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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.

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