British photographer Val Wilmer had her earliest work published 50 years ago. She started the first women’s-only photo agency, campaigned for women’s and civil rights, and is one of Britain’s leading experts on jazz and blues. Over the years, Val has taken about a million amazing portraits of some of the world’s greatest musicians relaxing backstage.
These days, if you photograph bands, you have to apply to 12 different minders just to get 40 seconds with a rude prima donna. But back in a magic time called the 70s, as long as you were up for a drink and didn’t cause trouble, you could spend all evening playing cards with Muddy Waters.
COUNT BASIE, HOLLAND, 1977
This is Count Basie in The Hague. He was the father of big-band jazz. I met him several times. They don’t make people like that anymore—he was so hospitable. He was welcoming and relaxed, just took his shirt off and kicked his shoes off, had a smoke.
EDDIE “CLEANHEAD” VINSON, BERLIN, 1974
This is the wonderful Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, from Houston, Texas. He was an alto saxophonist, singer, and bandleader. He occupied that world between blues and modern jazz. He wrote a couple of songs that Charlie Parker and Miles Davis recorded, but he was drenched in the blues. I met him in Berlin at the opening of a fantastic club owned by rich Iranians who would put these guys on and cater to their every whim. We all got bottles of whiskey and champagne. I don’t think the club lasted very long. I asked if I could photograph him shaving his famously clean head, and he said I could but that afterwards I would have to help him. So we took this photo, then he sat on the toilet and I finished the job for him.
ARNETT COBB, LONDON, 1979
Arnett Cobb, here at Alexandra Palace with his daughter, was one of the great Texas tenor players. Texas is the state for tenor players. There were people like Buddy Tate and David “Fathead” Newman and others. Cobb became a star with the Lionel Hampton Band and he was very deceptive, physically. He was on crutches all the time—he had a car accident, but also had some other spinal problem. People would see him coming and think, “Oh, this is a man past his prime,” but they couldn’t be more wrong. He was a real stomper, a forerunner of the rhythm-and-blues thing.
LOUIS ARMSTRONG, LONDON, 1961
A man who should need no introduction: Louis Daniel Armstrong. His moniker, Satchmo, was allegedly a contraction of “satchel mouth”. He was one of the greatest artists jazz has ever seen—a man who was about a lot more than “It’s a Wonderful World”, which I would be perfectly happy to never hear again.
The handkerchief was to keep his hair tidy. He paid a lot of attention to his appearance. He would anoint his lips while playing. He had terrible trouble with them, so he would have a pile of handkerchiefs about a foot and a half high next to him onstage. Once he split his lip and couldn’t play for about a year.