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The Face of Black Music

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The Face of Black Music by Valerie Wilmer
Da Capo Press (New York, 1976)

Wilmer is both a photographer and a journalist, the author of a sympathetic study of free jazz, "As Serious As Your Life." In "The Face of Black Music" the emphasis is less on jazz than on the range of African-American musics from the blues and the church through jazz, with only classical music (composers, operatic singers, instrumentalists) omitted.

Wilmer's obvious affection for her subjects was reciprocated by opportunities for photographs of extraordinary intimacy. Photographs in the band bus, the dressing room, or the loft complement those of performances, while the roots of the music show up in the ecstasy of churches and on ramshackle front porches of the South. The players are both well known and unknown to me: the elderly jug-band master Gus Cannon relaxing with a banjo in his Memphis bedroom, a wailing saxophonist in a New Orleans marching band, a pensive Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis in a London dressing room, Sonny Payne of the Basie orchestra asleep on his bus seat, Billy Higgins practicing in a Brooklyn studio.

Many of the subjects speak as well. Archie Shepp, who contributes a forward to the book, is photographed sitting in what appears to be his crowded New York apartment, with his statement below: "Jazz is a symbol of the triumph of the human spirit, not of its degradation. It is a lily in spite of the swamp." Amidst a group of photographs of Ornette Coleman and his group rehearsing, taking a break, and performing, his drummer Edward Blackwell is quoted as saying: "The beautiful thing about playing with Ornette is there's never a boring moment... when you're bored, it makes it like working. When you're playing, doing things you like to do, it shouldn't be work, it should be a pleasure. Playing with Ornette, that's what it is. A pleasure." Uncle Johnny Williams, a former Chicago street-singer, describes the economics of his work, paying a dollar or so to an apartment resident for electricity to run his amplifier, picking up a passing acquaintance as band mate for the afternoon, and subsisting on an accumulation of small sums from the ever-changing crowd.

Wilmer organizes her photographs thematically, with sections on jazz masters, New Orleans marching bands and players, Southern churches, country and city blues and pop artists, dressing rooms and busses, jazz drummers and bassists, the magic of performance, and passing it on to children and students. Some of the accompanying statements are substantial, autobiographical profiles of the players, while others are brief anecdotes, ideological statements, or expressions of some overriding feeling that colors much of the player's life.

This collection of words and images, mostly from the early 1970's, yields the aura of a recent history rather than being up-to-date with the current personalities of jazz and other African-American musics. Nonetheless the figures and their ideas retain so much importance and communicate with such honesty that the book's documentary importance will persist as long as the musical expression which is its subject. It is a powerfully affecting view of creative personalities in a sometimes indifferent environment, as they draw that environment towards a more liberating experience.

This review copyright (c) 1998 by Larry Koenigsberg.


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