rest in power art ensemble of chicago’s joseph jarman

January 11, 2019
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Where all lives are remembered by biographical facts, the greatest existences leave behind evidence that make more sense as feelings than verifiable footnotes. Their spirits don’t just float on — they guide. So while it’s undoubtedly true that the popular memory of Joseph Jarman, founding member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago who died on January 9th at the age of 81, will be that of a gifted, long-standing musician from a deeply influential jazz group, the grander and more emotionally attuned truth is that he was an elder, one helped reimagine exactly what people mean by creative reality in the 20th century, and the role that Black American creatives play in shaping it. An early member of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), Jarman wasn’t just a Hall of Fame player, he was involved in changing the whole game.

The historical narrative may be pretty familiar, to a point. Born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas and raised in Chicago, Jarman began to play saxophone and clarinet while in the Army. Upon his discharge in 1958, Jarman took up with future Art Ensemble colleagues, bassist Malachi Favors and saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, and a group of musicians led by the pianist/composer Muhal Richard Abrams.

In the early ‘60s, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman’s radical improvisational ideas were already stirring jazz aesthetics into a new space. But it was Muhal’s set of rules for the band — specifically, that all the musicians contribute original work, which in 1965 became one of the AACM charter’s founding tenets — that steered the musicians into open creative waters. Like many AACM members, Jarman practiced numerous creative expressions — poetry and painting; and soon, experimental theatre and dance — guided by the organization’s focus on fresh work. And in the latter half of the 1960s, AACM was Chicago’s musical contribution to the nationwide Black Arts Movement.

Yet Jarman’s creative and spiritual growth only blossomed from there. In 1969, following the footsteps of numerous great 20th century Black American minds, the recently formed Art Ensemble of Chicago moved to Paris. Jarman, Favors, and Mitchell, now with trumpeter Lester Bowie, and joined in Paris by drummer Famoudou Don Moye, coalesced into a powerful quintet, commanding musical virtuosity and historically informed ideas. (Their immortal slogan: “Ancient to the Future”). Living together commune-style, they developed a collective performative music approach that embodied absolute freedom and imagination, mixing sonic modernity with an ethnographic embrace of the Black diaspora and beyond.

In a 1987 interview, Jarman described the Art Ensemble’s collective flowering:

“In Paris, there was not only a wide development in the music, but more exposure to Theatre and Dance and all of these kinds of forms. We were exposed to, you may say, World Music Culture, more so than we had been in Chicago, meeting African musicians, meeting musicians from the Far East, meeting musicians from everywhere, and associating with them, and discovering the wonderfulness of the forms they had to offer. And we began to incorporate many of these elements into our work.

“During those days we were having every experience together possible, in order to get on a deeper level of what the music is about. Because there is a feeling that the music is more than what’s on the page, or even more than words. It’s an experience. And it’s from this kind of knowing that we were able, even in the beginning, to reach areas of music that had not been reached before, as far as we had known. Because we were trying to go deep-deep within, and find the elements there, and try to pull them out in a collective way. A lot of individuals have been able to do this, but for a commitment to be made for a collective expression broadens the musical scope. And this is what we were after.”

More than maybe any other member, Jarman explored potential modes of expression, pushing boundaries. Bringing together his polemical nature and his theatricality, Jarman began the Art Ensemble’s practice of ceremonially painting themselves and dressing up in costumes and masks (barring the performance he gave wearing nothing but a saxophone sling); and of utilizing voices in barks and screams to engage with ancestral spirits. His playing informed by an air of irony and knowingness, Jarman stewarded Art Ensemble concerts towards performance-art spectacles born of traditions, learned and gained, passed on and invented. Many classic jazz audiences, critics and even fellow musicians, hated and mocked them; but the group’s practice also nurtured devotees, students who were not simply musical acolytes, but embraced individualist natures and the forward gaze as a way of life. Hell, you can easily make a direct line from Art Ensemble and AACM, to the AFROPUNK community.

Jarman’s work as a community elder did not end at music, which he practiced on and off for the last 25 years of his life. What began as a philosophic interest and grew into spiritual quest, culminated in 1990, when he was ordained as a Buddhist priest of the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist Church at the Higashi Honganji, Kyoto, Japan, and took on the dharma name Rev. Shaku Gyo Joseph Jarman. That year Jarman also co-founded the Brooklyn Buddhist Association, and opened the JikiShinKan Aikido dojo.   

Jarman is the second original member of AACM, following the passing of drummer Alvin Fiedler on January 5th at the age of 84. Their spirits continues to guide us.