jazz scene, inspired by the fire music of the '60s.
He studied with Leroy Jenkins, found work with Sam Rivers and formed a few groups in the '70s, including the well-known String Trio of New York, the Survival Ensemble and his funk band Forbidden Planet. Around this time he started longtime associations with William Parker, Frank Lowe and Sun Ra and was quite active in the '80s playing with his own groups as well as with Marilyn Crispell, David Murray, Don Cherry, James "Blood" Ulmer, Bootsy Collins, Ronald Shannon Jackson's Decoding Society, Bill Laswell's Material, Charles Tyler as well as a time as a teacher.
The '90s and early 2000s saw him collaborating with Kahil El'Zabar, Roy Campbell, Michele Rosewoman, William Hooker, Ahmed Abdullah, Fred Anderson, Steve Swell, Barry Altschul and others. He guested on the World Saxophone Quartet's 2003 tribute to Jimi Hendrix (Experience). He also lived in Berlin for awhile, playing with bassist Sirone.
He reflected on his experience in Vietnam and with PTSD with two fantastic albums with other vets. He recorded for Soul Note, Justin Time, Hat Hut, Black Saint, CIMP, Anima, TUM and others before dying of lung cancer. He was a genuinely original artist who is much missed.