By Greg Cahill | From the July-August 2021 issue of Strings magazine
His experience as a U.S. Army sergeant during the Vietnam War haunted jazz violinist Billy Bang throughout his adult life. As an 18-year-old draftee, Bang (born William Vincent Walker) served as a “tunnel rat,” entering the dangerous underground network of Viet Cong tunnels alone with just a flashlight and .45 automatic pistol to flush out the enemy. Returning stateside in 1970, Bang struggled with PTSD and his growing opposition to the war. Working with a group of revolutionaries, he frequented pawn shops in search of guns for their cause. One day, on a lark, Bang, who as a youth had trained as a string player, purchased a violin. He honed his chops and became an acclaimed jazz violinist, performing with such avant-jazz luminaries as Sun Ra and Don Cherry.
But the ghosts of Vietnam were never far away—before his death in 2011, Bang recorded two albums addressing the aftermath of his war experience. In 2008, he returned to Vietnam, with a violin instead of a gun, accompanied by filmmakers Jean-Marie Boulet and Markus Hansen. Lucky Man—the soundtrack to the resulting, compelling documentary of the same name—charts Bang’s journey, from spoken-word reminiscences to the climactic performance of his “Mystery of the Mekong” with the Hanoi Symphony Orchestra. His poignant performances also include sensitive collaborations with Vietnamese saxophonist Trần Mạnh Tuấn, the Banhar Gong Group of Kuntum, and the 25-member Phu Dong Family Band. The personal nature of these field recordings has a healing effect and sheds new light on Bang’s own dogged pursuit of peace.