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Val Wilmer: Dues And Testimony

Ian Patterson By

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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.


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