The violin is hardly the first instrument that comes to mind when you think about jazz, but that's never daunted Billy Bang, one of the instrument's most adventurous exponents. Over the past 26 years Bang's hard-edged tone, soulful sense of traditional swing and evocatively expressive style has enhanced over two dozen albums by top names in a variety of genres, from the blistering funk of Bootsy Collins and the harmolodic groove of Ronald Shannon Jackson's Decoding Society to the intergalactic uproar of Sun Ra. With more than 15 albums under his own leadership, nearly a dozen more in co-led endeavors, and five more with the String Trio of New York (which he co-founded in 1977 with guitarist James Emery and bassist John Lindberg), Billy Bang is one of the more prolific and original members of the progressive scene.
Born William Vincent Walker in Mobile, Alabama in 1947, his family moved to New York City's Harlem while he was still an infant. In junior high school he was nicknamed Billy Bang after a cartoon character, and over his initial protests, it stuck. Around the same time, his primary interest turned to music, and he took up the violin, switching to percussion in the early '60s when he became captivated by Afro-Cuban rhythms. While attending a Massachusetts prep school under full scholarship, he met and began playing with fellow-student, folk-singer Arlo Guthrie. Drafted into the army following graduation, Bang was sent to Vietnam, an experience that profoundly affected his life, often quite painfully. Returning home and radicalized, Billy became active in the anti-war movement, and by the late '60s had returned to music.
Heavily inspired by the exploratory fire of John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman and the liberating energy of the free-jazz movement, Bang returned to the violin as his principal means of expression. Attending New York's Queens College, and studying privately with renowned violinist Leroy Jenkins, Bang became a key member of the dynamic New York avant-garde scene of the '70s. Forming his own group, The Survival Ensemble, and working with artists like David Murray, Frank Lowe, William Parker and the legendary Sam Rivers, Billy began to reach an international audience in 1977 with the String Trio, remaining with the cooperative ensemble for nine years. During these same years he continued to tour and record with his own ensembles, as well as genre-busting ensembles like The Decoding Society and Bill Laswell's Material (alongside guitar giant Sonny Sharrock). He even briefly led his own funk-oriented band, Forbidden Planet, and in 1981 taught at the University of Nebraska. He continued to work and collaborate with notables like Murray, Don Cherry and James 'Blood ' Ulmer, and in 1982 began a ten-year association with the incomparable Sun Ra, concluding with a 1992 quartet recording for Soul Note, "A Tribute to Stuff Smith," dedicated to the father of the jazz violin.
In 1990, Bang formed the Solomonic Quartet with trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah, and continued to freelance and lead his own groups. Relocating to Berlin in 1996 where he lived until 2000, Bang criss-crossed the Atlantic frequently, performing all over Europe and doing five tours through the South and Midwest with percussionist Abbey Rader, three of which included tenorman Frank Lowe. He also began a regular working relationship with percussionist Kahil El'Zabar in 1996, performing in duet, and sometimes as a trio with esteemed Art Ensemble of Chicago co-founder and bassist Malachi Favors Maghostut.
Bang recorded several albums for the Justin Time label – he was a dazzling improviser, excellent composer, a provocative leader and on the cutting-edge of jazz expression. He passed away Monday April 11th, 2011 the cause was complications of lung cancer.