Joseph Jarman 1937-2019

The Art Ensemble of Chicago’s resident shaman was also a poet, Buddhist priest, and aikido instructor

Joseph Jarman
Joseph Jarman

Joseph Jarman, a saxophonist, multi-reedist, percussionist, poet, and composer who was a charter member of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and a staple of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, died Wednesday, Jan. 9, at the Lillian Booth Actors Home in Englewood Cliffs, N.J. He was 81.

His death was announced by his friend and AACM colleague Douglas R. Ewart, and confirmed by his former wife, Thulani Davis, and in a statement on the website of the AACM’s New York chapter. The cause of death was cardiac arrest and respiratory failure.

As a member of the Art Ensemble from 1968 until his retirement in 1993, Jarman played a crucial role in expanding both the sonic and visual palettes of jazz, outfitting himself on stage with face paint and elaborate costumes and performing dances that evoked a collision between the rituals of precolonial Africa and the modern Westernized world. With their similarly omnivorous music and memorable motto “Great Black Music, ancient to the future,” the Art Ensemble became the flagship of the AACM.

Jarman was also a bandleader in his own right. He led his own quintet prior to joining the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and recorded semi-regularly throughout the 1970s and ’80s, especially with AEC drummer Famoudou Don Moye. His music trod similarly open and colorful paths to his work with the Art Ensemble.

“I’ve always been interested in blending all the elements, and people were saying it was unique or unusual, and some even claimed I was the first quote-unquote jazz musician to incorporate what they now call ‘multimedia,’” Jarman said in a 1999 interview with the online magazine Perfect Sound Forever. “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.”

Born in Pine Bluff, Ark., on Sept. 14, 1937, Joseph Jarman grew up on Chicago’s North Side, though he attended the South Side’s DuSable High School and played drums in the school’s concert band. He dropped out of high school to join the army in 1955, joining the 11th Airborne Division (stationed in Germany) and playing in its band. While in Germany, Jarman switched to saxophone and clarinet and began studying jazz recordings.

After his discharge in 1958, Jarman returned to Chicago and enrolled at Wilson Junior College, where he met saxophonists Anthony Braxton and Henry Threadgill as well as two future Art Ensemble colleagues, saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell and bassist Malachi Favors. With Mitchell and Favors, Jarman in 1961 joined the Experimental Band led by Mitchell’s friend Richard Abrams. The Experimental Band formed the core of what in 1965 became the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.

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In keeping with the AACM’s dictum of original music that emphasized improvisation and new creative outlets, Jarman began in 1967 to perform as an unaccompanied soloist. He also formed a quintet featuring saxophonist Fred Anderson, pianist Christopher Gaddy, bassist Charles Clark, and drummer Thurman Barker. The band recorded one album, 1966’s Song For, before Gaddy’s untimely death in 1968; that same year, Jarman used the remaining members for As If It Were the Seasons, after which Clark, too, passed away and Jarman dissolved the band.

Seeing his friend’s subsequent depression and creative uncertainty, Mitchell invited Jarman to join what was then called the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble, soon to be renamed the Art Ensemble of Chicago to highlight the band’s cooperative nature. Along with Mitchell, Favors, Moye, and trumpeter Lester Bowie, Jarman quickly became an integral part of the group. For its overtly theatrical performances, he painted his face, wore exotic hats, and often appeared shirtless (and in some instances completely nude).

“I was sort of the shamanistic image coming from various cultures,” he later explained. “What we were doing with that face painting was representing everyone throughout the universe, and that was expressed in the music as well. That’s why the music was so interesting. It wasn’t limited to Western instruments, African instruments, or Asian instruments, or South American instruments, or anybody’s instruments. If we needed a sound, we’d put a leather chair on stage and scratch it, if that was the only way to get the sound.”

The band relocated to Paris in 1969, returning to Chicago before Jarman moved to New York in 1982. He continued as a member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, however, until his retirement in 1993 to focus on his work as a Buddhist priest (which he was ordained in 1990); he also taught aikido in Brooklyn. In 1996 he came out of retirement to work in a trio, Equal Interest, with violinist Leroy Jenkins and pianist Myra Melford.

In 2003 he rejoined the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and he can be heard on their recording of that year, The Meeting, and two subsequent albums, Sirius Calling and Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City. But he appeared only sporadically with them in ensuing years as his health deteriorated. He had surgery to remove a massive blood clot in his brain in 2011, further curtailing his performances—although in 2017 he made a final appearance at the group’s 50th anniversary concert at Columbia University’s Lenfest Center for the Arts in New York.

Jarman is survived by his ex-wife; two sons, Joseph Jarman Jr. and Jeffrey Jarman; one daughter, Calypso Jarman; and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.