The Art Ensemble Of Chicago frontman died on 9 January. Howard Mandel recalls several encounters with the musician, and a gig cancellation that had him dodging the collective for several years
Joseph Jarman, who died January 9 at the age of 81, may be lesser known than his fellow Art Ensemble Of Chicago frontmen Lester Bowie and Roscoe Mitchell, but not because he was not as vivid or powerful a musician. Wearing face paint as a transforming mask, wielding a feathered whisk with which he conducted each AEC performance's start, and a master saxophonist as well as percussionist, poet and dramaturge, Jarman had been irreplaceable as a member of the most prominent band to come from the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in the late 1960s. He earned a reputation apart from them for his own recordings and artistic/spiritual journey. If his position and influence in creative music has been obscured, it was due to his relative inactivity since his 2011 health crisis, which resulted in some brain damage. Sadly ironic, since Joseph Jarman was arguably the most literary, critically incisive and culturally engaged of his peers.
Jarman’s album Song For, the second by an AACM member to be released in 1966 – following Mitchell's Sound – was a powerful and penetrating programme. Although equally representative of the Chicago avant gardists' reverence for and breakaway from the exhaustive blowing sessions favoured by New York City's then avant garde (John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor and Sun Ra, among others), Song For was not as abstract or formally innovative as Sound. Rather than a sound collage with extreme dynamic shifts, it featured fearsome melodies realised by Jarman on alto sax, Fred Anderson on tenor, Billy Brimfield on trumpet, pianist Christopher Gaddy and bassist Charles Clark over thunderous drumming by Steve McCall and a layer of textured, pitched percussion by Thurman Barker.
That band was Anderson's, lent to Jarman, but he imposed himself on it proudly. His scathing recitation of "Non-cognitive Aspects Of The City" is significant as an early spoken word track, indebted to Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka's "Black Dada Nihilismus" on The New York Art Quartet's eponymous 1964 ESP-Disk’. To a backdrop of little bells, sparse cymbals and inside-the-piano pluckings, Jarman refers to "Roy J" before speaking imagistically of "intellectual dada" and "the hip plea for 'see me, see me, i exist'". His sardonic sense of humour rears up in The Art Ensemble's BYG/Actuel recording "A Jackson in Your House", and informs Fontella Bass's singing on "How Strange/Ole Jed (Fell Into The Well)".
The Art Ensemble repertoire he's credited with composing, including “Dreaming Of The Masters”; “597-59” and “Old Time Southside Street Dance” as heard in ECM's recently released 21 CD boxed set The Art Enemble Of Chicago And Associated Ensembles, are pointedly propulsive. His soprano and sopranino playing, in particular, is ferocious – his fingers really did fly. Jarman's fervour was a perfect complement to Roscoe Mitchell's dryer, probing efforts, and the golden tone and smears Lester Bowie performed on brass. He expanded on his unique connection with Famadou Don Moyé, The Art Ensemble's drummer, recording as a duo and also with pianists Don Pullen and Geri Allen, and bassists Johnny Dyani and Fred Hopkins. Jarman's style is clearly distinct from Anthony Braxton's on their unique duet album Together Alone. He is somewhat less garrulous making music with AACM violinist Leroy Jenkins and pianist Myra Melford on Equal Interest, but as usual intently focused on group interaction, so listeners may be forgiven for being mystified by or ignoring precisely who is doing what.
In 1993, Jarman left The Art Ensemble to open a dojo for study of Shinshu Buddhism and martial arts in Brooklyn. His lyrics pivoted to humanist visions and koans. In later years he opened the annual Vision Festival in Brooklyn with an incantation.Yet his approach to saxophones, flutes, percussion and composition changed very little, allowing his return to The Art Ensemble in 2003 to seem as if he'd merely taken a sabbatical.
I had a long personal relationship with Jarman. As a teenager intoxicated by Song For, I sought out his late 60s performances at sites around the University of Chicago. In one of the most ignominious episodes of youth, I booked The Joseph Jarman Quartet for a Saturday night performance at my suburban high school under the auspices of our literary magazine. When on Friday no tickets had been sold, the faculty advisor instructed me to call the musicians and cancel the show.
Lester Bowie answered the phone. "Howard, we're rehearsing your music," he said of the background noise. "Lester, we have to cancel," I croaked. He hung up, and I spent the next several years trying to be invisible when at the AACM concerts I was mad for.
But Jarman didn't hold that against me. In 1980 he came to my bacchanalian birthday party and pulled me aside to enthuse about my collection of R&B and soul LPs. In 2000 he deigned to play solo to open my reading of my just published Future Jazz At Chicago's Jazz Record Mart (I'd clerked there; the JRM was the retail outlet of Delmark Records, which issued the initial AACM recordings). He was 13 years my senior, our backgrounds and personalities very dissimilar, but we had several close friends in common whom we'd come to via unrelated paths. Today I have three framed posters from his 1960s concerts hung in my dining room.
My last encounter with Joseph Jarman, at a show at Brooklyn's Shapeshifter Lab around 2013 with a group of his dojo students including saxophonist Jessica Jones, was sad. He played alto, intoned poems, but the 2011 blood clot in his brain had obviously robbed him of some of his faculties. Passing near the bar, his ex-wife Thulani Davis took his arm. "It's Howard, you remember him," she coached. He glanced at me without recognition.
No matter – Jarman's art had stamped me forever. Indeed, the AACM philosophy to which he contributed of unfettered individualistic originality aligned with collective or community concerns has been an invaluable guide, for several generations of performing composer-improvisors and artists outside music too. I've never stopped listening to Joseph Jarman. If you haven't heard him, perhaps you should.