"Billy Bang, Jazz Violinist Inspired by Vietnam Experience, Dies at 63"
The New York Times, April 17, 2011
Probably no more than a year after I moved to New York in 1993, my head full of dazzling notions about downtown-jazz royalty developed during previous years of listening and learning from afar in Texas, I was out one night for a social evening with friends from work. Wandering around Greenwich Village aimlessly, we ended up in Carpo's Café, a now-defunct joint on Bleecker Street.
Up against the front window, back turned to the street, a violinist was playing for tips with two much younger sidemen -- a keyboardist and either a guitarist or a bassist; I can't remember which. Like pretty much everyone else in the place, we weren't paying much attention to the band, which was playing fairly conventional swing standards admirably enough.
After a bit, the violinist introduced himself. This was Billy Bang.
Even as a new kid in town, I knew Bang's work. I already owned his early unaccompanied album, Distinction Without a Difference, and at least one of his band sets, Live at Carlos 1. I had a few String Trio of New York LPs. And I'd heard Bang's contributions on albums by Ronald Shannon Jackson, Material and Kip Hanrahan.
How could a player so distinguished be busking at Carpos? I never actually learned the answer to that question, though possible reasons became clearer as I came to discover that what I'd perceived from afar as renown seldom translated as financial security.
Yet however mystified I might have been, I knew what I needed to do. I approached Bang's open violin case and pulled out a 20 dollar bill as we made contact.
He smiled. "I'm not sure I can make change for that," he said. I didn't want change, I told him; I wanted to make a request. Sure thing, he responded, what would you like to hear?
"'Going Through,'" I said, naming my favorite of his original compositions as I dropped the bill in his case. Bang shook his head and grinned, then turned to his bandmates. "Aw, s#!t, man: a fan," he told them. "We better do this right."
They did. I sat and grooved. My friends indulged me in my semi-private serenade. When it ended, we payed the bill and hit the street. My New York night was not going to get any better than it just had.
I saw Bang several times over the subsequent years (though sadly not very recently), but that first encounter will always be my most special memory of him. Rest well, Billy.
Passing mention of Ronald Shannon Jackson reminds me of a bit of news that arrived while I was away on vacation. Hank Shteamer, my esteemed Time Out New York colleague, started the ball rolling with a whale of a post about one of my all-time favorite recordings: Strange Meeting by Power Tools, a trio featuring Jackson on drums with guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Melvin Gibbs.
In that post, Hank made passing reference to something I'd told him, which I'd also reported in a previous post here: that the Power Tools session was originally meant to be an album by saxophonist Julius Hemphill, who had then fallen ill and couldn't participate. (I don't recall who it was that told me this, but it was someone who I believed was in a credible position to have such insight.) From that chance occurence, a miraculous album had arisen.
Thing is, it wasn't true. David Breskin, who produced Strange Meeting (and scores of other albums in my collection), reached out to me and Hank via email, offering to set the record straight. Breskin's response -- really an essay -- arrived while I was away, and with his blessing Hank posted the complete reply as an addendum to his own original post. Breskin's testimony about Strange Meeting can be considered gospel; what's more, as Hank notes in a new preface, the essay offers an invaluable glimpse into the New York City jazz scene during the '80s.
So go here, and read well.