One of the great originals of the music, violinist Billy Bang, died earlier this week at the age of 63.
Born William Vincent Walker in Alabama in 1947, Bang grew up in New York. He’d the sort of life it’s probably better to read about than to live: a traumatic period drafted to fight on the front line in Vietnam was followed by an involvement in revolutionary Black politics and periods of serious drink and drug misuse. Yet somehow he managed to emerge as a top class musician, who managed to link the avant-garde and the deepest roots of the music in his playing. One moment he would be playing completely free music, the next he would sound like Stuff Smith.
I saw Billy Bang when he played in Glasgow, at the old Riverside Club, in the early 90s (or maybe the very late 80s). He was there with a marvellous band: Frank Lowe on tenor, Sirone on bass, and Dennis Charles on drums. I think a Ken Hyder band was the support act. The thing I remember most about their performance was the encore: a fabulous version of “C Jam Blues”, with Bang and Lowe taking it in turns to play wild contemporary solos while the other riffed away behind them and the rhythm section swung like fury. I thought at the time, and still do now, that this was how to deal with the jazz tradition: treat it with respect, but use it for contemporary ends rather than merely trying to recreate how things used to be done.
Rest in peace, Billy.