Books

Celebrating the Free Jazz Revolution, in Black and White

The republication of Val Wilmer’s “As Serious as Your Life” from 1977 resonates today

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Buried in the afterword of Geoff Dyer’s 1991 fantasia But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz is the following: “There may be little first-rate writing on jazz, but few art forms have been better served by photographers.”

Ouch! And partially true, at least as for the latter. One of those photographers, who happens to be a first-rate writer, too, is Val Wilmer, author of the essential As Serious as Your Life: Black Music and the Free Jazz Revolution, 1957–1977, reprinted earlier this month by the U.K. imprint Serpent’s Tail.

Published in 1977, at the height of disco and arena rock, with hip-hop beginning to percolate, As Serious as Your Life is a reported book, a social history of the free jazz movement from its beginnings in the late 1950s — when a small group of musicians, virtually all of them African American, posed questions and issued challenges — to its evolution into the 1970s, when, as British journalist Richard Williams writes in a new foreword to this edition, “jazz was about as unfashionable as it was possible for a once-favored music to be.”

Wilmer has a good eye — she’s a photographer, after all — but she also has foresight. Some of the musicians she writes about had big reputations at the time—she does chapters on Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane, and Albert Ayler, nothing particularly original in that approach — but she was also determined to focus on who and what was left out of the frame, like less-celebrated mavericks such as Milford Graves, the percussionist, and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, who forty years on are recognized as giants. She’s not just interested in their music, but in their politics, often radically left; their relationship to money and how they fought for control of their music; how they negotiated within, and outside, the industry, and their attempts at creating self-sustaining collectives; the supportive role of women in their lives, and the female practitioners of this new music, Amina Claudine Myers, Fontella Bass, Lynda Sharrock, and Carla Bley, among them. “More Women — white and Black — are taking up instruments and really playing,” she writes, “but the prejudice against them continues. Whatever the extent of their talent, this discrimination is more pronounced in so-called jazz than in rock.” Primarily, though, she’s cncerned with race, how it’s informed the work, inspired it, and kept it from penetrating both the masses and the intelligentsia.

Wilmer, born in 1941 in the north of England, writes with great directness. “Black music is, with the cinema, the most important art form of this century,” she states early on. “In terms of influence, there is scarcely anyone untouched by it.” But in her telling, this intellectual black music was largely dismissed by whites: “The so-called New Music, has been treated irresponsibly by many critics, something that could not, I suggest, have gone on for so long had the music in question been created by whites.”And this: “At times it seems as though there is a definite conspiracy afoot to inhibit the progress of the new Black music.”

And if black musicians in the “new thing” were overlooked and exploited, and they absolutely were, so, too, were whites. None other than Gary Peacock, she writes, went without food for fifteen days. Albert Ayler rode to the rescue, pulled him from his bed, and took him on tour in Europe, where free jazz musicians may not have gotten rich, but were treated with more respect then in the U.S. and taken seriously as artists, from the press attention they received on state media outlets to the venues they played, often at concert halls that hosted classical music.

Club owners slowly stopped booking the musicians, label execs claimed they couldn’t make money on it, elite cultural institutions turned their collective back, and impresario George Wein ignored them when he moved the Newport Jazz Festival to New York in 1972, which led to a counter-festival organized by black musicians. But it was largely underappreciated by black people as well. “There are always Blacks who know about the music but it’s hard to get it to them,” the saxophonist Billy Harper told Wilmer. “Some Black people do not realize the importance of this music. … They’re being brainwashed with all that stuff that’s on the radio. . . I certainly don’t think that Archie Shepp could play at the Apollo! The people who go there are programmed for a certain kind of music and that’s all they can hear, that’s all they can accept.”

Wilmer seems especially fascinated with drummers and their process. In addition to Graves, she creates finely tuned portraits of Ed Blackwell, Sunny Murray, and Rashied Ali, whose photo graces the cover of this new edition. And consider this thoughtful bit from the drummer of drummers, Elvin Jones: “The role of the drummer is primarily to keep time,” Jones tells her. “Whether you think you are or not, always in one way or another, either consciously or subconsciously — or unconsciously — the drummer is keeping time, or implied time. Regardless of how abstract it may seem, if it’s analyzed to its fullest extent, it will be ultimately a very definite repetitious rhythm.”

Also included in As Serious as Your Life — the title is taken from a McCoy Tyner quote, “Music’s not a plaything; it’s as serious as your life” — are nearly three dozen of Wilmer’s black-and-white photographs, some in the glorious pre-gentrified streets of New York City. (Her photography is in the permanent collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London’s National Portrait Gallery, the Smithsonian, and the New York Public Library.) They illustrate struggle — the jazz life, to borrow a title from Nat Hentoff, is not an easy one, especially free jazz — but not only struggle. You see focus, discipline, hard work, nurturing, joy.

Toward the end of the book, Wilmer poses a question — and then answers it. “Will there be future generations of musicians sufficiently interested to play this music if the financial returns remain small? There is little incentive for young players who have been drawn instead into the more lucrative rock field, yet the power of the new Black music is so strong that there are many who are willing to make sacrifices in order to play it.”

Few at the time would’ve predicted that what was stirring in the Bronx would become so central to the culture. But Wilmer was right about “new Black music”: It may not be new, but it’s evolved in new and surprising and wonderful ways. And at least some of the world, and its higher institutions, have caught up to what these musicians were up to all those decades ago, and what Wilmer put into such sharp focus: Henry Threadgill, a free jazz pioneer, won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for music with his album In for a Penny, in for a Pound; at least one jazz musician, and one influenced by the innovations of the 1960s and ’70s, seems to be awarded a MacArthur Fellowship annually; and many others who lean into free jazz territories have major posts in the nation’s top universities.

As Serious as Your Life, like so many recordings of the era on, say, ESP-Disk, Black Saint in Milan, or Strata-East — founded by the politically conscious musicians Charles Tolliver and Stanley Cowell in 1971 — has aged remarkably well.

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.

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