Main content

A Portrait of Val Wilmer

Jazz writer, social historian, acclaimed photographer - over six decades, Val Wilmer has become a world figure in the history of African-American musical culture. What drives her?

Jazz writer, social historian, acclaimed photographer: over six decades, Val Wilmer has become "a world figure in the history of African-American musical culture". What drives her?

In 1956, Valerie Wilmer - aged 14 - took a snap at London Airport of a grinning Louis Armstrong. Thus began a remarkable career that has brought her close up to almost every significant figure in post-war jazz, blues and R&B.

Her books, articles and photographs delve deep into the minds, lives and politics of jazz's most famous exponents - John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus - as well as countless unrecognised men and women who have shaped African-American culture since the 1950s.

How does she reveal the intimate humanity of her subjects? How, "as a white woman, as an English woman!", has she gained such trust and respect? What makes her "a world figure" in the history of Black music?

Val Wilmer is a woman with remarkable stories to tell. Here, for BBC Radio 3, she brings her encounters and recollections vividly to life... and shares her strong views on racism, feminism, and responsible journalism.

Includes contributions from Margaret Busby (publisher and co-founder of Allison & Busby), Paul Gilroy (writer and academic), Richard Williams (journalist and biographer), Andrew Cyrille (musician and drummer), and Clive Wilmer (poet, and brother of Val).

Producer: Steve Urquhart
A Falling Tree production for BBC Radio 3.

Available now

45 minutes


Featured in...

Six Secret Smuggled Books

Six classic works of literature we wouldn't have read if they hadn't been smuggled...


Seven images inspired by the grid

World Music collector, Sir David Attenborough

The field recordings Attenborough of music performances around the world.

Attenborough's field recordings

The unlikely music performances captured while searching for exotic animals to film.