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Valerie Sybil Wilmer (born 7 December 1941, Harrogate, England) is an internationally noted UK photographer, jazz historian and writer, also specializing in gospel, blues, and British African-Caribbean music and culture. She is the sister of the poet and writer Clive Wilmer.
Wilmer began her life in the jazz world by listening to pre-World War II recordings of jazz classics, being led to "many important recordings through the discography of Brian Rust". 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 twelve, 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, attending 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.”
Writing and photography
Aware of the earliest records of jazz and blues, Wilmer began to write about avant-garde and free jazz, 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 seventeen. 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.”
She was later to gain recognition for her interviews of saxophonists Joe Harriott and Ornette Coleman, and become a photographer, writer and music critic. Writing in 1965 of the changes in Thelonious 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 s doing is as engaging and profound as ever, though seeming to be less provocative than when he was upsetting rules." 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 some of the most noted photographs of artists such as Langston Hughes, Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, and Duke Ellington.
Her book As Serious as Your Life (1977) 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 also unearthed sexual politics in music criticism itself. In her work, Wilmer 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”. She is also the author of Mama Said There'd Be Days Like This: My Life in the Jazz World (Women's Press, 1989), an autobiography that details her development as an artist/journalist and her coming out as a lesbian in a largely heterosexist musical milieu.
She compiled and edited the "Evidence" issue of Ten.8 magazine devoted to the work of African-American photographers. With Maggie Murray, Wilmer founded Format, the first all-women photographers’ agency in Britain, in 1983. Her photographs have been exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum (1973) and are held in many photographic collections, including the Arts Council of Great Britain; Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris; Fotografiska Museet, Stockholm; Smithsonian Museum, Washington, DC; Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (New York Public Library), New York; National Portrait Gallery collection.
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 inequities in the masculine 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, Wilmer 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 also 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, 1966–70), Jazz Journal, Double Bassist, The Wire, and regularly contributes obituaries of musicians to The Guardian. In addition to the works already mentioned, she is the author of Jazz People (Allison & Busby, 1970), The Face of Black Music: Photographs by Valerie Wilmer (Da Capo Press, 1976), which are considered canonical and influential texts in music criticism. In addition, Wilmer has written biographical articles on Black British musicians from the 1940s and '50s and about photography.
Currently, Wilmer is working an extensive historical project, focusing on the lives and works of black British musicians.
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."
- Jazz People (London: Allison & Busby, 1970; Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1970).
- The Face of Black Music (New York: Da Capo, 1976).
- As Serious as Your Life: The Story of the New Jazz (London: Allison & Busby, 1977).
- Mama Said There'd Be Days Like This: My Life in the Jazz World (London: Women's Press, 1989).
- Olipanth, Dave, Jazz Mavericks of the Lone Star State, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007, pp. 75-76.
- Wilmer, Valerie, Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This: My Life in the Jazz World, London: The Women’s Press, 1989, p. 3.
- Olipanth (2007), p. 76.
- Olipanth (2007), p. 3.
- Olipanth (2007), p. 4.
- McKay, George, Circular Breathing: The Cultural Politics of Jazz in Britain, Durham: Duke University Press, 2005, p. 23.
- Wilmer, Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This (1989), p. xiii.
- Wilmer, Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This, p. xiv.
- McKay, 2005, p. 77.
- Wilmer "Monk on Monk", Down Beat, 3 June 1965, p. 58.
- Fischlin, David, and Ajay Heble. The Other Side of Nowhere: Jazz, Improvisation, and Communities in Dialogue, 1st ed. (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2004), p. 230.
- TEN-8 No. 24: "Evidence - New Light on Afro American Images", n.d. (1987?).
- "Art, photography & architecture: Wilmer, Val. (12 of 13). Oral History of British Photography", British Library, Sounds.
- "V&A Exploring Photography: Val Wilmer". Victoria and Albert Museum. Retrieved 2008-07-11.
- "Dusty Springfield by Val Wilmer". National Portrait Gallery. Retrieved 2008-07-11.
- Wilmer, "Kitty Grime", Jazz Journal International, p. 18.
- Wilmer, "Spirits Rejoice: Albert and Don Ayler", Coda: The Journal of Jazz and Improvised Music, March-April 1997, p. 4.
- Wilmer, "Jimi Hendrix: An Experience", Down Beat, February 1994, p. 38.
- Val Wilmer (contributor), The Guardian.
- "Ronnie Scott's tribute to founder", The Telegraph, 28 August 2013.
- Jon Newey, "Jazz breaking news: Ronnie Scott’s Covers Up", Jazzwise, 27 August 2013.
- Sally Evans-Darby, "Redecorating Ronnie's", Jazz Journal.
Sources and further reading
- Davies, Sue. Contemporary Photographers, Martin Marix Evans, ed. (New York: St. James Press, 1995).
- Fischlin, David, and Ajay Heble. The Other Side of Nowhere: Jazz, Improvisation, and Communities in Dialogue, 1st edition, Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2004.
- Ford, Robert. A Blues Bibliography (Bromley: Paul Pelletier Publishing, 1999; 2nd edition, New York: Routledge, 2007).
- Gannon, Robert. "Wilmer, Valerie",The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Barry Dean Kernfeld, ed. (London: McMillan Press, 1988), p. 1299; entry revised by B. Kernfeld (2nd edition, 2002).
- Gray, John. Fire Music: A Bibliography of the New Jazz, 1959-1990 (Westport: Greenwood, 1991).
- McKay, George. Circular Breathing: The Cultural Politics of Jazz in Britain (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005).
- Mathieson, Kenny. Encyclopaedia of Blues. Komara, Edward, ed. (New York: Routledge, 2006).
- Olipanth, Dave. Jazz Mavericks of the Lone Star State (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007).
- Tyranka, Paul; photographs by Val Wilmer. Portrait of the Blues (New York: Da Capo Press, 1997).
- Wilmer, Valerie. "Monk on Monk", Down Beat, 3 June 1965: pp. 20-22.
- ---. "New York is Alive! Report and Photography by Valerie Wilmer". Jazz Forum, 1973: pp. 47-49.
- ---. "Rock and Roll Genius". Melody Maker. 5 February 1977, Vol. 52: pp. 8, 44.
- ---. "Gilmore and 'Trane: The Sun Ra Link". Melody Maker, 27 December 1980. Vol. 55: pp. 16-17.
- ---. "Rudolph Dunbar". City Limits, March 1986: pp. 84-86.
- ---. "Mama Said There'd Be Days Like This: Valerie Wilmer Responds to Max Harrison's Review of her Book". Jazz Forum, 4 March 1990: pp. 4-5.
- ---. "How We Met: Lauderic Caton and Louis Stephenson."The Independent on Sunday Review, February 7, 1993: p. 61.
- ---. "Jimi Hendrix: An Experience". Down Beat, February 1994: pp. 38-40.
- ---. "The First Time I Met the Blues". Mojo, September 1995. 22: pp. 84-85.
- ---. "Spirits Rejoice: Albert and Don Ayler". Coda: The Journal of Jazz and Improvised Music, March-April 1997: pp. 4-7.
- ---. "Coleridge Goode: Improving with Age". Double Bassist, 2003: pp. 12-15.
- ---. "Roswell Rudd and the Chartreuse Phantasm". The Wire, 2004: pp. 28-31.
- ---. "A Blue Mariner's Legacy". Double Bassist, 2005: pp. 24-26.
- ---. "Kitty Grime". Jazz Journal International, 2007: pp. 18-19.
- Valerie Wilmer discography at Discogs
- Bayley, Bruno. "England is the Place for Me: Val Wilmer's Hidden Photographs Uncovered. A Forgotten History of Black London." Vice, Vol. 15, no. 5.
- Carney, John."They Made Magic. Part 2: Val Wilmer" Tangents: The Home of Unpopular Culture (2006).
- Rasheed, Kameelah. "'Space is the Place': Val Wilmer Photographs Sun Ra". The Liberator Magazine.
- Valerie Wilmer's contributions to Obituaries pages, The Guardian.
- Wilmer, Val. "Jazz and Blues and Blues and Jazz", Vice, Vol. 16, no. 7.
- "Val Wilmer - Journalist, historian and photographer", Women's Liberation Music Archive, Feminist Music-Making in the UK and Ireland, 1970-1990.
- "Blues Britannia - Val Wilmer's photo memories" (a selection of photographs from BBC Four's Blues Britannia, taken by Val Wilmer), BBC.
- Jazz Diary / Jane Richards on Val Wilmer, The Independent, 7 September 1992.