African American Studies
William Walker, also known as Billy Bang, is a jazz violinist who grew up in the Bronx.
He was born in Plateau, Alabama, right across the tracks from Mobile. His mother had him when she was seventeen, and soon after moved into an apartment with her sisters in Harlem on Lenox Avenue between 111th and 112th Street. She cleaned the houses of Jewish families who lived on the Grand Concourse. His birth date is uncertain, although he places it at approximately 1947. His uncle served as a father figure.
Walker attended elementary school at P.S. 170. He attended a Baptist storefront church with his mother on 8th and 122nd Street.
He remembers his mother and aunts playing dance music in the house, and going to dance at the Savoy Madam Ballroom.
Walker attended junior high school at 106th Street and Madison Avenue, where he began playing violin in the orchestra. School came easily to him, but he tried to hide his intelligence and penchant for reading books. The double life he experienced in the ghetto intensified when he was chosen to go to the private Stockbridge School in Massachusetts through a scholarship program in 1961. There he played drums with Arlo Guthrie and learned about folk music.
Walker left Stockbridge because of the financial hardship and racism he experienced, and he returned to his mother’s new apartment in the Bronx at 851 Caldwell Avenue. There he continued playing basketball in the PS 120 schoolyard, and from there went to play for Hilton White’s Falcons while attending Evander Childs high school. White served as both coach and mentor to the team, often visiting Walker’s mother to check on him. Playing on the team gave him respect and status in the Bronx.
After giving up the violin, Walker was inspired to return to the instrument when he heard Latino musicians playing vibrant dance numbers with it.
He passed on college and was drafted in 1966. He was part of Big Red One, first infantry division, and saw action in the Tet Offensive. He became radicalized when Vietnamese soldiers spared his life on multiple occasions and left him messages that read, “Black G.I., go home.”
When he returned in 1968, he found a Bronx devastated by poverty. He became involved with radical political groups as a weapons expert. On one trip to Maryland to secure arms, he found a violin in a pawn shop. At the age of 23 he moved with his girlfriend and two children to the East Village to play music and work with black activists. He took on his Bronx nickname Billy Bang as part of reclaiming the violin as a black instrument.
While coming up as a musician, Walker used the GED he earned in the army to attend Queens College under the SEEK Program. During that time, he also worked shoveling coal at PS 1 to support his family. After seeing legal corruption as a paralegal, he quit to focus on music.
With pressure from his record company, he made a jazz record about Vietnam that propelled his career forward. The record was a therapeutic experience for Walker, and lead to relationships with Vietnamese musicians.
Walker, William. Interview with the Bronx African American History Project. BAAHP Digital Archive at Fordham University.
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