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Val Wilmer: Dues And Testimony

Ian Patterson By

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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."

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