|Born||Valerie Sybil Wilmer|
7 December 1941
Harrogate, Yorkshire, England
|Relatives||Clive Wilmer (brother)|
Valerie Sybil Wilmer (born 7 December 1941) is a British photographer and writerspecialising in jazz, gospel, blues, and British African-Caribbean music and culture.
Val Wilmer was born in Harrogate, Yorkshire, England, on 7 December 1941. She is the sister of the poet and writer Clive Wilmer. As soon as World War II was over, her family returned to living in London.
She began her life in the jazz world by listening to pre-war recordings of jazz classics, being led to many important recordings through Rudi Blesh's Shining Trumpets, a history of jazz, and Jazz by Rex Harris.Wilmer became entranced by recordings by Bessie Smith ("Empty Bed Blues") and the singing of Fats Waller – going to the Swing Shop in Streatham, south London, at the age of 12, combing through the jazz records until she found something she wanted to hear.
Three years after these explorations in sound, Wilmer began writing about Black music, encouraged and inspired by Max Jones, Paul Oliver and others.She attended concerts accompanied by her mother, who believed her too young to go on her own. Wilmer states that it was a “tribute to [her] mother's tolerance" being allowed to explore her interests so freely, especially during a time when little girls were often informed of the limitations of their own future options: "Little girls, we are often told, want to grow up to be ballet dancers ... I don’t think it ever crossed my mind to consider the usual female options, resolutely opposed as I was to anything that smacked of feminine pursuits and did not involve going places, being and doing."
Aware of the earliest records of jazz and blues, Wilmer began to write about jazz and other African-American music, focusing on the political and social messages of the music.Her first article (a biography of Jesse Fuller) appeared in Jazz Journal in May 1959 when she was still only 17. Reflecting on how this piece originated, Wilmer states: "I was an inveterate letter writer, that's how the break with Jesse Fuller came about, me writing to him out of the blue. Woe betide any American musician who was foolish enough to have a contact address published somewhere — I'd find it and fire off a letter. The amazing thing was really, I mean really, that so many would reply! These great musicians and characters from a black culture on the other side of the world writing back to this young suburban white girl in England."
Fundamental to Wilmer's work is her keen understanding and insightful expression of the disparity between male and female music writers. Entering this world in 1959, she understood that writing about music was “something that men did. There was a penalty to pay for being a woman in a man’s world…[and] for a white woman to be concerned with something that Black people did meant to experience additional pressure."Through African-American music Wilmer was able to immerse herself in realities that would have stayed undiscovered had she remained within the margins of her comfort-zone. For her, these experiences were fundamental and life-changing. Her perseverance in this difficult sphere and her devotion to the music led her to a path of self-discovery and personal growth, and the understanding of "the potential for personal change that exists in us all." Through her writing about music, Wilmer was able to provide a voice to a transatlantic, multicultural, and multiracial dialogue, delving into a "part of history, or [what] might very soon be."
Since 1959, she has interviewed hundreds of musicians, written previews and criticism. Her work has been cited and used in research for many books, articles and films, including several biographies of major musicians. Her early interviews with Earle Warren,Lee Young, and Paul "Polo" Barnes are cited in Douglas Henry Daniels's biography of Lester Young. Interviews with Thelonious Monk, Nellie Monk and Billy Higgins are cited in Robin D. G. Kelley's biography of Thelonious Monk. Other examples of the use of Wilmer's early interviews include "Texas Trombone: Henry Coker" in Dave Oliphant's books Texan Jazz and Jazz Mavericks of the Lone Star State.
She was later to gain recognition for her interviews of saxophonists Joe Harriott and Ornette Coleman,and become a writer, music critic and photographer. Writing in 1965 of the changes in Monk's style, she says: "For the last 10 years of so, Monk's music has become easier to listen to, though it is not necessarily any simpler. What he is doing is as engaging and profound as ever, though seeming to be less provocative than when he was upsetting rules."
Her essays and obituaries are notable for their ability to subtly reveal the underlying inequities that Black artists and women faced in the music industry, often using their own words. In a 15 July 1960 obituary in Jazz News , Wilmer quotes Memphis Slim: "I also wanted to get my own publishing company, but the record men don't want to hire a guy who's got his own publishing company," revealing the difficulty he faced as a black artist. Speaking of her friendship with the influential lyricist, music critic, interviewer and singer Kitty Grime, Wilmer demonstrates her love, respect and admiration, while also revealing the masculine bias in the world of music: "It was during this heady period that we met, at a time when the jazz scene was virtually an all-male preserve...her awareness and knowledgeability were something that most younger commentators would be hard put to emulate".
In her writing, she continuously keeps jazz history at the forefront, and presents herself as a devout listener, admirer and lover of music. Nevertheless, she admits to having interviewed the brothers Albert Ayler and Donald Ayler as a journalistic exercise and not a fan, yet eventually she "would come to admire Albert Ayler as the last major jazz visionary".
Although Wilmer's forte is jazz and blues, she is versed in the larger movements in music history and reveals her versatility across genres when, for instance, she writes about how Jimi Hendrix's visit to England in 1966 gave "the floundering local scene a much-needed injection".
Wilmer has contributed to a vast array of publications,including Melody Maker , Down Beat (she was its UK correspondent, 1966–1970), Jazz Journal , Musics , Double Bassist, Mojo , The Wire , and regularly contributes obituaries of musicians to The Guardian .
Wilmer's first book, Jazz People, was published by Allison & Busby in 1970 (subsequently issued in the US by Da Capo Press) and is now often referred to as one of the "three or four finest books ever written on jazz".It features interviews with American musicians who include Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Art Farmer, Babs Gonzales, Jimmy Heath, Billy Higgins, Thelonious Monk, Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, Clark Terry, Big Joe Turner and Randy Weston, and as Kirkus Reviews noted: "The emphasis is on the people in these fourteen interviews, the personalities behind the jazz, their moods, ambitions, influences....The author observes well and the profiles are short and sharp with high notes for the buff."
Rated "as important a photographer as she is a writer",Wilmer is the author of the photograph-led The Face of Black Music (Da Capo Press, 1976), which like Jazz People is considered a canonical and influential text in music criticism.
Wilmer's book As Serious as Your Life, first published in 1977 by Allison and Busby, is now a classic of jazz writing,referencing in its title something said to her by McCoy Tyner: "Music's not a plaything; it's as serious as your life." The first account of the revolutionary "free jazz" and its practitioners, it also documents women's experiences in relation to the "new jazz" in African-American communities, and deviates from the "masculinist rule of exclusion". Presenting sexual politics in the world of jazz, Wilmer unearthed sexual politics in music criticism itself. In her work, she presents a "superb descriptive journey that moves the reader through a number of seemingly incommensurable communities simultaneously.... This is the vision and possibility of community when the struggle toward freedom recognizes the intersections of sexual difference, gender, and sexuality in addition to race and class, as the basis for improvisational practices". As Serious As Your Life was reprinted by Serpent's Tail in March 2018, when Michael J. Agovino wrote in The Village Voice : "During the 1960s and '70s 'counterculture', much of which became a massive cash register, Val Wilmer fixed her strobe lights onto a musical and political landscape that really did in fact run counter to the culture. A shame so few — blacks and whites — were paying attention at the time. But her book, and the work it documented, remains as serious, and necessary, as ever."
Wilmer's autobiography, Mama Said There'd Be Days Like This: My Life in the Jazz World (Women's Press, 1989), details her development as an artist/journalist, and includes her coming out as a lesbian in a largely heterosexist musical milieu.
In addition, Wilmer has consistently over the years written biographical articles on Black British musicians from the 1940s and 1950s and about photography.She was a member of the advisory board for The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz (2nd edition), edited by Barry Kernfeld, and the author of 63 entries. Wilmer provided the foreword to John Gray's Fire Music: A Bibliography of the New Jazz, 1959-1990. She has written more than 35 articles for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. The British Library Sound Archive contains 35 of Wilmer's interviews with black British musicians and women musicians in its Oral History of Jazz in Britain.
Wilmer has amassed a collection of historic photos of black people in Britain, some of which have been on public display,and she is working on a project to research the lives of black British musicians, which she has been documenting for many years.
Wilmer is as important a photographer as she is a writer, having worked with hundreds of singers, jazz musicians and writers, and she has taken noted photographs of artists such as Langston Hughes, Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, and Duke Ellington. Her photographs were exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in the 1973 exhibition Jazz Seen: The Face of Black Music,and form part of the V&A's photographic collection. Her photographs are also held in the National Portrait Gallery collection.
She has written about photography and interviewed practitioners including Eve Arnold,Anthony Barboza, Roy DeCarava, Terry Cryer, Milt Hinton, John Hopkins, Danny Lyon, Raissa Page (of Greenham Common fame), Coreen Simpson, Beuford Smith and James Van Der Zee. In the 1980s she compiled and edited the "Evidence" issue of Ten.8 magazine devoted to the work of African-American photographers. Wilmer's work has often been used in conjunction with music albums, as in the digipak booklet for Honest Jon's London is the Place for Me no. 4 CD, which includes photographs by her that "are full of warmth and immediacy".
With Maggie Murray, Wilmer founded Format, the first all-women photographers' agency in Britain, in 1983.
In September 2013, while Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club in Frith Street, Soho, was undergoing redecoration, a 12-metre-square hoarding was erected on the façade with a tribute to its eponymous founder in the form of a massive photograph by Wilmer of him smoking a cigarette outside the club, and one of his legendary one-liners: "I love this place, it's just like home, filthy and full of strangers."
Photographic works by Wilmer are held by the Arts Council of Great Britain Collection;the National Portrait Gallery; Victoria and Albert Museum; Musée d'Art Moderne, Paris; Fotografiska Museet, Stockholm; Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC; and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (New York Public Library).
In 2009 Val Wilmer was honoured with a Parliamentary Jazz Award for Services to Jazz.
She is the subject of BBC Radio 3's Sunday Feature: A Portrait of Val Wilmer, produced by Steve Urquhart (featuring contributions from Margaret Busby, Paul Gilroy, Richard Williams, Andrew Cyrille, and Clive Wilmer), which was first broadcast on 4 March 2018.The following week, she was also featured by Robert Elms as a "Listed Londoner" on his BBC Radio London programme.
In 2019, Wilmer received the Lona Foote/Bob Parent Award for Career Excellence in Photography at the 24th annual Jazz Journalists Association Jazz Awards.
John William Coltrane was an American jazz saxophonist and composer. Working in the bebop and hard bop idioms early in his career, Coltrane helped pioneer the use of modes and was at the forefront of free jazz. He led at least fifty recording sessions and appeared on many albums by other musicians, including trumpeter Miles Davis and pianist Thelonious Monk. Over the course of his career, Coltrane's music took on an increasingly spiritual dimension, as exemplified on his most acclaimed albums A Love Supreme (1965) and Ascension (1966). He remains one of the most influential saxophonists in music history. He received numerous posthumous awards, including a Pulitzer Prize in 2007, and was canonized by the African Orthodox Church. His second wife was pianist and harpist Alice Coltrane. The couple had three children: John Jr. (1964–1982), a bassist; Ravi, a saxophonist; and Oran, also a saxophonist.
Free jazz is an experimental approach to jazz improvisation that developed in the late 1950s and early 1960s when musicians attempted to change or break down jazz conventions, such as regular tempos, tones, and chord changes. Musicians during this period believed that the bebop, hard bop, and modal jazz that had been played before them was too limiting. They became preoccupied with creating something new and exploring new directions. The term "free jazz" has often been combined with or substituted for the term "avant-garde jazz". Europeans tend to favor the term "free improvisation". Others have used "modern jazz", "creative music", and "art music".
Albert Ayler was an American avant-garde jazz saxophonist, singer and composer.
Carla Bley is an American jazz composer, pianist, organist and bandleader. An important figure in the free jazz movement of the 1960s, she is perhaps best known for her jazz opera Escalator over the Hill, as well as a book of compositions that have been performed by many other artists, including Gary Burton, Jimmy Giuffre, George Russell, Art Farmer, John Scofield and her ex-husband Paul Bley.
James Marcellus Arthur "Sunny" Murray was one of the pioneers of the free jazz style of drumming.
Milford Graves was an American jazz drummer, percussionist, Professor Emeritus of Music, researcher/inventor, visual artist/sculptor, gardener/herbalist, and martial artist. Graves was noteworthy for his early avant-garde contributions in the 1960s with Paul Bley, Albert Ayler, and the New York Art Quartet, and is considered to be a free jazz pioneer, liberating percussion from its timekeeping role. The composer and saxophonist John Zorn referred to Graves as "basically a 20th-century shaman."
Nuits de La Fondation Maeght is a live album by the American jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler recorded on July 27, 1970 at the Maeght Foundation in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France, and originally released in 1971 in two volumes on the Shandar label. The album documents one of the last known performances by Ayler prior to his death in November of that year.
Ascension is a jazz album by John Coltrane recorded in June 1965 and released in 1966. It is considered a watershed in Coltrane's work, with the albums recorded before it being more conventional in structure and the albums recorded after it being looser, free jazz inspired works. In addition, it signaled Coltrane's interest in moving away from the quartet format. AllMusic called it "the single recording that placed John Coltrane firmly into the avant-garde".
New Grass is a 1968 album by jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler released on Impulse! Records.
Spiritual Unity is a studio album by American free jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler. It was recorded on July 10, 1964 in New York City, and features bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Sunny Murray. It was the first album recorded for Bernard Stollman's ESP-Disk label, and it brought Ayler to international attention as it was so "shockingly different". At the same time, it transformed ESP-DISK into "a major source for avant-garde jazz". A 5-star review in AllMusic called it a "landmark recording that's essential to any basic understanding of free jazz", "the album that pushed Albert Ayler to the forefront of jazz's avant-garde... really the first available document of Ayler's music that matched him with a group of truly sympathetic musicians", and stated that "the results are a magnificently pure distillation of his aesthetic."
Donald Ayler was a jazz trumpeter. He was best known for his participation in concerts and recordings by groups led by his older brother, saxophonist Albert Ayler. An obituary in The Wire praised his "buzzing, declamatory trumpet playing, which was part Holy Roller primitive, part avant garde firebrand".
Jürgen Schadeberg was a German-born South African photographer and artist. He photographed key moments in South African history, including iconic photographs such as Nelson Mandela at Robben Island prison. He also lived, worked and taught in London and Spain, and photographed in many African countries.
Russell Audley Ferdinand "Russ" Henderson was a jazz musician on the piano and the steelpan. Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, he settled in England in the 1950s. He is most widely recognised as one of the founding figures of the Notting Hill Carnival in London, United Kingdom.
Anthony Barboza is an African-American photographer, historian, artist and writer. With roots originating from Cape Verde, and work that began in commercial art more than forty years ago, Barboza's artistic talents and successful career helped him to cross over and pursue his passions in the fine arts where he continues to contribute to the American art scene.
Terry Cryer was a British jazz and blues photographer. Described by Mojo as "The Dean of UK jazz and blues photographers", Cryer is best known for portraits of some of the genre's most renowned performers.
Spirits is an album by American free jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler recorded in New York City in 1964 and first released on the Danish Debut label then later released on the Freedom label as Witches & Devils.
Prophecy is a live album by American free jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler recorded in New York City on June 14, 1964 and first released in 1975 on the ESP-Disk label.
The Hilversum Session is an album by American free jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler recorded at a radio studio in Hilversum, The Netherlands on November 9, 1964 and first released in 1980 on the now-defunct Dutch Osmosis label. It was later re-released on DIW, Coppens, ESP, and Modern Silence. In 2016, the tracks that appeared on The Hilversum Session were re-released by hatOLOGY on the European Radio Studio Recordings 1964.
Something Different!!!!! is an album by the American jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler recorded on October 25, 1962 at the Academy of Music in Stockholm, Sweden, and originally released in very small quantities on the Swedish Bird Notes label run by saxophonist Bengt "Frippe" Nordström. Ayler plays tenor saxophone, and is accompanied by Swedish musicians Torbjörn Hultcrantz (bass) and Sune Spångberg (drums).
Live on the Riviera is a live album by the American jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler recorded on July 25, 1970 at the Maeght Foundation in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France, and originally released in 2005 on the ESP-Disk label. The album, which was remastered and reissued by ESP-Disk in 2013, documents one of the last known performances by Ayler prior to his death in November of that year.
'the book presented – after a Val Wilmer foreword – the most exhaustive picture ever assembled of the print coverage of free jazz since its inception'