Billy Bang won the 1981 Downbeat Critics' Poll in the Talent Deserving Wider Recognition category for violin, but there's no love lost between the New York-based musician and the instrument.
"It was the most hated instrument for me," related Bang, 38, by phone from Oakland recently. "It's too European and it's never been in my blood. The Temptations never played it and James Brown never sang with one.
"I learned about Bartok, Chopin and everything else and I couldn't relate to it. I was on 117th Street in Harlem and I couldn't understand why they were trying to programmatically confuse me (in elementary school). They were trying to turn me into something that I never knew about and I wasn't going for it.
"All my life has been very mundane, and the violin is the biggest challenge I ever came across. The violin is a woman, it's the thesis and antithesis; it's my opposite, and that contradiction is what I feed off."
Bang was in a boisterous, exuberant mood throughout the interview. Having just wrapped up some "Portland trail-blazing" with local musicians there, he was overjoyed at being reunited in Oakland with the working group--guitarist Oscar Sanders, bassist William Parker and drummer Zen Matsuura--who will perform with him at the Palace Court tonight
Born William Walker, Bang was raised in Harlem and acquired his nickname from the title of a New York-area cartoon program. He abandoned the violin in the early '60s to play percussion. Bang studied various Afro-Cuban percussion styles and the rhythmic dimension lingered after he returned to playing violin by 1971.
"Basically, I went back because that was the only instrument I knew," Bang admitted. "My heart was about alto and tenor saxophone but my intelligence, practicality and my functioning was about the violin. I was trained in strings and I didn't want to fool myself or anybody else. I never want to fool people.
"I play the violin from the rhythm, even if I challenge myself against my own rhythm. I keep a rhythm with my left foot and my imagination in the right and they both come together."
Bang picked up some experience playing with experimental jazz artists like Sam Rivers and Frank Lowe but only began coming into his own in the late '70s. In addition to his career as an individual artist, he formed the Strio Trio of New York in 1977 with bassist John Lindberg and guitarist James Emery. Bang hopes to counteract stereotypes about the violin's musical role.
"I'm trying to do the antithesis of what people think is the norm," he explained. "My abnormality--what they think is abnormality--is really what's coming in, except we need more people to say, 'Yeah, amen.' You need a bigger amen corner."
Bang has released 10 albums as a leader for small experimental jazz labels like Black Saint, Soul Note and Anima. Bang's playing has an emotional warmth closer in spirit to the gypsy camp than the conservatory; space and texture are integral elements in his style.
"Space and texture exist so much for me that I might just play one note and stop for a long time," he declared. "Everybody sees the violin as a rapid-fire instrument, but what I learned in the Army was that an automatic weapon works much better in bursts, because it deals with accuracy then. It's a more qualitative approach to life because you appreciate what you get when you get it, not how many you get or how much."
Bang's 1985 album, "The Fire From Within," featuring seven original compositions inspired by the writings of Carlos Castaneda, received much critical acclaim. One prominent New York critic cited it as a breakthrough record for Bang, and the violinist acknowledged his future music will probably continue along similar lines.
"That is a blueprint, not in philosophy, but in terms of where the music could and should be going," said Bang. "It should be as far in as far out.
"It shouldn't lose people and it should take them a little further than what they came into the room for. That mixture, that magic, is what I'm looking for all the time."