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Billy Bang, Jazz Violinist And Vietnam Veteran, Dies At 63
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Billy Bang, Jazz Violinist And Vietnam Veteran, Dies At 63

Music Articles


We close this hour with a remembrance.

Jazz violinist Billy Bang died yesterday in New York, of complications from lung cancer. He was 63 years old. Bang was an important figure in the experimental jazz scene that blossomed in New York in the 1970s. As NPR's Tom Cole reports, Bang's music and his life were indelibly marked by his experience, a decade earlier, in Vietnam.

TOM COLE: A teenager from the Bronx, New York, named William Walker -nicknamed Billy Bang for playing bongos in the subways - was drafted in 1966, and wound up in combat two days after he landed in the country.

(Soundbite of archived interview)

Mr. BILLY BANG (Jazz Violinist): I was a squad leader. I used to take out ambushes; I used to take out sweeps. And I used to set up a lot of the military offenses. Every moment was about focus and concentration, to a point where you had to always try to hear sounds that were at a distance - to try to familiarize yourself with the sound of people stepping on branches as if it were your men or the other men.

COLE: Bang told NPR in 2004 that he tried to suppress the nightmares those memories produced for three decades, often through drugs and alcohol. Then, he came up with a different way to cope. With the help of a group of musicians that included other Vietnam vets, he made his own sounds.

(Soundbite of music)

COLE: One of the musicians, and vets, who helped Billy Bang make this music was Butch Morris, who vividly recalled the recording session.

Mr. BUTCH MORRIS (Musician): It's quite heavy. I've never seen so many grown men cry. It's how he brought the experience back: the experience of being there, the experience of smelling, the experience of seeing, the experience of fear. He brought back all these experiences. That's what was so frightening in the studio. He brought back the same experience that each of us had.

(Soundbite of music)

COLE: Billy Bang's accomplishments went beyond the catharsis these sessions produced. He co-founded the influential String Trio of New York, and helped establish a welcoming home for the violin in avant-garde jazz with his gritty yet tender playing. The music was the mirror of the man and his life. He imagined his Vietnam recordings as a circle of healing.

(Soundbite of archived interview)

Mr. BANG: Of me meeting with Vietnamese in Vietnam to hug, to cry together. Hopefully, we find Vietnamese soldiers who fought against us, and just try to forgive each other.

COLE: Billy Bang's final album is called "Prayer for Peace."

Tom Cole, NPR News.

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