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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Billy Bang, Jazz Violinist And Vietnam Veteran, Dies At 63 : A Blog Supreme : NPR

Billy Bang, Jazz Violinist And Vietnam Veteran, Dies At 63 : A Blog Supreme : NPR

Billy Bang.

Billy Bang, a violinist known for intense performances and a wide-ranging sensibility, died Monday night, his agent Jean-Pierre Leduc confirmed. Bang, who had been suffering from lung cancer, was 63.

Born William Walker in 1947, Bang was an important figure on the experimental jazz scene that blossomed in New York in the 1970s. But he gained wider recognition in the last decade for a series of recordings which drew on his military service during the Vietnam War.

His experiences in combat scarred him mentally, and he generally avoided speaking about them until Leduc encouraged him to create what would become 2001's Vietnam: The Aftermath. The album — and its successor, Vietnam: Reflections — received critical acclaim and proved cathartic for Bang.

"There used to be a time where I used to have dreams about it a lot and it's not as often now," he told Howard Mandel for NPR in 2004. "But for a very long time, I suffered a lot in my sleep. But to be honest, I think after I faced the ordeals of what I've gone through — after completing that music, and after rehearsing it, particularly after recording it — I've felt a lot lighter."

Bang grew up in New York City's South Bronx, and actually studied the violin as a teenager. He didn't like it.

"I didn't know what was going on," he told Tom Vitale for NPR in 1993. "I couldn't carry it back on my block. I lived on 117th Street. Can you imagine a little guy carrying a violin, and you talk about guys picking on you, man. I mean, they really did. I had to put the violin down, throw a couple of punches, get thrown at me, go upstairs. I hated to practice it. It sounded terrible."

Despite being offered a scholarship to a boarding preparatory school in New England, Bang never finished high school. He was drafted into the service and, as he told Mandel, he was thrown into combat two days after landing in Vietnam.

As a squad leader, he had to maintain intense focus in combat. There was no music in his life then.

"Only the music of machine guns," Bang told Mandel. "The rhythm of that is what I heard. The only instrument I had was an M-79, M-14 and a .45."

At least initially, the period after his service was hardly any better. In 2005, Bang told Roy Hurst of NPR's News and Notes that returning was a shock.

"When I came home from Vietnam — when I got off the airplane — the next thing I was on was the New York City subway, and that was extremely traumatic for me — I mean, just really destructive to my whole system," Bang said. "I couldn't take the sounds. I couldn't take the people all around. So I finally got home; I didn't want to come outside for a long time, which I didn't do. So my mother was coaxing me to come out and sort of — she was trying to help me to get back to some kind of normality. But I still criticize the United States government for not having a real bona fide re-entry program for veterans."

Bang's trauma led him to heavy drinking and drug use. He joined a Black Liberation group that drew on his wartime experience to help it buy guns. On one trip to a pawn shop, he saw a violin and that led him back to music. After discovering the way that free jazz artists like Leroy Jenkins and Ornette Coleman were using the instrument, he began taking his own study seriously. He moved from the South Bronx to the Lower East Side and immersed himself in the counterculture of likeminded artists.

Bang proved to be an active, passionate performer. Though he was associated with free improvisation, his concepts also came from more traditional jazz and Latin music, and he often incorporated that language into his playing. Tom Vitale's 1993 profile of Bang centered on his project paying tribute to pioneering jazz violinist Stuff Smith.

Dustin Ross/Courtesy of the artist
Billy Bang across the street from his house on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
By the new millennium, Billy Bang had already become a well-respected musician within the jazz world. He spent 10 years with an important group called the String Trio of New York, an improvising ensemble with his violin, guitarist James Emery and bassist John Lindberg.

The Vietnam albums proved to be more high-water marks for his career. Bang called up fellow musicians who had also served in Vietnam for the recording sessions, including conductor Butch Morris.

"It was quite heavy," Morris told Howard Mandel. "I've never seen so many grown men cry. It's not only how he brought this thematic stuff back — it's how he brought the experience back, the experience of being there, the experience of smelling, the experience of seeing, the experience of feeling, the experience of fear, the experience of joy, the experience — he brought back all these experiences. That's what was so frightening in the studio. He brought back the same experience that each of us had."

Billy Bang was scheduled to perform at the Rochester International Jazz Festival in June of this year. Last year, he released a well-received album called Prayer for Peace.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Randy Weston's African Rhythms Quartet featuring Lewis Nash

Randy WestonCover of Randy WestonImmersed in African rhythms

By Geoffrey Himes Friday, April 8, 2011
Most people agree that much of American music — blues, jazz, R&B, hip- hop and gospel — has its roots in Africa, but for many that formula is a vague, sentimental notion, rarely explored and little understood. For pianist Randy Weston, however, that linkage has been the central theme of his music for more than 50 years.
The 85-year-old pianist, who performs at the Kennedy Center on Saturday, has composed jazz suites about Africa, studied African history, collaborated with African musicians, performed across the continent and even lived in Morocco for five years.
“Everybody loves jazz and blues, all these rhythms, and it all comes from Africa,” Weston says. “Africa has always been a mystery, because there’s so little information about what it was like before the people from the north invaded, but you have to know something about Africa to know the human race, because that’s where it started. When I go to Africa, I don’t go as a teacher; I go as a student. I want to find out why I play the way I play.”
Weston is coming to town with a new album, “The Storyteller,” and a new book, “African Rhythms: The Autobiography of Randy Weston,” co-written by Rockville jazz writer Willard Jenkins. In the book, Weston describes how his fascination with Africa began with an unusual childhood. As a boy in the 1930s, when most Americans’ images of Africa came from Tarzan movies, he was reading books about ancient African kingdoms. His father was a fervent follower of Marcus Garvey, who advocated pride, unity and self-determination for the entire African diaspora.
“The way I was raised made me a much older person,” Weston says on the phone from his home in Brooklyn. “It made me realize that our civilization went back for centuries, that our history didn’t just begin with slavery. I wanted to know how my ancestors could come here in chains to pick cotton and still produce such incredible music. They suffered so much to make it possible for Randy Weston to play the piano, so I have to respect them. To deny them would be to disrespect their efforts.”
By 1960, Weston had recorded 10 albums and established himself as a worthy heir to the jazz-piano tradition of Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk. But he hadn’t musically addressed his fascination with Africa. By that decade, however, the civil rights movement in the United States was gathering steam at the same time as the freedom movement in colonial Africa (17 nations would declare their independence that year).
So Weston composed a five-part suite, “Uhuru Afrika” (Swahili for “Freedom Africa”), with help from lyricist Langston Hughes and arranger Melba Liston. They recorded the piece with a 27-member big band that featured Freddie Hubbard, Yusef Lateef, Clark Terry, Kenny Burrell, Max Roach and actor-singer Brock Peters. It was a landmark recording that only whetted Weston’s appetite for further explorations of his African heritage.
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He joined a State Department-sponsored tour of Africa in 1961 and another in 1964, and in 1967 moved to Morocco.
“Everywhere I went, I always asked for the most traditional music and the oldest musicians,” Weston recalls. “Jazz is a very young music and America is a very young country, so to gain some perspective you have to go all the way back to where it came from. Like my father and mother, these old musicians have secrets we’ll never fully understand because they lived in a time before us. But we can always learn something from their experiences, so I try to be around the elders as much as possible.”
Willard Jenkins, a frequent contributor to Jazz Times and Downbeat magazines, recognized that Weston had an important story to tell.
“What drew me in Randy’s direction is that I’ve always felt that he’s been underappreciated, perhaps because he was out of the country during a crucial period of his development,” Jenkins says. “He was the only major jazz artist that I know of who actually lived in Africa. It was as if he were on a journey of self-discovery.”
The book is told in Weston’s voice, but it was Jenkins who guided the many interviews over nine years and molded the results into a narrative arc.
“I worked with Willard like I did with Melba [Liston],” Weston says. “He’d turn on the tape recorder, I’d go, ‘Blah, blah, blah,’ and he’d take it away and arrange it. It was the same with Melba; I’d play a piano piece and I’d say, ‘This might be a saxophone solo; this might be for trumpet,’ and she would take it away and arrange it. She had a way of hearing what I did, adding colors and making it sound like me.”
Weston’s album “The Storyteller” was recorded live in 2009 and released late last year. Because it was intended to complement the autobiography, it touches on several scenes from the book. It opens with a solo piano piece titled “Chano Pozo,” the Cuban drummer whose injection of African rhythms into Dizzy Gillespie’s band stimulated Weston’s interest in the roots of jazz. The album revisits such major Weston pieces as “African Sunrise,” “African Cookbook” and Weston’s most recorded composition, “Hi-Fly.” And its title reflects a lesson Weston learned from his time in Africa.
“In Western music,” he says, “to be a master all you have to do is play good — be a great pianist or a great saxophonist — but in Africa, to be a master you also have to be a healer, a naturalist and a storyteller.”
Now that he’s 85, Weston himself is one of those storytelling elders, though he laughingly scoffs at the notion, insisting, “I’m still a baby trying to understand the origin of music, the meaning of music.”

Jazz Pianist Cedar Walton Performs at 2010 Calgary Jazz Festival

Jazz Pianist Cedar Walton Performs at 2010 Calgary Jazz Festival

Praised and respected by jazz musicians and audiences around the world, 76-year old jazz pianist Cedar Walton kicks off the 2010 Calgary Jazz Festival. He has collaborated with numerous jazz greats throughout his 25-plus year career, including John Coltrane.

Cedar Walton's Career
Cedar Walton first studied piano with his mother before continuing his education at the University of Denver. His career took off at an after-hours gig at the Denver Club, where he met jazz greats John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Read more at Suite101: Jazz Pianist Cedar Walton Performs at 2010 Calgary Jazz Festival