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In this classic account of the new black music of the 1960s and 70s, celebrated photographer and jazz historian Val Wilmer tells the story of how a generation of revolutionary musicians established black music as the true vanguard of American culture. Placing the achievements of African-American artists such as Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Sun Ra in thei In this classic account of the new black music of the 1960s and 70s, celebrated photographer and jazz historian Val Wilmer tells the story of how a generation of revolutionary musicians established black music as the true vanguard of American culture. Placing the achievements of African-American artists such as Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Sun Ra in their broader political and social context, Wilmer evokes an era of extraordinary innovation and experimentation that continues to inspire musicians today. As vital now as when it was first published in 1977, As Serious As Your Life is the essential story of one of the most dynamic musical movements of the twentieth century.


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In this classic account of the new black music of the 1960s and 70s, celebrated photographer and jazz historian Val Wilmer tells the story of how a generation of revolutionary musicians established black music as the true vanguard of American culture. Placing the achievements of African-American artists such as Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Sun Ra in thei In this classic account of the new black music of the 1960s and 70s, celebrated photographer and jazz historian Val Wilmer tells the story of how a generation of revolutionary musicians established black music as the true vanguard of American culture. Placing the achievements of African-American artists such as Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Sun Ra in their broader political and social context, Wilmer evokes an era of extraordinary innovation and experimentation that continues to inspire musicians today. As vital now as when it was first published in 1977, As Serious As Your Life is the essential story of one of the most dynamic musical movements of the twentieth century.

30 review for As Serious As Your Life: Black Music and the Free Jazz Revolution, 1957–1977

  1. 4 out of 5

    Geoff

    The "New Thing" in jazz from the 60's, 70's and beyond has had such an important impact on my life, my personality, my state of being, my worldview, etc.- it was especially very influential on my late-teens, early-twenties self. It is hard for me to describe just how vital it was for me to find improvised music, the energy, freedom, revolutionary creativity it inspired not only in me, but inspired me to see and seek out in the world around me, the fire it lit beneath my feet as a young man. At a The "New Thing" in jazz from the 60's, 70's and beyond has had such an important impact on my life, my personality, my state of being, my worldview, etc.- it was especially very influential on my late-teens, early-twenties self. It is hard for me to describe just how vital it was for me to find improvised music, the energy, freedom, revolutionary creativity it inspired not only in me, but inspired me to see and seek out in the world around me, the fire it lit beneath my feet as a young man. At a certain point it may have actually saved my life, or at least instilled in me again the idea that life can be beautiful, at a point when I really crucially needed that reinforcement. In some ways I owe my present self to people like Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp, countless others that came before and came after in their tradition. In a time when I was questioning the value of life, they showed me how creative expression can be the defining experience of existence, the thing that saves existence from being absolutely valueless. That the act of creativity can be what justifies life itself. This music is still a big part of my life, I have high hopes for this book, which I've known about but neglected to read for some reason...

  2. 5 out of 5

    Declan

    Essential reading for anyone curious about the revolution in jazz which was improvised into being in the 60s and 70s by players like Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler and Rashid Ali. Val Wilmer was there to witness the emergence of this amazing explosion of energy and creativity. She photographed all of the main musicians, she talked to them, she befriended their wives and partners and she wrote about it all as nobody else could. This is a unique and invaluable account of a wonderful time in music hist Essential reading for anyone curious about the revolution in jazz which was improvised into being in the 60s and 70s by players like Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler and Rashid Ali. Val Wilmer was there to witness the emergence of this amazing explosion of energy and creativity. She photographed all of the main musicians, she talked to them, she befriended their wives and partners and she wrote about it all as nobody else could. This is a unique and invaluable account of a wonderful time in music history.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Devin

    An invaluable document of New York (and elsewhere) jazz in the 1960s and 70s! I appreciate how rich the book is with quotes from the musicians themselves, a result of the close personal access the author seems to have enjoyed with them. The two-part structure of the book is also of interest, starting with more or less descriptive celebratory essays on a number of key artists, before moving on to some pretty challenging discussions of the politics of race and gender that prevailed in the scene(s) An invaluable document of New York (and elsewhere) jazz in the 1960s and 70s! I appreciate how rich the book is with quotes from the musicians themselves, a result of the close personal access the author seems to have enjoyed with them. The two-part structure of the book is also of interest, starting with more or less descriptive celebratory essays on a number of key artists, before moving on to some pretty challenging discussions of the politics of race and gender that prevailed in the scene(s), not to mention a critique of a culture of dedication to the music that required musicians to relinquish pretty much anything else of value in their lives, and often face severe poverty as a result. Certainly the music industry didn't help much. The cultural critique reads like an artifact of its time (the 70s) (at times, problematically) and it's almost as though the book needed a third section to synthesize the musical appreciations of the first section with the second section's examination of the culture that produced them. If you have any interest in the set of amazing free jazz pioneers this book covers, you won't be disappointed, and your appreciation of their work will be enriched. I finally get that Cecil Taylor was absolutely the funkiest muthaf---a on the planet.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Jon

    This was a really great book on the evolution of Free Jazz and where it stood in the wider world by the end of the 1970s. Wilmer does a great job of delving deep into a stellar list of musicians, but even more interesting is how she uncovers the lives of these musicians, giving particular attention to the financial and personal struggles of keeping the music going. At first I was disappointed because I wanted to read more specifics about the music, but once I caught onto where Wilmer was going I This was a really great book on the evolution of Free Jazz and where it stood in the wider world by the end of the 1970s. Wilmer does a great job of delving deep into a stellar list of musicians, but even more interesting is how she uncovers the lives of these musicians, giving particular attention to the financial and personal struggles of keeping the music going. At first I was disappointed because I wanted to read more specifics about the music, but once I caught onto where Wilmer was going I was really appreciative of how she uncovered the financial and societal realities of this music.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Samuel Goff

    Bless Val Wilmer and her insightful forays into not only the music, but the lives of the renegades and vanguards who tried to elevate jazz in the 60's and 70's into.........something different. As much as the old jazz heads and keepers of the guard would like to forget this moment in the history of jazz, evolution can obviously only happen with change and these pioneers dared to face poverty, ridicule and misunderstanding to further the beautiful art of jazz. Reading a book DEVOTED to Albert Ayl Bless Val Wilmer and her insightful forays into not only the music, but the lives of the renegades and vanguards who tried to elevate jazz in the 60's and 70's into.........something different. As much as the old jazz heads and keepers of the guard would like to forget this moment in the history of jazz, evolution can obviously only happen with change and these pioneers dared to face poverty, ridicule and misunderstanding to further the beautiful art of jazz. Reading a book DEVOTED to Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Milford Graves, Sonny Murray and others and not glossing over these figureheads in passing is exhilarating. Wilmer delves deep into the music, but also chronicles the repercussions of this art. A lot of these free jazz, avant garde artists were forced to exile to Europe to escape racial tensions and actually make a little bit of money in doing this. Wilmer also examines the family dynamic of these musicians. This music did not make anyone rich so a lot of the time basic means of living were left to the spouses of these musicians. A fascinating history of the inception and evolution of this art form. Highly recommended.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Finlay Miles

    I am once again asking why there are no half stars on this bloody website??? This is a deeply inspiring book providing an overview of the Free Jazz (or, more appropriately: "New Thing") movement in 60s and 70s NY/Chicago that is honestly stunning in its level of breadth, detail and personality. Pretty much every figure on the scene at the time - Sun Ra (a mostly loveable if regrettably misogynistic early pioneer), Rashied Ali (Ra's inverse in all his youthful force of personality), Cecil Taylor ( I am once again asking why there are no half stars on this bloody website??? This is a deeply inspiring book providing an overview of the Free Jazz (or, more appropriately: "New Thing") movement in 60s and 70s NY/Chicago that is honestly stunning in its level of breadth, detail and personality. Pretty much every figure on the scene at the time - Sun Ra (a mostly loveable if regrettably misogynistic early pioneer), Rashied Ali (Ra's inverse in all his youthful force of personality), Cecil Taylor (a kind of elder statesman at that point: a living Bach of the free music) etcetcetc - is quoted at great length throughout, and though it is unfortunate that Coltrane, Dolphy, and Ayler tragically died before Wilmer could record their thoughts for this, the space it leaves for other younger, less exhaustively analysed musicians to speak gives the book a fresh and unique quality of insight that has endured to this day. Every chapter has clearly been written with a deep (and wholly understandable) love for the music and the people making it up, but this does not mean her overview degenerates into a tired reification of the artists in question; rather, the socio-politics underlying the music, its formation and its practice are positioned as integral to understanding it, and the shockingly high cost that its performers incur by working with such transgressive and forward-thinking musical ideas within a profit-driven and white-owned industry. A strong socialist and feminist perspective is central to Wilmer's writing style, and indeed it is hard for you not to take that perspective while reading about the conditions of the jazz artist, let alonee the avant-garde jazz artist. Even if it must be said that, when justified, Wilmer treats record companies with a fair hand, it is hard not to be equally as angry as her upon reading that perhaps America's most important and talented composer of its only major cultural heritage, Ornette Coleman, was forced to fly to London to record a new orchestral work when the record company he was tied to refused to use its in-house Orchestra without a steep fee higher than the advance for the album. It's anecdotes and descriptions like these, as well as numerous other, less depressing stories (BYG's '69 concert where Frank Zappa sat in with Shepp and co sounds just incredible, as do all of Ayler's early performances and fashion choices lmao), that bely the incredible perspective Wilmer offers here. Even as a white woman writing about a fundamentally black art form, her level of respect, devotion and knowledge is just incredible - it's pretty clear that this is THE definitive biography of the free jazz revolution. My few gripes mainly concern the structure, which felt to me excessively formulaic and slightly tiring: artist summary, artist biography, artist legacy, repeat; followed by clearly delineated sections on other elements of the movement. While at the level of the sentence Wilmer is an engaging and more-than-serviceable writer who brings to life the scene in ways more poetic than my upholding of her knowledge may suggest, the structure of this work is more useful from an academic, referencing-focused perspective than it is readable and inspiring. This is rather disappointing when considering the subject of this book is concerned primarily with the eschewal of confining and formulaic structures, although far from a fatal flaw. I was also a bit bemused by her shitting on 70s Miles Davis, insinuating Bitches Brew, In A Silent Way, and even presumably On The Corner demonstrated him becoming a "slick sell-out" - if I wanted to sell out, I'm not sure Karlheinz Stockhausen and African tribal rhythms would be my first point of reference. I've rambled poorly about this book for way too long, so I'll end here by reaffirming that despite what problems I have with the book, it still remains an absolutely remarkable window into one of the most fruitful movements in recorded (in both senses) history: a rich and nuanced survey of a staggering collective musical epiphany: absolutely essential.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Tim Niland

    As Serious as Your Life is one of the few books to chronicle the “New Thing” in jazz, free jazz that developed in the 1960’s and continued into the Loft Scene of the 1970’s. British writer Wilmer focuses on American musicians, primarily in the New York City region, and succeeds in putting together a portrait of the musicians and the scene that is extremely valuable. The first part of the book is made up of portraits of some of the leading lights of the scene, both living and dead. John Coltrane, As Serious as Your Life is one of the few books to chronicle the “New Thing” in jazz, free jazz that developed in the 1960’s and continued into the Loft Scene of the 1970’s. British writer Wilmer focuses on American musicians, primarily in the New York City region, and succeeds in putting together a portrait of the musicians and the scene that is extremely valuable. The first part of the book is made up of portraits of some of the leading lights of the scene, both living and dead. John Coltrane, the guiding light for many of the musicians mentioned here is profiled not only for the progressive nature of his music, but for the positive and mentoring effect he had on other musicians. Sun Ra and Albert Ayler are portrayed as enigmas, the former due to his DIY approach to the music and the record industry and the latter due to his radical sound and ever changing nature. She also moves beyond strict biographies of the musicians into looking at the social and philosophical nature of the musicians and how this affects their creativity, the women who live with them (this was an almost completely male dominated scene) and the politics and issues of race that are ever-present in jazz and improvised music, especially during this period where predominantly African-American musicians were attempting to break free from traditional means of disseminating music and building audiences and developing a more DIV aesthetic. This was an excellent book, very highly recommended to jazz fans, and sits well with Arthur Taylor’s Notes and Notes and A.B. Spellman’s Four Lives in the Bebop Business as a thoughtful and blinder-free look into the trials and tribulations of musicians trying to create original music during the 1960’s and 1970’s

  8. 5 out of 5

    Fernando Pestana da Costa

    First published in 1977, this book by the British writer and photographer Valerie Sybil Wilmer is a classic about (as the subtitle states) the Free Jazz revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Divided into five parts, about diverse aspects of the free jazz scene, it provides a very good panoramic about it in its several dimensions: from fulls chapters about the life of some of its most important musicians (Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Ornette, Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, and the AACM) to shorter references to o First published in 1977, this book by the British writer and photographer Valerie Sybil Wilmer is a classic about (as the subtitle states) the Free Jazz revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Divided into five parts, about diverse aspects of the free jazz scene, it provides a very good panoramic about it in its several dimensions: from fulls chapters about the life of some of its most important musicians (Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Ornette, Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, and the AACM) to shorter references to others, less prominent but also very relevant ones, like the drummers studied in two chapters (Rashid Ali, Andrew Cyrille, Ed Blackwell, Elvin Jones, Sunny Murray,...), or jazzmen like Bill Dixon, Jimmy Lions, Frank Lowe, Marion Brown, and many, many others. Some other aspects, maybe surprising at first, like two chapters about the role of women in free jazz, both as supporters and companions of their jazzmen husbands, and as musicians themselves and what they had to battle against the resistance of male jazzmen. Other chapters, such as one about the politics of recording, are also very enlightening. An appendix with more than 160 biographical vignettes of jazzmen relevant to free jazz is also an extremely useful resource. In short: this is a very good, very readable book that everyone interested in jazz (in any style of jazz!) has to read and, after reading it once, they will almost surely return to it from time to time. A true classic!

  9. 4 out of 5

    Keith Carpenter

    An excellent accounting of the rise of avant-garde jazz since John Coltrane. My only quibble is that I wish there was a comprehensive discography. Wilmer discusses dozens of innovative musicians and does mention their recordings in the body of the text, but this is not codified as an appendix. However, that's a minor quibble. The music is artfully discussed and critiqued despite Ms. Wilmer's lack of technical musical knowledge. I will happily read good writing over technical writing any day. A n An excellent accounting of the rise of avant-garde jazz since John Coltrane. My only quibble is that I wish there was a comprehensive discography. Wilmer discusses dozens of innovative musicians and does mention their recordings in the body of the text, but this is not codified as an appendix. However, that's a minor quibble. The music is artfully discussed and critiqued despite Ms. Wilmer's lack of technical musical knowledge. I will happily read good writing over technical writing any day. A nice touch in the appendixes is the inclusion of short bios of the major figures mentioned in the text. Nota bene: I read the 1977 edition and not the more recent editions. This book is considered a classic in jazz criticism and I would be shocked if more recent editions haven't addressed the discography issue. However, I don't know for certain that this oversight has been corrected.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Jill Flanagan

    A fascinating but frustrating book perhaps because I wanted it to do something different than what it was doing... While there is valuable information about a lot of pioneering free jazz musicians this is more of a sociological history of the new music movement than fleshing out any of the specific artist's biographies. That being said there's a great wealth of fascinating anecdotes here, one of my favorites was reading about Cecil Taylor trying to play at a jam session in the 1950s and as soon A fascinating but frustrating book perhaps because I wanted it to do something different than what it was doing... While there is valuable information about a lot of pioneering free jazz musicians this is more of a sociological history of the new music movement than fleshing out any of the specific artist's biographies. That being said there's a great wealth of fascinating anecdotes here, one of my favorites was reading about Cecil Taylor trying to play at a jam session in the 1950s and as soon as he would show up all the other musicians would leave because they didn't understand the way that he was playing.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Adam Mills

    A terrific account of one of the most exciting and revolutionary periods in musical history, the so called free jazz movement from 1957 to 1977. A lot of biographical details of the leading figures of the time such as John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp are included in the context of the political and social climate of the time. It highlights the absolute single mindedness and belief in the music of the practitioners and this is evident in the available recordings. The A terrific account of one of the most exciting and revolutionary periods in musical history, the so called free jazz movement from 1957 to 1977. A lot of biographical details of the leading figures of the time such as John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp are included in the context of the political and social climate of the time. It highlights the absolute single mindedness and belief in the music of the practitioners and this is evident in the available recordings. The author who is also a photographer has also included some wonderful pictures.

  12. 5 out of 5

    dimwig

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. takeaways: it's hard out there for a free jazz musician john coltrane is some kind of a saint milford graves is cool too mixed feelings about taking the music out of its orig context into schools & europe in order to survive it's v v hard out there for a free jazz musician it is serious business and there is nothing more worthwhile takeaways: it's hard out there for a free jazz musician john coltrane is some kind of a saint milford graves is cool too mixed feelings about taking the music out of its orig context into schools & europe in order to survive it's v v hard out there for a free jazz musician it is serious business and there is nothing more worthwhile

  13. 5 out of 5

    Robert

    Maybe the best music writing I've read, and I've read a lot as can be seen here. Interestingly, the "John Coltrane and beyond" is not the title of the original text. Clearly a marketing ploy. There is a lot of Coltrane in here but the more minor figures of the free jazz school were actually considerably superior to the writing on Coltrane. Maybe the best music writing I've read, and I've read a lot as can be seen here. Interestingly, the "John Coltrane and beyond" is not the title of the original text. Clearly a marketing ploy. There is a lot of Coltrane in here but the more minor figures of the free jazz school were actually considerably superior to the writing on Coltrane.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Butch Lazorchak

    Pretty good. Covers in detail lots of people who don't generally get coverage of drummer Ed Blackwell and drummer Milford Graves. Having just seen the graves documentary I was pleased that his portrayal was consistent in this book. Great look at what it was really like to be a free-jazz musician in the 60's/70's (spoiler: it was hard!) Pretty good. Covers in detail lots of people who don't generally get coverage of drummer Ed Blackwell and drummer Milford Graves. Having just seen the graves documentary I was pleased that his portrayal was consistent in this book. Great look at what it was really like to be a free-jazz musician in the 60's/70's (spoiler: it was hard!)

  15. 5 out of 5

    Patrick

    I first read this 25 years ago or so when I was initially checking out free jazz. I took in a lot more this time around now that I have much more familiarity with the music and the players. This is a classic.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Sam T. Frost

    “There may be little first-rate writing on jazz, but few art forms have been better served by photographers.”

  17. 5 out of 5

    James Carroll

    Great reportage, but a little light on analysis. This is still a classic work that anyone interested in 60s jazz should read.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Davyd

    It's good in that it has and gives more than it lacks. I wanted even more "information, information, information", but that's wanting too much of a book which aimed to be primarily a work of advocacy and cultural diplomacy -- and thus a book hesitant about exposing even what it attempted to expose. The sections on the drummers were the most informative, and the section about the role of women was important. I can't imagine this kind of protocolish writing seducing any outsiders, but still I'd fa It's good in that it has and gives more than it lacks. I wanted even more "information, information, information", but that's wanting too much of a book which aimed to be primarily a work of advocacy and cultural diplomacy -- and thus a book hesitant about exposing even what it attempted to expose. The sections on the drummers were the most informative, and the section about the role of women was important. I can't imagine this kind of protocolish writing seducing any outsiders, but still I'd favour it over any latter-day slickly written connoisseurship by anyone who wasn't there.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Alex

    This is one of the very best books about music that I've ever read. Wilmer provides a nice overview of free jazz, the roll of women, politics around free jazz and biographies and intimate thoughts of several of the musicians involved. Of particular note are chapters on the under appreciated Cecil Taylor (one of the great, largely unsung geniuses of 20th century music) and Albert Ayler. Great jazz photography from Wilmer to accompany her stellar writing. A must read for anyone interested in "the This is one of the very best books about music that I've ever read. Wilmer provides a nice overview of free jazz, the roll of women, politics around free jazz and biographies and intimate thoughts of several of the musicians involved. Of particular note are chapters on the under appreciated Cecil Taylor (one of the great, largely unsung geniuses of 20th century music) and Albert Ayler. Great jazz photography from Wilmer to accompany her stellar writing. A must read for anyone interested in "the new music". Though written in the mid-70s, it does not feel dated at all.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Soshull Burris

    The best book ever written on American free jazz (and, truthfully, there ain't many of 'em out there). Essential for anyone even remotely interested in improvisational music. I've read this book at least 5 or 6 times from cover to cover. I re-read bits and pieces of it a few times every year. The best book ever written on American free jazz (and, truthfully, there ain't many of 'em out there). Essential for anyone even remotely interested in improvisational music. I've read this book at least 5 or 6 times from cover to cover. I re-read bits and pieces of it a few times every year.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Carlo Keshishian

    Very informative account of the 'new music' movement, and interesting in terms of it being written not long after the time. Very informative account of the 'new music' movement, and interesting in terms of it being written not long after the time.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Megan

    Very cool book, especially helpful when researching Trane. Valerie Wilmer knows a lot of cool stuff. No doubt.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Michael Fleegler

    Following the thread from the civil rights movement to innovations in the African American music of its day. Masterful!

  24. 4 out of 5

    Sam

    A lot of really choice quotes about how commitment to any sort of ideals is destroyed by the marketplace, plus it's about a lot of obscure jazz musicians of whom I'm sure you've never heard. A lot of really choice quotes about how commitment to any sort of ideals is destroyed by the marketplace, plus it's about a lot of obscure jazz musicians of whom I'm sure you've never heard.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Simon Henderson

  26. 5 out of 5

    Brent

  27. 5 out of 5

    Jason Sheehy

  28. 5 out of 5

    Sean

  29. 4 out of 5

    Adam Jones

  30. 4 out of 5

    Cooch

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