In Memoriam: Joseph Jarman

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Joseph Jarman (1937–2019)

(Photo: Angela Lee & Joe Banks/DownBeat Archives)

Multi-instrumentalist Joseph Jarman, best known as a member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago from 1970 to 1993 and again during the early 2000s, died Jan. 9 of cardiac arrest. He had been living at the Lillian Booth Actors Home in Englewood, New Jersey, for several years.

Jarman was born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, on Sept. 14, 1937. He grew up in Chicago and attended DuSable High School, where he studied with Capt. Walter Dyett, one of the city’s most prominent music educators.

In 1955, Jarman dropped out of high school during his junior year and joined the U.S. Army, serving as a paratrooper in the 11th Airborne Division. Long before the United States formally entered Vietnam, he was deployed to Southeast Asia and injured in a raid on a village that resulted in the death of 18 U.S. soldiers. Jarman spent the remainder of his time in the service in West Germany, playing saxophone in his division’s concert band.

Following his discharge from the Army, he returned to Chicago and attended Woodrow Wilson Junior College, where he met Roscoe Mitchell in 1961. Other students at the time included bassist Malachi Favors Maghostut and saxophonists Anthony Braxton and Henry Threadgill. Jarman and the others became charter members of the AACM, their inaugural concert taking place in 1965, as he led a group that included trumpeter Bill Brimfield and saxophonist Fred Anderson.

Jarman recorded two of the earliest albums tied to AACM for the Delmark label, 1967’s Song For—which includes the 14-minute “Non-Cognitive Aspects Of The City,” during which he recites a multi-part poem in between instrumental solos—and 1968’s As If It Were The Seasons.

In 1977, Jarman self-published a book of poetry, Black Case, which contained writings from as far back as 1960. In a 1999 interview with Perfect Sound Forever, he said, “I’ve always been interested in blending all the elements. ... [S]ome even claimed I was the first quote-unquote jazz musician to incorporate what they now call ‘multimedia.’ We were doing performance art as far back as 1965, just not calling it that. ... I’ve found also in other cultures that all of these things are blended in together. Only here, because of the illusion of intellectualism, our society separates the validity of human expression.”

Shortly after the release of As If It Were The Seasons, Jarman joined what then was known as the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble. When the group decamped for Paris in 1969, a promoter attached “of Chicago” to the troupe’s name, and it stuck. Jarman brought theatrical and multimedia elements to the Art Ensemble, wearing robes and face paint onstage, and frequently singing lyrics, reciting poetry or inserting dramatic exhortations into their pieces, countering the professorial Mitchell and the lab-coated Lester Bowie. Jarman was, in some ways, the most political and confrontational member of the AEC; photos exist of him stripping naked in concert.

When he learned that his friend and collaborator had died, Famoudou Don Moye, who joined the Art Ensemble as a percussionist in 1970, called Jarman a “hero, friend, mentor, big brother, colleague, collaborator and co-conspirator” in an email relayed to DownBeat by Pi Recordings’ Seth Rosner.

In 1990, Jarman traveled to Japan, and was ordained as a Shin Buddhist priest. He subsequently founded the Brooklyn Buddhist Association that year with his then-wife, writer Thulani Davis, and established the Jikishinkan Aikido Dojo. In 1993, Jarman chose to retire from music to focus on his priestly duties and running the dojo.

But three years later, Jarman returned to music at the invitation of AACM violinist Leroy Jenkins (1932–2007). Jarman, Jenkins and pianist Myra Melford subsequently formed the trio Equal Interest.

“I studied Aikido and Zen meditation with Joseph Jarman at his dojo in Brooklyn from about 1989 to 1993,” Melford recalled. “I found as I got more deeply into these practices that they had a very beneficial impact on my work as a musician. I had a keener sense of awareness of what was going on around me on the bandstand and how to respond in the moment. I was more calm and alert, and had greater physical endurance for playing high-energy music and a greater sense of how energy was moving within me, and between me and the other players and the audience.

“I also began to feel more spiritually connected in the music, and this in turn brought a new stream of lyricism and simplicity to my playing—something I observed in Joseph’s music, as well. ... I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to study and play with Joseph for many years; the lessons continue to inform my music to this day.”

Jarman delivered an opening invocation for the first 11 years of New York’s Vision Festival and performed on bills in various contexts. Patricia Nicholson-Parker, the festival’s organizer and founder of Arts for Art, said of Jarman’s participation, “It is important how things begin. To always begin things from the most centered and spiritual place, then all that follows will be blessed. And so, the first and every Vision Festival began with an invocation by Joseph Jarman. ... His understanding of the creative imperative, of the music, of performance, and the importance of a spiritual grounding guided us for as long as he was able to do so.”

Jarman rejoined the Art Ensemble in 2003, performing on a pair of studio works, The Meeting and Sirius Calling, as well as Non-Cognitive Aspects Of The City, a live album culled from a series of 2005 New York concerts.

Jarman made his final public appearance in 2017, when the Art Ensemble performed at Columbia University’s Lenfest Center for the Arts. He read a poem and sang, and when he was there, the energy level of the other musicians seemed elevated. Pi’s Rosner recalled, “We were excited and honored to be able to work with him when he returned to the AEC fold. To be able to see the remaining living members once again record and perform together was a dream come true. The October 2017 concert was a beautiful event, and we are grateful to everyone who helped to realize it. It was a fitting tribute to Joseph and a beautiful way to close the book on his live performances and time with the AEC.” DB



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