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Roscoe Mitchell Remembers Joseph Jarman

The saxophonist and composer pays tribute to his longtime Art Ensemble of Chicago partner (9/14/37 – 1/9/19)

Joseph Jarman
Joseph Jarman with the Art Ensemble of Chicago at the Detroit Institute of Arts, 1990 (photo: Barbara Barefield)

Beginning this week, JazzTimes will be regularly posting the “Farewells” included in our March 2020 print edition. Each piece features a prominent jazz figure offering his or her recollections of a member of the jazz community who left us during 2019.

I met Joseph Jarman when I returned to Chicago from my tour of duty in the United States Army in 1961. We were both involved in music; we were enrolled together at Wilson Junior College, and on Monday nights we both went to the Muhal Richard Abrams Experimental Band rehearsals. At that time, I felt that Joseph was much further along in the way he was thinking about music than I was. I was fascinated by what he was doing musically, and as a fellow saxophonist, I realized that he had an enormous sound on the instrument, and that got my attention. I absolutely looked to Joseph, among others, for mentorship.

When Christopher Gaddy, the pianist in Joseph’s band at that time, passed away, and then the genius bassist in his band Charles Clark passed away, it was very hard on Joseph. We invited him to play on the session that became Lester Bowie’s album Numbers 1&2, and that’s what led to our working together in the Art Ensemble. It was like going to school every day; whenever we got together it was a learning experience. Joseph brought many of the theatrical aspects to the ensemble, along with his work in spoken word. He was really quite a poet. I took his inspiration with me outside of the Art Ensemble as well: His poem “Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City” gave us the title of an Art Ensemble record, but I also wrote an orchestral setting of it that I premiered in 2003.

It is impossible to separate the musical from the theatrical in Joseph’s case, but it is also impossible to separate that from his deep spirituality. You know that he had the persona of the shaman within the Ensemble; later on in life he became a Buddhist monk and had his own dojo. All of this ran on the same philosophical continuum; he was always a very deep thinker like that. He was also an extremely disciplined man. I remember he wanted to learn how to drive, and he just rented himself a car, went out there every week, and next thing we all knew he had his license just like that. When Joseph set his mind to something he would follow it through, bring it to a conclusion.

I am a very big proponent of long-lasting musical relationships. There were long periods where we didn’t have contact, especially in later years when I was still composing and performing and Joseph was working in his dojo. But whenever we got together after we had been away from each other, it was always like we were picking up where we left off the last time we were together. The last time I saw him in real time was the concert we did in New York in 2017, where we invited him to perform with us; of course, that’s also the last time we made music together. During the last part of his life he was not in the best of shape, and we weren’t able to come together in person, but we continued to stay in communication until the end.


What I will remember most about Joseph is the same thing that I remember about most AACM members: going to his concerts, being inspired, and running home to capture some of that information in my own music. He was a wonderful creative associate to have, and I consider myself very fortunate to have had the time on this journey that we had together.

[as told to Michael J. West]

Read the JazzTimes obituary for Joseph Jarman.