In early 2013, I was dodging about trying to raise money (and interest) for a documentary on Tubby Hayes, that I was about to embark on, when I find myself walking past Ronnie Scott’s in Frith Street, Soho. It was at that moment, undergoing a renovation. They had placed an enormous tarpaulin over the scaffolding at the front of the club, on which was printed a huge photo of Ronnie Scott himself, smoking a fag, along with the caption ‘I love this place, it’s just like home. Filthy and full strangers.’

I smiled as I passed it and then noticed a woman talking to someone and pointing at the photo. Somehow, I recognised her and without thinking, blurted out – ‘s’cuse me, are you Val Wilmer?’ She looked at me smiling kindly and asked who I was? I could feel myself going red, explaining that she wouldn’t know me, but I knew her for her fantastic jazz photographs. I quickly told her about my film on Tubby and she told me to call her, as she had plenty of images, that she would let me have at a decent price. She told me she didn’t do emails or use a mobile phone, so it was a landline or nothing, so I quickly scribbled her number down.

A few days later, I was in her home in Stoke Newington and we had struck a deal for using some of her photos of Tubby, who she knew well. Over a cup of coffee, she then told me parts of her fascinating life story, which is todays Speakeasy blog.

She was born Valerie Sybil Wilmer in Harrogate, Yorkshire, whilst up there with the family, including her brother Clive, later a well-known poet,  escaping London during the ravages of the Second World War. Once the hostilities were over, the family returned to South London. 

Val gradually developed a great love for jazz and blues music from the age of 12 and began collecting records from the Swing Shop in Streatham. Her favourite artists of the time were the likes of Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong. Aged 15 she began to also write to the musicians she collected.

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.’

At a very tender age, she also found herself in all sorts of jazz clubs and bars, often accompanied by her mum, Sybil who kept a watchful eye on her.

Val – ‘ (it’s a) tribute to mother’s tolerance, as 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 and being and doing.’

She had her first feature published on her new pen pal Jesse Fuller in the Jazz Journal in 1959, then aged just 17. Early on in her chosen field, Val soon came up against all sorts of prejudice, not only for wanting to be a woman writer but also for ‘fraternising’ with black people and celebrating their culture. 

However, the valuable insight she gradually picked in that way of life, meant she was then chosen to interview many of the stars who were over in the UK, such as Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, Albert Aylmer and Joe Harriott. Alongside writing feature pieces, Val also studied photography at the Regent Street Polytechnic.

Here’s an example of Val’s writing from 1965.

‘For the last 10 years or so, Monk’s music has become easier to listen to, though it is not necessarily any simpler. What he is doing is as engaging and profound as ever, though seeming to be less provocative than when he was upsetting rules.’

Her writing, and now photography, found a home early on in the likes of  Down Beat magazine and The Melody Maker. In more recent years, she’s written for  Mojo, Crescendo, and The Wire and regularly contributed obituaries for the Guardian newspaper.

Her books include Jazz People from 1970, featuring interviews with the likes of Art Farmer, Clark Terry, Big Joe Turner, Jimmy Heath, Archie Shepp and Cecil Taylor. Her photobook The Face of Black Music was published in 1976. 

The Village Voice said of As Serious as Your Life which she published in 1977 – ‘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.’

Then there is Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This from1989, which Val kindly gave me a copy of when I visited her. In it, she looks back at the life, career and her coming out as a lesbian.

Much of her celebrated photography, has found a home in galleries and exhibitions around the world, including the Victoria and Albert Museum, The National Portrait Gallery, the Musée d’Arte Moderne in Paris and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC and in 1983, she co-founded, with Maggie Murray, ‘Format,’ the first all women photo agency in the UK. Her photographic work has been described as ‘full of warmth and immediacy; and her subjects include the likes of John Coltrane, Duke Ellington and Langston Hughes. 

In 2009, Val was awarded a Parliamentary Jazz Award for Service to Jazz.

Last word to Val – ‘Black music is, with the cinema, the most important art form of this century. In terms of influence, there’s scarcely anyone untouched by it.’


The Mumper of SE5



THE SPEAKEASY Volume Two by Mark Baxter (The Mumper)

Illustrations by Lewis Wharton

Foreword by Rhoda Dakar

Available to ORDER here



Further styles added to the SALE



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