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Val Wilmer: Dues And Testimony

Ian Patterson By

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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."



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