Confronting memories of Vietnam in his music

Billy Bang explores the war in new album

July 17, 2002|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Violinist Billy Bang's new album, Vietnam the Aftermath, may be the only jazz recording ever that lists not only the musicians' names and instruments but also their rank and serial number.

Bang, four other players in the eight-piece band and conductor Butch Morris are Vietnam veterans. Bang was a combat infantryman in the First Division ("the Big Red One"), Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, in 1967 and 1968.

The record they've made is a kind of Vietnam suite - evocative, moving and eminently danceable in "Saigon Phunk," the last of the eight pieces on the CD. No other extended jazz work seems to have explored the experience of the Vietnam War, certainly not as intensely, nor does any other art music - if that's not a killer phrase. Little or no classical music has been written about Vietnam, either. Vietnam was a rock 'n' roll, rhythm and blues, country and western war.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's Today section about the album Vietnam the Aftermath gave the wrong date for a performance by musician Sonny Fortune. He will appear at 4 p.m. Aug. 11 at the New Haven Lounge, 1552 Havenwood Road.

Bang, 55, and his sometime mentor Leroy Jenkins are perhaps the finest jazz violinists since Ray Nance played with Duke Ellington. Bang was a mainstay of avant-garde New York loft jazz in the 1970s and played frequently with Sun Ra and his Arkestra until Ra's death in 1992. Bang has led his own groups off and on for 25 years, and he's a prolific composer.

Times of war

In Vietnam, he says, "I was straight-up infantry. The guys who do the pounding in the boonies, search-and-destroy missions, sweeps, take-out ambushes, pull point. I did everything you can do in the infantry.

"I did my full year, and I rotated," he says.

In the picture on the cover of Vietnam the Aftermath, his eyes look very wary. He's stripped to the waist, he's smoking a big cigar, and he's toting an M-60 machine gun.

"That was a long time ago," he says. "I was 19 years old."

As soon as he arrived in country, as they used to say, he was dumped into Operation Junction City, one of the biggest of the war. He was on the Cambodian border, and he says: "I didn't know what the hell was going on."

He learned fast.

"I think I was an excellent soldier," he says. "My ship was real ... tight. That's part of it. But the other part is I think I was just lucky. I thought I was so good. I honestly thought I knew more than the officers. I knew more about what was going on in the country than they did. They were too green."

And although he was in a combat outfit, he wasn't fighting every day. "Whenever combat appeared in my unit, we had to deal with it," he says. "It was sufficient. It was enough to make you nervous, to make your hair stand up on end."

Before Aftermath, Bang had written only one piece based on his Vietnam experience, "Bien Hoa Blues." His battalion's base camp was at Bien Hoa, a city about 20 miles northeast of Saigon, a place he rarely saw.

"I was mostly in the field, the jungle," he says.

He had been reluctant to confront Vietnam in his music.

"I had this idea some time ago," he says. "But I always put it off. I think I never really, truly wanted to open that Pandora's Box. But it was always an idea. So maybe all I need was someone to introduce it to me again."

That turned out to be Jean Pierre Leduc, his producer at Justin Time Records, his recording company in Montreal. Justin Time released his last CD, Big Bang Theory.

Bang had just returned from a four-year stint in Germany, playing, teaching and holding workshops. He was ready to get to work on a new recording. Leduc suggested a record about his Vietnam experience.

"I said whoa, whoa, man. I don't see too much art in that area of music. I don't even want to think about it.

"You know, I've sort of been afraid. I've been trying to repress those thoughts and dreams I had since Vietnam, since I've come home. I don't want to think about that stuff every day. It haunts you from time to time, so I don't like to keep it in the forefront of my mind."

But he thought maybe it was the time to move ahead. He agreed to write the music.

"I had to conjure up all these dark thoughts I had been hiding away from myself and deal directly with it, or at least contemplate and think about it," he says. "This time, maybe it took this many years, it wasn't as painful as I thought it would be, and also I think it sort of cured me in a strange kind of way."

He incorporated "Bien Hoa Blues" into Aftermath and wrote seven pieces in about three months.

"I do think of it as a body of work that's related and interconnected," he says. "There is a theme running through the songs, and that's Vietnam. It was pretty intense. In each individual song, I really applied myself and my thoughts to it. I didn't want to cheat anybody. Including myself."

He tried to find a balance between African-American and Asian music.

The very first note of the opening song "Yo! Ho Chi Minh is in the House" is a deep-throated bellow from Frank Lowe's sax that sounds like the grunt of a horn in a Buddhist temple.

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