Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Remembering Billy Bang

As I was getting ready to leave the house on Saturday to go to Paul's CDs (see previous post), my friend Toby texted me, telling me that Billy Bang had died. I knew he had been sick for a while, but the timing was especially telling because I had just filed a review to JazzTimes of a new album he released with double-reed maestro Bill Cole. He died on April 11 at age 63. Lung cancer was the cause.

I got to see Billy perform twice. The first time happened in 2000, when he, the late tenor saxophonist Frank Lowe and drummer Abbey Rader played at a lecture hall at Pitt. (Local musician Bob Wagner wrote a great column that ran in the Post-Gazette about this show. It's well worth looking up.) That show was very low key, and even got delayed when Bang broke a string, 10 seconds into the first song, and he had to stop to repair it. Specifics about that show are foggy now, but I do remember thinking how happy Rader looked as he played, swinging hard and free, alternately. Frank Lowe, who seemed a little frail and passed away a few years after that, sounded good, nonetheless. I had one album of his that I didn't think was all that good and that night I realized that while Lowe might not have a whole lot of technique he really knew how to use what he had and it made his performance strong. Bang avoided scrapey, screechy free violin sounds and kept things on the melodic side.

Bang returned to Pittsburgh in 2008 with a group called the Aftermath Band, playing music from his two Viet Nam albums. By that time, his star was shining, based on the fact that he was not only able to come to terms with the effects of service in the Viet Nam war, but also because he channeled that experience into two compelling albums. The group included alto saxophonist James Spaulding (who I've always dug) and trumpeter Ted Daniel, as well as some slightly younger players.

It was a pretty moving show, in part because it fell right around the time of Veteran's Day, which emcee Chris Moore spoke a bit about that at the beginning of the show. Between sets, they screened some rough footage of Bang on a visit back to the forests where he served during the war. There was one particular scene, where Bang - who up until this point has been pretty reserved and strong - tells the crew to shut off the cameras because the experience is getting too intense for him. When someone that proud reaches a level like that, you know they aren't bullshitting you, and it can give you a great amount of empathy for what he went through (several decades of darkness) before he could really cope with those experiences. I only hope he felt a sense of peace and musical fulfillment in his final days.

But that's the background. He'd probably prefer for folks to check out the music too. The JazzTimes obit mentions Don Cherry and David Murray as collaborators. He also recorded with Marilyn Crispell and played with Sun Ra. Check out what you can by him, it's all fascinating.

One final thought from the second Bang show (organized by Kente Arts Alliance and presented at the Kelly-Strayhorn, FYI), when the band brought down the last tune of the evening, there was something magical about the final chord. It jolted me out of my seat and gave me a big sense of energy. Not sure what it was, but I loved it.

Thanks, Billy.

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