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April 12, 2011 • News

R.I.P. Jazz Violinist Billy Bang and Video Game Pioneer Jerry Lawson

Overnight I heard about two deaths in different areas I follow, and I wanted to celebrate the lives of these two under-appreciated talents in the game hardware and jazz music fields.

Jerry Lawson

People doing designs for video game hardware or software are seldom recognized – in fact, since the systems became so complex in the 80’s that no single person can claim a design as their own, it tends to be the visionary leaders who get recognized. But in the 1970s things were different, you had Atari and Fairchild, and inside of them you had guys like Alan Alcorn, Nolan Bushnell, Ted Dabney … and Jerry Lawson, the mastermind behind the Fairchild Channel F game system.

Here is some information from a 2009 Vintage Computing interview:

BE: How did the whole video game thing at Fairchild get started?

Fairchild F8JL: I did my home coin-op game first in my garage. Fairchild found out about it — in fact, it was a big controversy that I had done that. And then, very quietly, they asked me if I wanted to do it for them. Then they told me that they had this contracted with this company called Alpex, and they wanted me to work with the Alpex people, because they had done a game which used the Intel 8080. They wanted to switch it over to the F8, so I had to go work with these two other engineering guys and switch the software to how the F8 worked. So, I had a secret assignment; even the boss that I worked for wasn’t to know what I was doing.

I was directly reporting to a vice president at Fairchild, with a budget. I just got on an airplane when I wanted to go to Connecticut and talk to these people, and I wouldn’t have to report to my boss. And this went on, and finally, we decided, “Hey, the prototype looks like it’s going to be worth something. Let’s go do something.” I had to bring it from this proof of performance to reality — something that you could manufacture. Also, a division had to be made, so I was working with a marketing guy named Gene Landrum, and sat down and wrote a business plan for building video games.

At Wikipedia he is described as:

electronic engineer known for his work in designing the Fairchild Channel F video game console.

During development of the Channel F in the early-mid 1970s, Lawson was Chief Hardware Engineer and director of engineering and marketing for Fairchild Semiconductor’s video game division. He also founded and ran Videosoft, a video game development company which made software for the Atari 2600 in the early 1980s, as the 2600 had displaced the Channel F as the top system in the market.

Lawson was the sole black member of the Homebrew Computer Club, a group of early computer hobbyists which would produce a number of industry legends, including Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Lawson also produced one of the earliest arcade games, Demolition Derby, which debuted in a southern California pizzeria shortly after Pong. Lawson later worked with the Stanford mentor program and was preparing to write a book on his career. At the time of his death, he resided in Santa Clara, CA.

Here is a commercial from 1976 for the Fairchild Channel F:

Jerry Lawson was 70 years old and died unexpectedly of a heart attack.

Source: EETimes


Billy Bang

Billy Bang was a formidable free jazz violinist who used the pain and suffering of his time in the Vietnam war to craft two masterpieces: Vietnam: The Aftermath and Vietnam: Reflections. From a 2005 article:

“I had been carrying around a lot of baggage,” Bang says. “It was only in the writing and performing of this music that I had to remember things I had absolutely been trying to forget. To write this music honestly, I had to face what I’d been through. Then I finally started feeling lighter. I started to deal with my drug and alcohol issues. It was like coming out of a coma.”

Vietnam: The Aftermath is an extraordinary personal and historical document that stands on its own as art. Pieces like “Tet Offensive” and “Saigon Phunk” are visceral depictions of the madness and panic of combat that achieve in music what works like Apocalypse Now and The Red Badge of Courage achieve in film and literature. The music is not as “outside” as much of Bang’s previous work, because he creates objective correlatives for the war experience in keening, stark, pulsating compositional forms. But within Bang’s structures the players, individually and collectively, give passionate witness. Ted Daniel on trumpet, the late Frank Lowe on tenor saxophone (who both served in Vietnam), Sonny Fortune on flute and John Hicks on piano (who did not) play with burning, focused inspiration.

But for many, the revelation of Vietnam: The Aftermath will be the unique expressive capacity of Bang’s atypical jazz instrument. In his hands, the violin can shriek like demons of the night. But it can also, sublimely, sing. Bang’s subject matter is broader than nightmare. “Mystery of the Mekong” is a rapt meditation with a slow, fervent flute outpouring from Fortune and Bang’s plucked and bowed violin. “I did find some peacefulness once [while I was a soldier] when I saw the Mekong River with the sun setting on it,” Bang says. “It was a moment when I realized, ‘God, if there was no war here, it would be such a beautiful place.'”

I have always loved those recordings, but sadly was never able to see him in live performance.

Here is a video of Billy Bang playing live in 2000.

Billy Bang was 63 and passed away after a battle with lung cancer.

Source: Peter Hum’s Blog

One Response to " R.I.P. Jazz Violinist Billy Bang and Video Game Pioneer Jerry Lawson "

  1. Phonelicious says:

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