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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Thursday, December 07, 2006


Val Wilmer, one of the entrants in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, is 65 today. As it says in her entry (p.709), she "was born in Harrogate, Yorkshire, on the day Pearl Harbor was bombed - December 7, 1941..."

That attack by Japan on the US base brought the US into World War II, but for Europeans it had already been wartime for over two full years. Val Wilmer's family was in Harrogate not because they were Yorkshire folk but because they'd been evacuated from London. They returned there as soon as war was over.

As the Encyclopedia entry continues:

"Wilmer is a photographer and writer particularly interested in jazz and black music, and is the author of the autobiography Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This, an invaluable social document not least for its first-hand reportage of the visits to Britain by American and Caribbean jazz and blues musicians in the 1950s and 1960s, when her mother took in paying guests. Her other books include Jazz People, The Face of Black Music, As Serious As Your Life: John Coltrane and Beyond and (with Paul Trynka) Portrait of the Blues.

Best known for her photographs of musicians, Wilmer’s pioneering exhibition Jazz Seen: The Face of Black Music was held at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum back in 1973. A Wilmer photograph of Dusty Springfield, taken in 1964, is owned by the National Portrait Gallery, she has exhibited internationally and has work in the Musée d’Arte Moderne in Paris. She serves on the advisory panel of the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz and is an authority on the work of Ken Snakehips Johnson.

She photographed Louis Armstrong when she was still at school in 1956, was soon making superior informal portraits (‘Mum takes tea with HERBIE LOVELLE’, 1959, and ‘JESSE FULLER cooks breakfast’, 1960), and began taking photographs at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in Soho, London, in 1960, while also contributing jazz reviews to Melody Maker and jazz journals. She photographed a number of rock stars in the 1960s, including Screaming Jay Hawkins, GEORGE HARRISON and JIMI HENDRIX."

How does she come into the Bob Dylan world? Because she didn't just take photographs of Dylan, she took shots that matter:

"When Bob Dylan telerecorded his last-ever solo concert, namely twelve songs performed specially for BBC Television in London on June 1, 1965 - just two weeks before he began recording the Highway 61 Revisited album - Val Wilmer was the photographer asked to shoot stills for the occasion. And since the BBC saw fit to dump their telerecording of the concert, Wilmer’s photographs are, visually, all that remain."


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