Val Wilmer: Dues And Testimony

Ian Patterson By

Sign in to view read count
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."



Jazz Near London
Events Guide | Venue Guide | Get App | More...

Shop for Music

Start your music shopping from All About Jazz and you'll support us in the process. Learn how.