On hot and sticky nights when I’m struggling to sleep I’ll often find myself seeking out familiar company – there are several books which are never far from my nightstand, unless I’ve loaned them benevolently to a friend who’s told me they’re curious to learn more about jazz, or by force to one who insists that they hate it.
Val Wilmer’s As Serious As Your Life, first published in 1977 and reprinted many times since, is a book I return to often for reference and usually discover something new each time, both in Wilmer’s prose and her stark photography.
It chronicles the rise and development of ‘new jazz’ throughout its most dynamic period, 1960 to the mid-’70s, profiling significant figures like John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Pharoah Sanders. It unravels the meaning of their music in its social and political context while giving a sense of the struggles they faced in pioneering a sound which was so outside of the mainstream.
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Though they may be considered present-day household names, their vanguard approach to music kept them on the peripheries of popular culture to a large extent during their lifetimes. Wilmer writes with reverence and candour about the artists’ struggles with money, envy and lack of recognition. She is herself a fascinating figure in the jazz world, having photographed and written about these musicians since she was 17, and she has an effortless way of untangling even the most convoluted aspects of the avant-garde.
Another book I often reach for and recommend is Art Pepper’s extraordinary autobiography, Straight Life; a dark, daunting and at times excruciatingly intimate oral history of one of the world’s greatest alto saxophonists, transcribed from recordings of Pepper recounting his life story along with perspectives from his family and fellow musicians.
His talent and aspiration are compromised and diverted at every turn by drug addiction, compulsive destructive behaviour, sexual depravity, stints in prison and the impact of a hostile, chaotic upbringing on his sense of self-worth. It’s something that no amount of fame or accomplishment seems able to defeat.