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Joseph Jarman 1937-2019

joseph jarman

By a coincidence that seems extraordinary, at least to me, Joseph Jarman’s death on Wednesday, at the age of 81, took place two days after a group of London-based artists had performed his 1966 poem-with-music “Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City” to a packed audience at Cafe Oto. Dante Micheaux read Jarman’s words beautifully, sharing the stage with the singer Elaine Michener, Byron Wallen on trumpet, Jason Yarde on saxophones and electronics, Alex Hawkins on piano, Neil Charles on bass and Mark Sanders on drums. It was a surprising and welcome choice in an unbroken two-hour set that also included works by Jeanne Lee, Eric Dolphy, Archie Shepp and Jayne Cortez. (Here is Mike Hobart’s excellent FT review of the gig.)

Jarman, who died in a New Jersey home for actors, spent his last decades as a teacher of Shin Buddhism, having significantly reduced his involvement in musical performance from about 1993 onwards. He’ll be best remembered as a founding member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, which evolved in the mid-’60s out of Roscoe Mitchell’s quartet and Muhal Richard Abrams’ Experimental Band, in both of which he played. This made him an early member of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, now into its sixth decade.

Like many other great musicians — including Gene Ammons, Bo Diddley, Johnny Griffin, Dinah Washington, John Gilmore, Nat King Cole, Richard Davis, Eddie Harris, Freddie Below, Wilbur Ware and Johnny Hartman —  he had been taught at DuSable High, on Chicago’s South Side, by the legendary Captain Walter Dyett, the school’s music instructor from 1935 to 1962. His instrument at that time was the snare drum, which he played in the school band.

He began studying the saxophone and woodwinds while stationed in Germany with the US Army from 1955 to 1958. On returning to Chicago he met Mitchell and Malachi Favors, and his course was set. He became part of a music that absorbed, metabolised and reimagined everything from the country blues to John Cage, breaking down the conventions and creating new approaches. The impact of their arrival in Europe in 1969, together with Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith and others, has yet to be properly assessed.

I was fortunate enough to hear the Art Ensemble on several occasions in what I suppose we think of as their classic incarnation — notably in Central Park’s open-air Wollman Auditorium in 1973, their first New York concert, when they played the epic “People in Sorrow”, and at the Roundhouse in London later in that decade — and on both occasions I had my consciousness rearranged in a very fulfilling way. With their slogan “Great Black Music: Ancient to the Future”, they took ownership of what they were doing with a visionary confidence that continues to exert an influence on new generations.

In her book As Serious As Your Life, Val Wilmer describes Jarman as “poet, philosopher and polemicist as well as musician.” On his last studio recording with the Art Ensemble, Sirius Calling (Pi, 2004), he opened a saxophone-and-drums duet with Don Moye by speaking these words:

Every day is a perfect day

Every moment a perfect moment

Every second a perfect second

We can see complete darkness simply by closing our eyes

We can see complete light by truly opening our eyes

* The photograph of Joseph Jarman is from the cover of his first album, Song For (Delmark, 1967), and was taken by Joe Banks.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. James Allen #

    Lovely tribute to a great musician Richard.
    I too remember the “People in Sorrow” Roundhouse performance.Great music and what a fantastic venue that was back in the day!

    January 12, 2019
  2. Conal #

    I do regret missing seeing the AEC when they were playing on the south bank London back in 1979 or 1980. However I’ve been really enjoying the recent box set release from ECM listening to which is like main lining an injection of psychoactive ancient knowledge and so some comfort for having missed the vital
    Life force. I am sad to read about Joseph Jarman’s passing and will wish him and his family and friends all the best whilst drinking this rather splendid white tea.

    January 12, 2019
  3. Steve Walters #

    Joseph Jarman RIP. The Art Ensemble of Chicago at the Roundhouse, Camden Jazz Festival March 1979, was an epic experience with deep listening and intensity in every note loud or soft. One of the great gigs. And they’re still doing it at that level- Roscoe Mitchell and Don Moye at Cafe Oto in 2017- incredible!

    January 12, 2019
    • Roy Levy #

      I recall an amazingly loose and dirty funk workout at the end of that 1979 gig.

      January 14, 2019
  4. Jonathan Spencer #

    You missed Von Freeman from the list of DuSable alumni. (Well, there are rather a lot of them.) The first time I “saw” Joseph Jarman, he was sitting (with Mitchell, Favors and Moye) in the front row of a benefit gig Vonski was headlining in Hyde Park. By the end of the evening Moye had taken over the drum chair and the non-playing AEC were on their feet cheering with the rest of the audience. A life-changing engagement on the South Side. 1979.

    January 13, 2019
  5. Adam Glasser #

    A pleasure to learn such precious details honouring the life of an extraordinary musician. ‘Consciousness re-arranging’ is indeed the phrase to describe my experience of hearing the Art Ensemble live just once – in Paris c. 1980 – with Joseph Jarman, Lester Bowie, Roscoe Mitchell and Famoudou Don Moye in full regalia dotted on a large stage surrounded by a mass of instruments including two bass saxophones.

    January 18, 2019
  6. Henry wilmsen #

    Want to say thank you for such an extraordinary musician.
    Hearing the AEC on a concert in essen,germany an dito will
    change my music feeling forever

    January 23, 2019

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