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Bebop Spoken There

Vadim Neselovskyi, Professor of Jazz Piano, Berklee College of Music: “Every pianist has to deal with a very complex left-hand part at some point. This is the essential pianistic experience – to split your brain into two halves and execute two very different tasks at the same time.” – (Down Beat September 2017).

Roscoe Mitchell: “To me, improvisation is trying to improve your skills so you can make these on-point compositional decisions. That takes practice.” – (Down Beat September 2017)

Archives

Today Monday September 25

Afternoon.
Jazz in the Afternoon - Crescent Club, 1 Hudleston, Cullercoats NE30 3OS. 1pm. Free.
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Classic Swing - Marquis of Granby, Streetgate, Sunniside NE16 5ES. 0191 4880954. 1pm. Free. New mainstream gig w. Bob Wade (trumpet); Olive Rudd (vocal) and other familiar faces.
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Alastair Lord (trumpet) & Kris Thomsett (organ) - St. Nicholas Cathedral, St. Nicholas Square, Newcastle NE1 1PF. 1:05. Free (retiring collection).
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Evening.
?????
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To the best of our knowledge, details of the above events are correct but may be subject to alteration.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Wire Salon: An Audience with Val Wilmer (Café Oto)

(Text & blackboard image © AJ Dehany); (Images of Val Wilmer © Fabio Lugaro)*
Val Wilmer has given us some of the twentieth century’s most distinctive images of jazz musicians. With a journalistic commitment to the truth of her subjects and an artist’s eye for a memorable picture, her photographs portray the stars of the music as both working players and living people. Since the early 1960s the writer and photographer has interviewed and photographed everyone from Louis Armstrong to Sun Ra in a colourful and fascinating life.
We could have devoted an evening just to her activity in the women’s movement; in 1983 she started Format, the first all-women photographic agency. At Café Oto, in conversation with Tony Herrington, publisher of The Wire magazine, the talk mostly concerned her involvement with the avant-garde jazz scene of the sixties in London and New York, and her travels around the blues heartlands in the U.S. Deep South. She selected just seventeen images to project up. “It’s worse than Desert Island Discs — what do you show?”    

That’s a jazz photograph

The first photograph at Café Oto was Wynton Marsalis in New York in 1989. He holds the trumpet casually with one hand in what seems a moment of inner creative work rather than outward performance.
Val Wilmer explains she chose it because it had been praised for embodying a certain aesthetic: “That’s a jazz photograph.” This refers to a ‘reportage style’ familiar to jazzers who grew up with the record sleeves of Blue Note and Prestige and magazines like Downbeat and Metronome. The imagery was less of static studio portraits and more musicians at work. “The Blue Note photos are snapshots,” she says. The style reaches back to the start of the twentieth century in New Orleans with “musicians playing tailgate trombone - whatever that was”. It came into its own during the bebop era of the forties and fuelled Wilmer’s attempt to capture the look of “the jazz musician as workman” (sic).

At their best, the images illustrate not just the player but the person. “It was my intention to show who the people were when they weren’t playing,” she explains. In 1962 Dexter Gordon was at Ronnie Scott’s in London. They went out to take photographs, Gordon rather unenthusiastic about it. He brightened at Piccadilly Circus to find white men working there shining shoes. This was incredible to an American. “I gotta get this one,” he said, posing gleefully, his eyes shining like a cat’s, with that same presence he embodied on stage. He asked for copies to send home for the folks who wouldn’t believe it: a black man getting his shoes shined by a white man.

The people

How does a young white woman get into a scene associated with black jazz musicians from abroad? Pointing to her own double career as a writer as well as a photographer, she laments a sense that things have changed since the sixties when you could “do what you want.” She emphasises that the capital wasn’t the Swinging London of Austin Powers; or at least only in some places. She was young and lived at home in Streatham. The second photo she shows is not by her but of her, a seventeen year old in a dress her mother made. Her first camera was her mother’s box brownie. In the first photo she ever took she chopped her mother’s head off. It was also at home where her involvement with jazz musicians started. She mists over remembering all the people around that kitchen table. A steady stream of names including Charles Mingus, Memphis Slim, Elton John and Anthony Braxton. There was a jazz record shop she hung out in from age twelve, and gigs at the Streatham Astoria (now Odeon).

In those days people wrote to famous and interesting people and they’d write back. Her first published piece (in Jazz Journal) was a biography of Jesse Fuller written up from their correspondence. Val Wilmer wrote to musicians whom she later met and befriended. You could be brazen and turn up at the stage door and get a hospitable reception, especially as a photographer: “People always wanted photographs taken.”
She first went to New York in 1962 and returned in 1966. Her friend John Hopkins had been to the Newport Jazz Festival and discovered some of the now biggest names of the avant garde: Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman. Among the musical community there were arguments about whether what these people were playing was even jazz. He told her “You gotta see these young guys, it’s all happening now” and gave her some phone numbers: Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, Sunny Murray. She got in touch with them. She shows us her image of Sun Ra’s sideman and leading light Marshall Allen in 1966, and Sun Ra himself playing the Sun Harp, the dreadful sounding organ whose brass sunburst at least looks great in photos. The band were living communally and Sun Ra was considered a bit of a freak. He had already professed he was from Saturn, but she concedes “he did have a human side.”  

There’s a fantastic shot from the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1971 of Marshall Allen and an unnamed trombonist in profile striding together beneath an umbrella in the rain. She says flatly “It’s just two guys under an umbrella” and it has that elusive documentary quality of ‘realness’ that is important to her, but it shows so much more. It seems to capture the vital force that world-changing musicians have and that you can perceive: it glows around them like the Dharmakaya Light. “It was important to present musicians as part of the world, not just the person with the sax in their mouth. I have tried to show something of the people in my work.”

Words and pictures

Someone who was instrumental in introducing Wilmer to different worlds was the poet Langston Hughes, pictured with affectionate reverence typing in his Harlem apartment in 1962. He and Wilmer had a warm educative relationship. Wilmer rhapsodizes about “The Sweet Flypaper of Life” one of the sweetest books of photos ever, and “The Weary Blues”, Hughes’s beautiful spoken word album with music by Mingus on Side 1 and on Side 2 older musicians including Henry Red Allen. Wilmer met Hughes in 1962. Asked if she was aware that Hughes was being criticised by younger writers for not being ‘militant enough’ politically, she says no. In the bars in Manhattan “you just went and the whole world was there.”

Wilmer has travelled a lot in the South, exploring the place where the music had come from. For a hundred dollars you could ride the Greyhound bus for a month. One memorable image is of blues guitarist James L. Thomas sat on the stoop of his broken-down house. People couldn’t believe the scene wasn’t staged in some way. She affirms that people really do live like this. She saw it all. It didn’t change her ideas about music, but about life. And she felt frightened the whole time. We know the history. We’ve seen the photos, of people hanging from trees: “This was not two or four hundred years ago, it was happening right then”. If you were white you had to decide whether you wanted to mix with black people or white people. If you were black you didn’t get the choice. When you went to a white person’s house it was a matter of when the N-word would come up. The talk of racism and religion was constant and wearing. “I don’t want to talk about this. It taught me.” She can’t share all she knows; some of it can’t be shared, but it was “educational in the wider sense of the word; and I remember all of it.”

“Being involved in this world when you’re young is fun - but it’s not a bed of roses. I mean it’s not gonna be easy. It was important to me to do what I could to proselytise about this music.” For some of these musicians, written words were hugely important to help them in making their living. She regrets that there weren’t more black people writing about jazz. The late great poet Amiri Baraka early on wrote criticism in Downbeat, but Ralph Ellison, in particular, expressed some concern about the relationship of the white critic to the music and regretted that there weren’t more black writers.

Archie Shepp is pictured at home in 1967. Militant and articulate, he wrote the introduction to Wilmer’s first book The Face of Black Music. Talk turns to “A Story of the New Jazz” another of Wilmer’s books that was published in 1977 but is sadly out of print. It covers a period Tony Herrington describes as “when music was in the doldrums” after the swinging sixties and the high point of the avant garde. Wilmer included a chapter about ‘woman’s role’ to which she jokingly but caustically attributes the book’s out-of-print status.

[A life of] Hard work

The impulse of Val Wilmer’s work is not wholly documentary or sociological but seeks after a creative expression. Photography is both art and craft. You can choose to call yourself an artist or not. Sometimes sociology arises. Often you’re just “snapping” and she jokes that sometimes you’re just glad to get the exposure right.

“One of the things about jazz photography is we are restricted by our equipment, and that influences the aesthetic.” She got a 35mm Pentax Silverline which was much lighter than the bulky Rolleiflex and which had 36 rather than 12 exposures. She wryly notes that one of the things about photography, as with interviewing, is that someone will say or do something before you’ve switched on the machine, and after the tapes run out they will say what you really wanted to hear. “I’ve always said the best photo is Nought-A or No. 37. But sometimes there is a 37, and this was it.” She’s talking about a beautiful and famous shot of Albert Ayler, half turned with trees in the background. He looks like he belongs in the world.

How do you get a shot like that? Is it luck or skill? Her answer is pragmatic. “It’s not random. It’s about getting backstage and sitting in the pit and waiting.” You’ve also got to know a bit about life and you’ve really got to know about what cameras you’re using and lenses. There’s a killer shot of Albert King at Hammersmith Odeon in 1959. The legendary blues guitarist’s hand is at apogee before it would fall to strike the strings. You can hear the chord ring out from the static photo. Time Life selected this photo as a “moment of complete communion” for their photojournalism book, she says.

The final photo, and her technical favourite, is another miracle of light and repose, a “certain photo I wanted to take.” When she got a handheld light source she found she could create a certain kind of shadow such as Melody Maker would like. “Photography translates as drawing with light.” In the image the light is perfect, a light you couldn’t set up, that just fell naturally in the dressing room, with an actor posing splendidly and inscrutably.  

The combination of technical training and spending time with people is, she says, hard to find these days. She used to ask to come to recording sessions and take photos. Furthermore “photography has changed beyond all recognition because of technology.” She is unequivocal about the demands of the craft. “Dedication is the name of the game. To be a photographer you’ve got to concentrate. It’s hard work. People don’t realise.”
AJ Dehany
(AJ Dehany is based in London and writes independently about music, art and stuff. ajdehany.co.uk ajdehany.co.uk  )
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*www.fabiolugaro.com

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Bebop Spoken Here -- Here, being the north-east of England -- centred in the blues heartland of Newcastle and reaching down to the Tees Delta and looking upwards to the Land of the Kilt.
Not a very original title, I know; not even an accurate one as my taste, whilst centred around the music of Bird and Diz, extends in many directions and I listen to everything from King Oliver to Chick Corea and beyond. Not forgetting the Great American Songbook the contents of which has provided the inspiration for much great jazz and quality popular singing for round about a century.
The idea of this blog is for you to share your thoughts and pass on your comments on discs, gigs, jazz - music in general. If you've been to a gig/concert or heard a CD that knocked you sideways please share your views with us. Tell us about your favourites, your memories, your dislikes.
Lance (Who wishes it to be known that he is not responsible for postings other than his own and that he's not always responsible for them.)
Contact: lanceliddle@gmail.com I look forward to hearing from you.

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