John Rogers is the photographer for NPR Music's Live at the Village Vanguard concert recording series, and an active freelance photographer in New York City. He remembers his friend, the late jazz violinist Billy Bang. —Ed.
Billy Bang was one of the first musicians I met in New York City. He told me that in the '70s, some cops grabbed him off the streeet in Manhattan and told him he could go to jail or Vietnam. He chose Vietnam. (Frank Lowe, who was his contemporary, related a very similar story to me as well.) Billy made it through the war, and made beautiful and highly original music for decades.
The first time I met him I was at the Vision Festival, and I asked him if I could photograph him. He snapped at me and said he didn't want to see his picture in "some f- - - - - - magazine in France" — that someone had photographed him the previous year with Billy Higgins and it ended up in a magazine in France. I was just a 20-year-old kid, and I was so worked up that I went away. When he saw that I was upset, he quickly apologized, and asked me to come outside and take his photo again.
A few years later I was working as a baker at Amy's Bread in Manhattan, but had started going out and shooting gigs every night. I had a reputation for a while of showing up dead tired to concerts and falling asleep after shooting. So once at a gig I walk in, and Billy says, "Oh, it's John Rogers, gonna take a few pictures and then it's lights out in the front row." I managed to stay awake through that one.
Billy had this way of really getting to the nerve of the music. Ben Young, the long-time DJ at WKCR, told me once, "It wasn't that he was such a great technical player, but Billy Bang was able to get at the feeling." He was able to strike that nerve inside you that gives you goosebumps when music is powerful. He knew it too; you could just tell that when he would generate those intense atonal sounds at the peaks of his solos, he knew that he was tearing you up inside.
As a last wish, Billy asked me to put him on the phone with Ornette Coleman, so I made that happen a few months ago. I was sitting with Ornette and I said, "Hey man, let's call up Bang." So we did, and no one answered. But as soon as I said I was with Ornette, Bang picked up and they talked for a good while.
I saw Bang last summer near Wall Street with Henry Warner and Hill Greene, and that was it. He sounded amazing that day. I will miss him very much.