Tours of duty

John Clifford and Billy Bang's Vietnam; plus Icons Among Us and bye-bye Jazz Brunch
By JON GARELICK  |  May 18, 2009

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PRESENT TENSE: In Icons Among Us, Nicholas Payton startles even before he plays a note.

John Clifford shipped out to Vietnam in December 1966. He was already 22, but it never occurred to him that he wouldn't be going. Clifford was a Somerville boy, the oldest of five brothers raised by a single mother on welfare. Where he came from, everyone went into the military. Clifford had been bopping around the country since finishing high school, working bellhop jobs in hotels, always one step ahead of the draft board, registering whenever he moved, but he knew it was only a matter of time.

He fought in some of the toughest battles in the DMZ. By July of '67, he was against the war. The turning point was a battle that month in which 250 were wounded and 58 died. He remembers looking across the boarder into North Vietnam after taking a day of heavy shelling and machine-gun fire and realizing: "I shouldn't be here."

"Everyone I knew was wounded," Clifford tells me over coffee at Cambridge City Hall, where he works as an assistant to city councilor Ken Reeves. Walking behind a tank, he saw a friend blown to bits.

Upon returning home, he got involved in the anti-war movement; he also enrolled at UMass-Boston on the GI bill. He worked as a Big Brother and community organizer at Columbia Point, then became a union organizer. From 1983 to 2006, he owned Charlie's Tap/Green Street Grill in Cambridge, where he booked a who's who of '80s progressive and avant-garde jazz: David Murray, Henry Threadgill, Butch Morris, the String Trio of New York.

The violinist for that last band, Billy Bang, was also a Vietnam vet. Clifford's two-year hitch in the Army ended in 1968, just before the Tet Offensive. That's when Bang's combat tour began.

Unlike Clifford, who came to military life relatively late, Bang was drafted as a teenager and had a more confused homecoming. He became involved in the anti-war movement and eventually dedicated himself to music, but he didn't face his experiences head-on until his 2001 album for Justin Time, Vietnam: The Aftermath. "For a long time, I thought about this project, but I never wanted to confront it," he told me in 2004. "I didn't want to bring those thoughts up again and revisit that area of my life." But Justin Time's Jean-Pierre Leduc encouraged the project, which also produced a follow-up, Vietnam: Reflections. Despite the troubling memories they evoked for Bang, the albums sustain a peaceful mood. There are the occasional traditional melodies (and vocals by Co Boi Nguyen), but assured post-bop dominates.

Clifford and Bang will celebrate Memorial Day weekend together at Highland Kitchen in Somerville this Sunday in a program called "Basic Training: An Evening of Art, Music, and Poetry." Clifford will read some of the poetry he wrote about Vietnam upon his return and Bang will accompany him with improvisation as well as perform solo. The evening will also feature the sculpture of Vietnam vet Joe Carpineto, saxophonist Timo Shanko's trio, singers Joelee Baker-bey (of the Silver Leaf Gospel Singers) and Wanetta Jackson, and artist Nancy Ostrovsky, another long-time friend of Clifford's whose "performance" paintings were a regular part of the Green Street scene.

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