William Parker on Billy Bang

Billy was born in Alabama, he came up, he didn’t know his father – I think, he met his father one time – and he came up to Harlem and he lived there with his mother and his mother’s sister, his aunt, and then he moved to the Bronx. I met him actually after he had returned from Vietnam, in the early seventies. He went to Evander Childs High School where my cousins went. So there were connections, Roy Campbell also went to Evander. Bang signed up for Vietnam. His mother did not want him to go. His mother was very political, I met her once. But he signed up – a lot of people signed up for Vietnam because they were just in flux, they didn’t know what to do. But he went right over. It really changed him. It dominated his life from then on. Because he was a tunnel rat, you know, they’d send him through a tunnel with a gun and a flashlight to spot the so-called enemy. And it must have been bone chilling to do that and do it over and over again. And he changed personalities over that. He never really talked about it, till the end, when he was trying to work it out, but he did some very very very heavy things over there, let’s just say that. And when he got back, he couldn’t adjust. He could not adjust to coming back to America, so he got involved in politics and he got hooked up with some Black Panther Party guys, a guy named Clive Hunter, we called him Bad Dude. And they were going to rob a bank. Okay, they were gonna rob a bank to get money to get weapons and to support their cause. So they took Billy from New York down to Baltimore and in those days you’d just go into a pawn shop and you could buy guns. They knew Billy was a weapon’s expert. Now, Billy was a prodigy, this brilliant guy. Up in Harlem he got a scholarship for a private school in Massachusetts, where he went to school with the folk singer Arlo Guthrie. He played the bongos and Arlo Guthrie would sing and then he took up the violin somewhere in there, but then, after Vietnam, he lost contact. So now, he is in this pawn shop and they’re up front looking for guns – and by the way, Clive Hunter, the guy who later became a Muslim, he called him Bilal Abdur Rahman, he’s on a record we did called Black Man’s Blues [Billy Bang’s Survival Ensemble : Black Man’s Blues; Bang, Parker, Rahman, Rashid Bakr, drums], he was a great saxophone player. He had gone to music and art school, he was a very good musician. So, he was there, Billy wandered in the back where they had the musical instruments and he was looking up and he saw a violin, he spotted it, and then he went back up and said, ‘Look, buy this gun, buy that gun, buy that gun, buy that gun,’ and then he went in the back and he asked the guy, ‘How much is that violin?’ And the guy said 25 bucks. So, he gave him 25 bucks, put it in a paper bag and took it back with him. Okay, now, they are doing the plans for the bank robbery. Bilal, brilliant guy, noticed that Bang had the violin. So they were saying, ‘We’re gonna meet eleven o’clock Monday to rob this bank.’ Okay. He tells Billy, ‘We’re gonna meet at one o’clock to rob the bank.’ Okay. Now, everybody shows up, at eleven o’clock they rob the bank, they get busted, they all went to prison. Billy shows up at one o’clock, safe. Okay, and he’s got his violin. And that got him back into music. He made his journey back into the music. And we had a guy named Henry Warner who was up there, a guy named Sonny Harper, a bunch of guys who were like these street guys who were in the music and so I met Billy and he had a poncho on, a violin and a napsack. And we hit it off and I was living in the projects, so then he would come to my house and my mom would cook dinner and we’d practice, you know, and get concepts together. But the spectre of Vietnam was behind him, was right behind him. You had like medication, all kinds of drugs, you know, at fourth of July, when he hears the fireworks, he’d go high. But at the same time Billy was brilliant. He developed his own concept because we used to play with no drummer and no amplifier, so he was basing his thing off of John Coltrane and he developed a big thick sound on the violin that nobody else had, to this day. And when he picked up the violin, he was safe, he was in a spattered beauty and there was no Vietnam, there was nothing around him that would remind him of the war. So, in the very end, we were up and down playing and doing stuff and Billy began to do reconciliation. He made this Vietnam project, these two records, towards the end of his life and everyone on the record is an Vietnam veteran, Butch Morris [conduction], Henry Threadgill [flute], Ted Daniel [trumpet], Michael Carvin [drums], John Hicks [piano], all from Vietnam, and Frank Lowe [tenor saxophone] was on the record [and Curtis Lundy, bass; Sonny Fortune, flute; Ron Brown, percussion; James Spaulding, saxophone, flute; Co Boi Nguyen, vocals], all ex Vietnam guys, they made two records and they were brilliant. And then, on top of that, a French company said, ‘Why don’t we make a movie, Billy?’ First it was called Redemption Song, but they changed the name to Lucky Man [in the IMDb.com listed as Redemption Song]. He went back to Vietnam to try to find some of the people who he fought with, who were also musicians and the movie follows him going back, visiting the people and exchanging things and you see him crying, then you see him very full of emotion and he was beginning to get back and to forgiving himself – you know, when you go and like, wipe out a village of people, I mean, how do you – it just keeps coming up, coming up. He was getting into Buddhism because the woman he was living with, Maria, was into it. One New Year’s Eve he came to the house and brought his Buddhist flute and we just meditated, I said, ‘I can’t believe this,’ you know, ‘New Year’s Eve and we’re meditating here,’ for like until the new year came. So Billy was trying to get back into things and then, he got lung cancer, from Agent Orange. And he fought the lung cancer as long as he could. Hamid, we went to pick him up from the hospital. Yeah, and he died right after that. And the day he died, I was doing a benefit for the new Communist party and David Murray was there and I said to David Murray – but on with what happened : Billy called me – see, I’m an ordained minister, so I can marry people – and Billy wanted to marry his girlfriend and I said, ‘Okay, I’ll marry you.’ But then, he was still married to this other woman, so we couldn’t do it, but on Friday Billy called and he said, ‘William, I’m leaving out of here in three days.’ Okay. On Monday I’m up at the city college, we’re doing the benefit, I see David Murray and I say, ‘David, you gotta call Billy, he’s not doing well, call him.’ And by the time me and Matthew Shipp got to play, David came and whispered in my ear, ‘Yeah, I just got a call from Ming, Billy’s gone.’ So, we play and then I immediately rush up to Billy’s house, they were playing the record, one of the songs from the record [the Vietnam project] and he was in the bed and he was just there and so I just went into the room and I sat there, I had to bring Matthew with me, I’ve never seen a body before and we just sat there and then the funeral home came and got him and it’s weird, they put him in a bag on a hand truck and just took him away. So, it was a tough one. And there’s still other layers, so much to write a book about Billy Bang, you know, and do a lot of interviews, but it’s like, most of the people he’s connected with have also died but he’s got a lot of cousins, cousin Ricky, and he’s got daughters and sisters. And a lot of people that he has heavily influenced. And the thing about Billy though, he took lessons from Leroy Jenkins and after about two lessons, Leroy would said, ‘Get outta here!’ You know, he couldn’t do nothing with Bang. He’s like, ‘I can’t do nothing with you, get outta here.’ But then Leroy began to really respect Bang, he said, ‘Ah, that’s another way to do things.’ So, it’s a deep cat and Bilal Abdur Rahman, he became a Muslim in prison and came out and we did records together. Then he went to Atlanta and he was shot. He was shot in Atlanta. We don’t know how he died but it’s very interesting connective stories, you know, with Roy Campbell and other people from the Bronx. It’s good to get this side, because you’ve spoken with me a lot and William and I – I’m kind of representing the Midwest, in a way, Chicago, only to a certain extent and William, you know, New York, but there is this whole other historical aspect that double v p represents also, even in relationship to like Nickelsdorf because a lot of the New York musicians in the beginning and even now, were going to Nickelsdorf, people that you kind of grew up seeing. So, I think it’s really good to get this perspective, also from someone that was up with those particular individuals. Because there’s not many sources now, where you can get this information. And it’s funny, because Billy Bang got his name from a Saturday morning cartoon called Billy Bang And His Brother Butch. It’s funny because Billy had a brother – well, people don’t know about that, but I know about it, and his name is Butch. And he has red hair, and I think he’s a half-brother.

So, Billy Bang was basically teaching himself the violin? Yeah, I mean, he took workshops here and there, with Jackie McLean, not with violin teachers, with saxophone teachers. The only violin teacher I know he studied with a little bit was Leroy Jenkins. And it was more the fact that Leroy was playing the violin and could do something with it : that was the inspiration for Billy, and for all of us with Leroy Jenkins, because those Delmark records with the AACM, you know, Muhal Richard Abrams, was the first time we heard Leroy and then we got to know Leroy through living in New York, on the Lower East Side and then Leroy did his thing with Cecil Taylor, when I was in the band, so I got to know him a bit then. But Billy is mostly, ninety percent, self-taught. And when you’re self-taught, you can come up with original ideas because you’re not following a historical standard of how you are supposed to do things because you don’t know anything about that. You’re figuring things out on your own. And you really have to match that being self-taught with having a gift. Because if you’re self-taught and you don’t have a gift, it can’t blossom as much as it could blossom. But if you’re self-taught and you have a gift, then it really can blossom.

This is a passage from theoral no. 12 – Conversations with Hamid Drake and William Parker, published in May 2016. Contents: https://theoral.wordpress.com/2016/07/19/theoral-no-12-conversations-with-hamid-drake-and-william-parker/