Val Wilmer: Dues And Testimony

Ian Patterson BY

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It’s ridiculous to imagine that people should all stick to a certain pattern of accepted behaviour when it comes to the arts, because after all, every innovator has changed what came before.
—Val Wilmer
Free-jazz, which marked the first revolution in jazz since bebop, and, some might say, the most significant revolution in the entire history of the music, was controversial and divisive. Still today, over half a century later, free-jazz is sometimes dismissed out of hand as just so much noise, or worse, finds itself simply airbrushed from the more conservative histories of jazz.

Yet all genres/eras of jazz, from traditional New Orleans to the neo-classical revival of the 1980s and beyond, evolved from, and responded to, the prevailing socio-political and economic environment. To ignore free-jazz, or to deride it as some sort of sub-music unworthy of consideration, would be to ignore a slice of America's socio-cultural history.

Furthermore, given that the music played out against the backdrop of The Civil Rights Movement, the wars in Indochina that ravaged a generation of young Americans—scarring a nation in the process—Malcolm X and Black Nationalism, the assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King, not to mention the Moon landing, and it is surely arguable that no other style of jazz developed through a more turbulent or dramatic time in American history.

Few knew the free-jazz musicians better than Val Wilmer, the English journalist, author and black music historian whose 1977 book on free-jazz and its practitioners represented the first account of the subject in English.

The reissue of Wilmer's As Serious As Your Life: Black Music and the Free Jazz Revolution, 1957-1977 (Serpent's Tail, 2018) once again throws the spotlight on a fascinating chapter in Afro-American jazz history, one that was effectively launched by Ornette Coleman's ground-breaking musical concepts in the late 1950s. It's also a reminder of the importance of Wilmer's work, with both her perceptive writing and keen-eyed photography avoiding cliché and, above all, humanizing her subjects.

Now seventy-six and still actively writing and researching, Wilmer is pleasantly surprised at the renewed interest in her writing on free-jazz, writing which has stood the test of time.

"Of course, it's satisfying," says Wilmer, "but I sometimes wonder what it is people are listening to. I have to be quite honest and say that I find it rather curious because that music was so vilified at the time, and still is. Even when Ornette Coleman died every obituary was critical, saying things like he couldn't really play like conventional players do. It's ridiculous to imagine that people should all stick to a certain pattern of accepted behaviour when it comes to the arts, because after all, every innovator has changed what came before."

In her chapter on Coleman in As Serious As Your Life..., Wilmer describes the Texan musician as 'probably the most influential single figure to emerge in African-American art music since Charlie Parker.' The notion that Coleman's music was somehow difficult or jarring is not one that Wilmer buys into.

"I have never had any difficulty at all listening to Ornette Coleman. I always found him a very attractive player, basically because he was a blues-oriented player and I love the blues. In fact, that might be a strike against him in saying that he isn't going far enough out. How free is free?"

Wilmer was a frequent visitor to Coleman's New York loft and provides a colorful description of Coleman composing at his rickety table, covered with unwieldy sheets of manuscripts, a broken saxophone, his trumpet and a couple of violins, the ideas flowing faster than he is able to play them on his instruments or to capture them on paper.

If Coleman was, as Wilmer writes in her book, 'the first truly 'free' musician,' then his take on improvised music—for many the very essence of free-jazz—is revealing: "Ornette once said to me that he didn't think there was any such thing as instant art," Wilmer relates. "He was aware of the fact that he practised what he was going to play, to an extent, and all musicians do."

Wilmer knew and interviewed practically all the free-jazz musicians, not to mention a who's who of post-war blues and R&B musicians. She dedicates whole chapters of As Serious As Your Life... to John Coltrane, Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music. She developed lasting friendships with many of the musicians and earned the respect of all -a notable achievement for a young, white woman from London, during a time of radicalized Black politics in the United States of America.

Where Wilmer heard originality in free-jazz, others heard anarchy. The New Music as it was also known was fiercely attacked by white jazz critics, and by both black and white musicians. "It did annoy people so much. It really did," recalls Wilmer. "If you look back at things written in the day -the anger of the people! And you still find it. All these people who are still anti -and they make jokes about it, as if it's something to joke about, and it's not. As McCoy Tyner said, it's as serious as your life."

Wilmer understood from the off that free-jazz, or Fire Music, as she likes to call it, was no laughing matter. For the musicians it was a way of earning a living, and a form of self-expression as valid as any other. Yet, the scorn poured on free-jazz by mainstream jazz musicians was extraordinary. "There was a feeling that a lot of the people that played it hadn't put in the right amount of time in the woodshed, that some people were just jumping up and playing whatever came into their heads. Sometimes it worked, though," Wilmer laughs.

In an interview with Jimmy Heath that appeared in an earlier Wilmer publication, Jazz People (Allison & Busby, 1970), the saxophonist described the avant-garde jazz of the time as 'this frustrated, wild age,' adding that 'there are a lot of imposters and rejects in that movement.' Interestingly, Heath also told Wilmer that the avant-garde gave the music industry a much-needed 'shot in the arm' and 'the flavour of excitement.' Clearly, it was possible to be critical of free-jazz as a movement or style and yet appreciative of its galvanizing impact, as well as of some of its more creative exponents.

"There were quite a few of the older musicians who rubbed shoulders with that group," says Wilmer. "Jimmy Heath was certainly part of that world. He worked with some of the avant-garde musicians and he used to go down to listen to Sun Ra at Slugs. There were a group of people—Cannonball Adderley, Art Farmer—they used to go to Slugs to listen to him."

Adderley and Farmer were, in many ways, the antithesis of free-jazz, but as Wilmer points out, they were open-minded enough to listen to Su Ra's experimental Monday-night sessions at Slugs -the home to the avant-garde on New York's lower east side.

Wilmer's essay on Sun Ra, his musicians and their way of life, is one of the most illuminating in As Serious As Your Life.... Ra's non-stop sets, Wilmer writes, would last five or six hours, ending at 4am. Ra would then drive ninety miles back to his home in Philadelphia 'and be awake and on the case two hours later.'

Half a century later, Wilmer still goes to see the Sun Ra Arkestra at Café Oto, Dalston, which is close to her house. "It's always packed out and people love it. It's wonderful. Nobody else plays like that. When Marshall [Allen, Arkestra leader since 1993] is no longer here, who knows what direction it will take? He's an amazing man."

Allen turned 94 in May 2018 and remarkably, is still calling the shots in the Arkestra. "He has so much stamina," Wilmer says admiringly. "Sometimes you can see that he's not feeling that great, and many people would say, oh, I'm not going to play tonight, but he waits for a while, hands the solos to other people and suddenly bam! He's in there! It's a bit of a tonic for me and for many people, I think, to be there. And a privilege."

From the day in 1956, when as a young girl she photographed Louis Armstrong at London Airport, Wilmer has been privileged to have known and befriended many of the jazz greats, and many of its lesser known lights as well. Her career in jazz journalism began in earnest around the same that Ornette Coleman started making waves, when she was just seventeen.

"When I first started I had no idea why I was doing what I did," Wilmer says candidly. "I think I was very influenced by Max Jones who wrote for Melody Maker, because he was always talking about social contacts with all these different musicians and I thought it was a grand old way to be."

Hanging out with drummer Herbie Lovelle, backstage at the Royal Festival Hall before a Buck Clayton concert, set the ball in motion. "I said to him that I wanted to write a book about jazz one day and he said, 'Why don't you start now? Come on, interview me.' And that's how it started." Wilmer followed Lovelle around for the next couple of days, writing down bits and pieces as they chatted. The result was a long piece that came out in Jazz Journal.

As time went on, Wilmer was torn between throwing herself into writing, or into photography. "It was always a terrible battle all the time because you think you were going in the right direction and then something would happen to stop you in your tracks. So it was a struggle, and sometimes I did one and sometimes I did the other. I only really thought of myself as a photographer when I spent more time in New York among other photographers."

The photography of the great photo essayist W. Eugene Smith made a large impact on Wilmer. "That's what did it for me. I thought he was so perfect." Another photographer who would inspire Wilmer was New York journalist Jacob Riis, author How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1890) and The Battle With the Slum (Houghton Miffin, 1901). "He was the first person to document social conditions," explains Wilmer.

"Starting in 1888, he photographed people on the Lower East Side and on The Bowery" Wilmer expands. "I found myself living near The Bowery in the 1970s. It was such an appalling place where the streets were never cleaned, and that made me think about those pictures." Wilmer learned that it was possible to see Riis' original prints in the Museum of the City of New York and she wasted no time in heading there.

"I saw his photographs and that had an enormous effect on me. Then I went back and looked at his books, and I'm also looking at the work of Eugene Smith and the idea of The Concerned Photographer, which involved people like Cornell Capa and Werner Bischof."

When it came to jazz photography, Wilmer was also influenced by the work of Magnum photographer Dennis Stock, as well as Herb Snitzer, both of whom photographed musicians in contexts other than the stage. This was, in part, the inspiration behind Wilmer's early 1970s trips to America's Southern states, where she went in search of the blues -the churches, homes and communities of the people whose lives had birthed the music. It was a dangerous place for a white person to be seen socializing with blacks.

"It was certainly a dangerous place for a black person to be," stresses Wilmer. "Segregation might have been abolished by law but it still existed." Traveling the South and seeking out the blues and gospel music might sound like a romantic escapade, but as Wilmer relates it wasn't a picnic. "A lot of people said to me, 'Oh, I'd love to go down South with you and listen to blues' and I thought 'No you bloody wouldn't, and I wouldn't want you with me,' because it was hard."

Wilmer recalls one day in Mississippi, where she had been staying with some people. "The conversation grew so intense and I was a bit overwhelmed by them. I got into the car and went for a drive and I found myself in this little grove. This was in Bentonia, near where Skip James lived. He had this song called "Cyprus Grove Blues," and then I looked up and there was this branch of a tree sticking out over the road. And you think...you know? Because I had seen those photographs, years before in a book, of two men being lynched and the people pointing at them and laughing. There was another photograph in the same book of a black man tied to a cross and burnt. They were taken by a photographic company who then sold them, commercially, as souvenirs. Some have survived,"

For some black jazz musicians, however, the memories of lynchings were all too real. "The bassist and photographer Milt Hinton saw someone lynched when he was nine years old. He told me about it," relates Wilmer. "He was living in Vicksburg, Mississippi when this happened. His Mum said, 'Come on, we're going.' And they left the next day. He had seen that with his own eyes. When you've seen those things you never forget them."

There are sixteen pages of black and white photographs in As Serious As Your Life. Of the thirty one photographs therein, about half capture free-jazz musicians playing or rehearsing. The rest are portraits of musicians in more relaxed mode.

There's a rare picture of Coltrane with the ghost of a smile on his face, and one of Cecil Taylor putting on a shoe, backstage at the Five Spot. One of the most touching pictures shows Rashied Ali and young son Khalil, sat on the floor, smiling at each other. Other photographs frame Ornette Coleman and Anthony Braxton playing pool, and Bea and Sam Rivers in loving embrace. For Wilmer, the musicians she loved and admired were ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

It maybe shouldn't come as any great surprise that of the performance photographs only one woman features -pianist Amina Claudine Myers. In Wilmer's first book, Jazz People, all the essays were on male jazz musicians. If free-jazz and mainstream jazz shared one thing in common in the 1960s and 1970s, it was that both were predominantly male domains.

"The thing is that was how I felt at the time," Wilmer says honestly. "That was how we were brought up -to believe that only what men did was important. There were those of us who thought 'oh, we're above all that' but if you're a feminist, you understand that it doesn't matter how good you are at what you do, you're always going to be vulnerable and open to attack and that may go on evermore. Look what's happening nowadays."

In the age of social media, the struggles of feminism as typified by the #Me Too Movement, are perhaps more visible than ever before, but the prevailing sexism and inequality, globally speaking—and jazz is no exception—still ignites Wilmer's ire.

"It's very disappointing that things have not improved to any great extent, because people of my generation laid ourselves on the line in one way or another in the Women's Movement to do things and we stuck our heads above the parapet."

Wilmer's role in the Women' Movement from the 1970s and its struggles for equality are well documented in her fascinating autobiography Mama Told Me There'd Be Days Like This: My Life in the Jazz World (London Women's Press, 1989). In it, Wilmer recounts the physical and verbal abuse that she encountered, being spat at, and the widespread misogyny in the world of journalism.

"The current generation of feminists, perhaps starting before the Me Too Movement, don't really know about that struggle. Every generation thinks they've invented sex and that sort of thing," laughs Wilmer, "and it's the same with feminism."

Wilmer was one of a group of women including Maggie Murray who, in 1983, set up Format, the women's photographic agency. It set out, Wilmer explains, to challenge gender stereotypes. "If somebody wanted a photograph of a doctor they'd expect a photograph of a man and we'd send them a photograph of a woman. If they wanted a picture of a lawyer they'd expect a white person and we'd send them a photograph of a black person. I think that was quite effective and I think we were quite influential in raising consciousness in the picture researchers and editors we were dealing with." Format, in the end, would last for twenty years. "It was very hard," admits Wilmer. "I have to pay tribute to Maggie for working so hard to keep it going."

Wilmer does dedicate two chapters of As Serious As Your Life... to women and jazz. One chapter addresses the prejudices that women jazz musicians faced daily -often being denied recognition because they were regarded as sex objects. The other looks at the supportive role of the women partners of the free-jazz musicians; the recurrent picture that emerges is of women taking jobs to support their male partners, who were thus able to dedicate themselves totally to the music -even when it wasn't' bringing in much money. Wilmer makes the observation that any male musician who put his wife and family before the music tended to be rejected by his musical peer group, adding that 'it's not difficult to detect the root of the frustrations that may lead him to taking refuge in alcohol, narcotics or excessive sex.'

Drugs were pervasive around the time of bebop, and would claim the lives of many musicians in the following decades, but the impression that comes off the pages of As Serious As Your Life... is that drugs were not a big part of the free-jazz scene. "There was plenty around," says Wilmer, "but people were trying to stay away from it because they saw what destruction it had done to the musicians who came before."

Certainly, access to drugs was easy for those who wanted them. "I saw the dealers in the street," attests Wilmer. "I'm not talking about some strung-out junkie pedalling a little bag of something, I'm talking about the White man with the briefcase, which was shocking to me."

Two particularly enlightening chapters from As Serious As Your Life deal with the free-jazz drummers and the evolution of rhythms in jazz. Wilmer considers in some detail the playing styles of Rashied Ali, Andrew Cyrille, Ed Blackwell, Milford Graves and Sunny Murray, though as she is quick to point out they were all highly individualistic. "You couldn't put them all in the same category, because someone like Sunny Murray was playing something that was completely away from conventional styles, whereas Elvin Jones wasn't."

Certainly, on the back of swing and hard-bop, the intensity and polyrhythmic density of free-jazz was simply too much for many people. "If people are open to it they're going to like it," says Wilmer, "but if you play it to them at the wrong time they're going to be frightened by it, if it's not what they're used to hearing."

The ascendancy of the drum during the free-jazz period was, Wilmer, suggests, not unrelated to the Black Nationalist Movement of the time. "Because of the Nationalist thing the drum attained a greater significance during this period. People were constantly being informed that the drum had been banned during the time of enslavement. It wasn't banned everywhere, but the knowledge that it had been was something that stuck in people's minds. It was the ancestral instrument and there were a lot of drums around. Everywhere you went there would be people drumming in the streets -even downtown and in the Village there was lots of drumming going on. It was pervasive."

There are several striking live photographs of drummers in As Serious As Your Life, including ones of Sunny Murray, Andrew Cyrille and Billy Higgins, but the one that captures the attention is one of Milford Graves performing in Harlem in 1971.

The photograph shows Graves playing a small kit on a raised stage, with a large gong to his right. He is performing outdoors, on Seventh Avenue. A large, derelict building stands in the background. Between it and the stage a throng of young blacks—children and teenagers—are crammed up against the stage. Only a small portion of the crowd is visible as Wilmer was up against the stage on the near side of the shot, facing Graves, slightly to his left.

It might not seem like a truly remarkable picture, but it is testimony to the unique position Wilmer established in chronicling the free-jazz movement. This was at the time of the Civil Rights Movement, of Black Power. The mood of the time was captured in Gil Scott-Heron's "Whitey on the Moon," from his album A New Black Poet: Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, which had come out the year before:

'Taxes takin' my whole damn check/The junkies make me a nervous wreck/The price of food is going up/And if all that crap wasn't enough/A rat done bit my sister Nell/With Whitey on the moon.'

Harlem, in 1971, was not the usual destination for a white person. There was a lot of anger in the air. Wilmer concurs: "There was, but I had asked Milford [Graves] where he was playing and he told me, so I had to go. I owed it to myself not to be a shrinking violet." Wilmer went with two white friends, a woman, who was also a jazz fan, and Martin Davidson, who ran—and still does—Emanem records. "It was quite an occasion," recalls Wilmer, "but it wasn't a comfortable one."

Years later, while making a documentary about Milford Graves, film maker Doug Harris came across Wilmer's photo of Graves playing on Seventh Avenue Harlem and was surprised that there weren't more such pictures available. He contacted Wilmer. "He said to me: 'Why haven't you got more pictures of Milford up here?' and I said, 'Listen Doug, if I'd have stepped any further forward to take pictures I might have got my head slapped.' And he said: 'Yeah, and I'd probably have been one of those doing the slapping,' which is candid, you know? That's what it was like."

Another example of the climate of racial segregation that existed then came the year before, when a book of Wilmer's Photography, The Face of Black Music (Da Capo, 1976) came out. Best known as a publisher of music books, Da Capo was part of the Plenum publishing house, which existed to reissue academic books dictionaries, encyclopaedias and the like. The Face of Black Music was the first original book Da Capo ever published, as all its output up to that point had been reprints.

"I had a very pleasant editor to work with there and I said to her one day: 'Are you going to take this book up to Harlem and sell it in Harlem?' She said: 'Oh, I don't think so.' I said; 'What do you mean?' She said: 'Well, who would we get to go up there?' I was so angry. I said: 'Well, I'll go up there.'

Wilmer made her way to the Liberation Bookstore on Lenox Avenue, close to where the Schomburg Centre for Research in Black Culture is today, where she received a frosty reception. "The feeling was like, what do you want?" Eventually the woman agreed to order a couple of copies and Wilmer asked her name. "She said, 'Una Mulzac.' And I said, 'Oh, are you related to Hugh Mulzac?' She said, "Yes, he's my father.' Hugh Mulzac was the first Black man to hold a Commodore's license in the American Navy and Wilmer had read his autobiography, A Star to Steer By (Seven Seas Publishers, 1965) years before.

That recognition brought a slight shift in balance between the two and later, when Wilmer published two sets of her own postcards she was able to go back and offer them to the Liberation Bookstore to stock. "I wouldn't say we were ever bosom pals," concedes Wilmer, "but she was a lot friendlier towards me and more respectful. But that's how difficult it was. There was no desire to have the presence of white people in places like those kinds of shops. Of course, these were Nationalist strongholds. I thought it was necessary to do that, but it took a bit of doing."

Coming back to that photo of Milford Graves on Seventh Avenue and Harlem and another question arises, one which As Serious As Your Life sheds little light on; who were the audiences for free-jazz? Wilmer documents how Graves and Leroi Jones would play on the streets of Harlem and the loft scene has been documented elsewhere, but clearly they were very separate scenes.

"What was happening in Harlem was completely different to what was happening in the loft scene," Wilmer states. "The poet Leroi Jones, Amiri Baraka by then, had started his Black Arts Movement in Harlem and a lot of musicians played there, events and workshops in schools and so on. The loft scene was downtown. Downtown the lofts were owned by different people, all of them normally white, originally. Lofts as places to play started in the 1950s. There was a painter called Larry Rivers, I think he also played saxophone, and then of course Eugene Smith the photographer had his loft. People virtually lived there; they played there every day. It was always one of the after-hours places. That was a sort of underground scene -it wasn't for pay.

"But when the 'loft era' started up, which of course, is coming into the 1970s, you'd have to pay to go to a gig. Rashied Ali opened up a wonderful loft in Soho. It was where he lived, though at that time Soho was not a residential quarter. Rashied's place was beautiful. It was called Studio 77, at 77 Greene Street, and they had lovely food there. He and other musicians played a lot of experimental music there. But there were other more conventional things going on; Frank Foster, formerly Count Basie's saxophonist, had a big-band there once a week, for example."

One of the most famous lofts was Sam and Bea Rivers' Studio Rivbea. Wilmer remembers Studio Rivbea as an informal cottage industry of sorts.

"You went in on the ground floor and the music was in the basement. I think it was about $10 to get in. There were just a few beanbags and cushions on the floor and a couple of chairs so you had to sit on the floor. If you wanted a beer or a soft drink, you'd go to the family fridge on the ground floor. You'd just walk in, take a beer and pay for it. You just left the money. During the festival it would be packed out, but it was hard and many musicians had day jobs, or their partners had day jobs and that's how they lived."

Compared to swing, bebop and just about every other genre and era of jazz's evolution, relatively little, by comparison, has been written about the history of the free-jazz movement. Wilmer's As Serious As Your Life has addressed the balance to a degree, but there still remains a reticence on the part of some of jazz's heavyweight historians and sometimes self-appointed spokespeople to recognize the validity of the music, its roots, its musical aesthetics, its message—where there was one—and its undoubted legacy.

"Of course, all those people were left out of that famous documentary, the Ken Burns documentary," says Wilmer of the free-jazz musicians. "When they contacted me for photographs for the documentary, I said, 'I've got all these pictures of Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler and all those people, and they said, 'We don't want them.' It is a beautiful film," Wilmer acknowledges, "but they're presenting a fossilized image of most of jazz, whereas jazz is a living music. Now, I don't particularly like some of the modern things I hear but that is where jazz has gone. The people who are doing it are taking it there and that's their responsibility -to be true to themselves. So when someone says, 'our cutting off point is 1950,' or something, for goodness sake, what are you talking about?"

Part of the difficulty in talking about free-jazz is that it was never a unified movement with clear political aims, even though many of its exponents saw it as an expression of political discord -a cry of defiance. Neither musically, is it a simple matter to identify the borders that existed between free-jazz and other expressions of avant-garde jazz, as the lines were often blurred.

"You could say that all Black music has been a cry for freedom and then again it hasn't," says Wilmer. I don't think it's cut and dried. Certainly there were many people who weren't political at all. Sometimes they made the right noises when they were interviewed because every individual has to be part of society, and that was the prevalent mood at a certain time."

With the benefit of hindsight, Wilmer's once-held views of free-jazz as a somehow unified movement has shifted. "It's so complicated. I've been guilty of expressing that point of view before, I do admit. Now I feel that it's misguided to suggest that it was a universal view. It's reductive."

Over forty years after the original publication of As Serious As Your Life it is still referred to as an essential guide to the free-jazz period. Wilmer's photographs are still widely reprinted and the author, now more than ever, is the subject of interviews for national and international press. Yet despite the acclaim and the recent revival of interest in her ground-breaking work on free-jazz, Wilmer remains modest when it comes to her role in recording for posterity a big part of the free-jazz story.

"I don't see myself as a historian of that music, free-jazz or whatever you want to call it. When it comes to that period I think I'm a sort of documenter. I'm a journalist, so it's a social history, without being sociological. Any analysis is very personal and subjective."

With the growth of academic research into all aspects of jazz, perhaps the time is ripe for more considered analysis of the free-jazz years, because there's no escaping the politics that surrounded it, feeding into and feeding off the music. Nor is there any escaping the affirmation of African ancestry in the rhythms, extensive use of African percussion and in the attire of many of the free-jazz practitioners. Most importantly, there's no denying the conceptual boldness of the free-jazz pioneers that questioned the hitherto accepted notions in jazz of melody, harmony and rhythm.

The reissue of Val Wilmer's As Serious As Your Life... may yet revive interest in free-jazz. It would be timely too, because, as Wilmer cautions, "the further off in time the fewer witnesses there are."

Wilmer bore eloquent witness to the free-jazz phenomenon for many years. Hopefully, someone else will follow her example and strive to better understand music that remains controversial to this day. An open mind will be essential. "If you only know your own world," says Wilmer, "how can you possibly know anything?"

Photo: John "Hoppy" Hopkins, courtesy of hoppyx.com

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