First Lady of Jazz Writing

By Louis Barfe

When Val Wilmer emerged as a jazz writer in the 1950s and 1960s, she was a rare creature. She still is. ‘Traditionally, it’s male stamp collectors like me,’ admitted fellow critic and fan Richard Williams in last week’s Sunday Feature (Radio 3, Sundays, 6.45pm), A Portrait of Val Wilmer.

Wilmer was listening to jazz when most of her contemporaries were getting into rock and roll, and sending fan letters to musicians, asking questions about their work. The singer and multi-instrumentalist Jesse Fuller responded in such detail that Wilmer decided she had enough for an article. She wrote it up, sent it to Jazz Journal and, suddenly, aged 17, she was a journalist. As a woman –a white one at that – Wilmer has had men telling her what she could and couldn’t do. Brilliant and bloody-minded, she did it all anyway, becoming one of the world’s most respected, perceptive jazz writers and one
of the best music photographers. As most male writers and photographers have concentrated on one or the other, the cliché about women and multi-tasking seems to hold true with Wilmer.

Williams told the lovely story of being with Wilmer at the Berlin jazz festival, both representing Melody Maker. The Duke Ellington orchestra arrived and all made a beeline for Wilmer, each musician greeting her as a sister. She says she’s avoided complicated questions, let musicians speak and stressed the music’s African-American roots. When Wilmer started, the word ‘black’ in America was an insult, and referring to ‘black music’ caused ructions. Then angrier young musicians reclaimed the term, and Wilmer was in the forefront of using it in print, pointed, political and pioneering. Some writers think they’re the story. Wilmer knows that she’s the recording angel. This is how she’s won the trust of generations of jazzers, and long may she continue to chronicle the music she loves.