Paperback Riders: Val Wilmer “As Serious as Your Life”

Reviewed from Allison & Busby, 1977 edition. Currently available: Serpent's Tail; Main - Classic edition

Subtitled “Black Music and the Free Jazz Revolution, 1957-1977” this book arrived a pivotal point for American culture and is so much more than a book about a small corner of the jazz world. Val Wilmer is a British writer and photographer who has been a key voice in documenting Black culture in the US and UK. Jazz is her starting point, but she has also written extensively on British Afro-Caribbean music and culture.

From her earliest writing in the 1950s she has written from the point of view of one of the few women writing in the jazz world. “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.” Her insights into a world barely documented at the time brought an insight into the world of Black music and politics that has yet to be bettered in many ways.

As Serious as Your Life’ took Free Jazz seriously as a legitimate musical form. By taking artists like Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, and Cecil Taylor seriously and exploring the music’s social and political context, Wilmer helped elevate it from a niche genre to a legitimate and important art form.

Unlike many jazz critics of the time, Wilmer prioritised the perspectives of the Black musicians themselves. This shift in focus offered a deeper understanding of the music’s meaning and motivations, highlighting the experiences and struggles of Black artists in America. She connected the free jazz movement to the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 70s. This linkage showed how the music served as a form of artistic expression and social commentary, reflecting the fight for racial equality and cultural identity.

Wilmer was writing as hip hop, the music and culture rooted in the same African American struggles with urban life, was blooming in the late 1970s on the streets of New York City. Her book was documenting the continued exploration of improvisation, experimentation, and social consciousness within music, which found its most powerful advocates in hip hop, particularly through artists like Public Enemy. By placing music within the context of the Civil Rights era she was making the case for Free Jazz, and many other forms of Black music, as powerful art forms arising from the Black experience. You only have to read Andy Davidson’s excellent review of Chris Molanphy’s ‘Old Town Road’ on AUK to understand that this is a debate that continues.

There can be criticisms of Wilmer’s championing of some of the artists as being overly enthusiastic, bordering on hero worship. Whether Sun Ra deserves the pedestal she puts him on however is a discussion for another place. But as a record of a time and place in American culture ‘As Serious as your life’ is a unique piece of research and writing.

Val Wilmer talked about her life and writing on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs.

About Tim Martin 247 Articles
Sat in my shed listening to music, and writing about some of it. Occasionally allowed out to attend gigs.
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