Of course jazz enthusiasts are a small if discerning bunch, so it’s unlikely the sudden passing of Billy Bang on April 11 will register as much as it should on the collective consciousness. This is a shame, but it can’t be helped. Those who knew Billy, and those who know and love his work, already miss him, and shall have to console ourselves that a great man has moved to the great beyond.
I fall back on what is, at this point, a somewhat formulaic observation, but I’m content to repeat it since it’s true: the death of any meaningful artist, particularly at a painfully young age (Bang was 63, which might not seem particularly painful or young to you, but it does to me, especially since as a working jazz musician he was still relevant, engaged, and important to music) is always difficult to endure, but we have little choice but to console ourselves with the work left behind.
In the end that is probably the fairest trade we can expect or ask for: we respect the artist and mourn their absence, but we keep them alive by listening—and responding to- their efforts. This is the only type of immortality we can verify, and it seems more than a little satisfying for all parties.
So . . . who was Billy Bang?
Bang had pretty remarkable and very American life. He came up in a time when intolerance based on skin color still held sway, and of course that pain was reflected in his subsequent work. Not being wealthy or connected, he was one of the thousands drafted to fight in Vietnam. Needless to say, those experiences played a significant role in his aesthetic. Indeed, he made two masterpieces that draw specifically—and movingly—from those experiences, Vietnam: The Aftermath and Vietnam: Reflections. For anyone interested in Bang’s work (and sublime semi-contemporary jazz in general) would do well to check out either.
My personal favorite is his 2003 collaboration with William Parker and Hamid Drake, Scrapbook. If you are the sort of person who still pays for music, you can download this sucker for $6 at Amazon. At a dollar per song, it’s worth missing a meal to procure. Of course this is somewhat of an acquired taste: it’s jazz and it’s just bass, drums, and . . . violin. For me, it’s musical crack, but I also think it’s sufficiently accessible and original that anyone with a moderately open mind can pick up what’s being put down. And like all top-tier efforts, it never loses its luster. It still entrances and inspires me every time I hear it, and that is not only because of the first-rate compositions, it’s all about the playing and the indescribable empathy these musicians have for one another.
Here he is, live with Parker, in 2007:
The more I think about Billy Bang, the more I’m convinced his life is the kind of story someone should write a novel about. Except someone already did: Billy Bang did, and his novel was his life, and his life’s story is articulated in his music. And his music lives on.