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Val Wilmer: Dues And Testimony

Ian Patterson By

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"What was happening in Harlem was completely different to what was happening in the loft scene," Wilmer states. "The poet Leroi Jones, Amiri Baraka by then, had started his Black Arts Movement in Harlem and a lot of musicians played there, events and workshops in schools and so on. The loft scene was downtown. Downtown the lofts were owned by different people, all of them normally white, originally. Lofts as places to play started in the 1950s. There was a painter called Larry Rivers, I think he also played saxophone, and then of course Eugene Smith the photographer had his loft. People virtually lived there; they played there every day. It was always one of the after-hours places. That was a sort of underground scene -it wasn't for pay.

"But when the 'loft era' started up, which of course, is coming into the 1970s, you'd have to pay to go to a gig. Rashied Ali opened up a wonderful loft in Soho. It was where he lived, though at that time Soho was not a residential quarter. Rashied's place was beautiful. It was called Studio 77, at 77 Greene Street, and they had lovely food there. He and other musicians played a lot of experimental music there. But there were other more conventional things going on; Frank Foster, formerly Count Basie's saxophonist, had a big-band there once a week, for example."

One of the most famous lofts was Sam and Bea Rivers' Studio Rivbea. Wilmer remembers Studio Rivbea as an informal cottage industry of sorts.

"You went in on the ground floor and the music was in the basement. I think it was about $10 to get in. There were just a few beanbags and cushions on the floor and a couple of chairs so you had to sit on the floor. If you wanted a beer or a soft drink, you'd go to the family fridge on the ground floor. You'd just walk in, take a beer and pay for it. You just left the money. During the festival it would be packed out, but it was hard and many musicians had day jobs, or their partners had day jobs and that's how they lived."

Compared to swing, bebop and just about every other genre and era of jazz's evolution, relatively little, by comparison, has been written about the history of the free-jazz movement. Wilmer's As Serious As Your Life has addressed the balance to a degree, but there still remains a reticence on the part of some of jazz's heavyweight historians and sometimes self-appointed spokespeople to recognize the validity of the music, its roots, its musical aesthetics, its message—where there was one—and its undoubted legacy.

"Of course, all those people were left out of that famous documentary, the Ken Burns documentary," says Wilmer of the free-jazz musicians. "When they contacted me for photographs for the documentary, I said, 'I've got all these pictures of Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler and all those people, and they said, 'We don't want them.' It is a beautiful film," Wilmer acknowledges, "but they're presenting a fossilized image of most of jazz, whereas jazz is a living music. Now, I don't particularly like some of the modern things I hear but that is where jazz has gone. The people who are doing it are taking it there and that's their responsibility -to be true to themselves. So when someone says, 'our cutting off point is 1950,' or something, for goodness sake, what are you talking about?"

Part of the difficulty in talking about free-jazz is that it was never a unified movement with clear political aims, even though many of its exponents saw it as an expression of political discord -a cry of defiance. Neither musically, is it a simple matter to identify the borders that existed between free-jazz and other expressions of avant-garde jazz, as the lines were often blurred.

"You could say that all Black music has been a cry for freedom and then again it hasn't," says Wilmer. I don't think it's cut and dried. Certainly there were many people who weren't political at all. Sometimes they made the right noises when they were interviewed because every individual has to be part of society, and that was the prevalent mood at a certain time."

With the benefit of hindsight, Wilmer's once-held views of free-jazz as a somehow unified movement has shifted. "It's so complicated. I've been guilty of expressing that point of view before, I do admit. Now I feel that it's misguided to suggest that it was a universal view. It's reductive."

Over forty years after the original publication of As Serious As Your Life it is still referred to as an essential guide to the free-jazz period. Wilmer's photographs are still widely reprinted and the author, now more than ever, is the subject of interviews for national and international press. Yet despite the acclaim and the recent revival of interest in her ground-breaking work on free-jazz, Wilmer remains modest when it comes to her role in recording for posterity a big part of the free-jazz story.

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