AS SERIOUS AS YOUR LIFE: BOOK REVIEW
What does jazz mean? What does free-jazz mean? Does it have any meaning at all? Is the classification of music just a way to further colonize it? These questions are all essential to “As Serious as Your Life” a book about the free jazz revolution by Val Wilmer.
“As Serious as Your Life” is a powerful Black statement. The book chronicles Black music and the free jazz movement from the 1950s to the late 1970s. Is not just an anthology, it highlights the stories of each artist and animates the music that was so refreshing at the time. It also serves as an ode to Black experimentation and the radicalism that came with it. It is a beautiful summation of a unique time in American culture where the Black experimentalist could be a mainstream figure
The book moves in approximately chronological order through the free jazz scene in the 60s and 70s. Although it does focus on telling the stories of individuals the broader focus of the text is on the story of movement and linking artists together like puzzle pieces. The book talks about the emotions and the creativity present in the scene with an immense amount of spiritual respect. All of the familiar jazz characters you might expect pop up and are discussed at length: A particularly beautiful chapter centers around Sun Ra and his pursuit of the infinite.
It’s not so much that this book teaches us anything new, but it blends the strands and loose ends of our musicians’ lives together perfectly. A common love of music connects the stories of each character. For some musicians, like Sun Ra, music was a force of life on Earth. For others, like John Coltrane, it was the only way to access a higher power. The different motivations behind the music make it all the more incredible that these artists came together to create such a compact scene and vision.
Over and over in story after story, we get to see the dedication that these artists put into their craft. Sometimes jazz is depicted as so free-flowing and creative that the immense amount of practice and sweat that the musicians put in can be forgotten. Often in “As Serious as Your Life” we hear artists talk about the hours and hours they put into composing or practicing. It helps demystify the experimentation of free-jazz and helped me as a reader feel the meticulous effort that went into the curation of this book.
“As Serious as Your Life” is also a book about dealing with failure. I can’t think of a single story in the book that isn’t filled with failure. It explored the lives of artists like Cecil Taylor who were not respected until almost decades into their career, who managed to get by purely through self-belief and understanding that their experimentation was what made them unique.
“As Serious as Your Life” is a spiritual read. If you don’t know much about free jazz or have always found the genre a bit jarring, this book gives you an introduction that will force you to appreciate its beauty.