Joseph Jarman has passed away at the age of 81 and the world of African-American culture in the widest possible sense is all the poorer for it.
Although Joseph Jarman was primarily known as part of the exciting wave of post-Dolphy multi-reed players that included Anthony Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell he was a greatly ambitious multi-disciplinary artist who wrote poetry and had a serious interest in performing arts in general.
Instruments such as the bassoon and recorder as well as alto and soprano saxophones are synonymous with Jarman, who was wholly committed to the principle of exploring sound to induce new sensations amid daring, involving narratives that could centre on his acute observations on society or be joyous dedications to fellow musicians. Born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, Jarman moved to Chicago as a child in the 40s, played drums in high school, then saxophone and clarinet in the army. One of the earliest members of the Association For The Advancement Of Creative Music [AACM] Jarman, who also studied drama, became a major part of the Art Ensemble Of Chicago [AEC], and was largely responsible for bringing elements of theatre and stagecraft into the group’s aesthetic. Between the late 60s and early 90s he made vital contributions to the band’s discography and his performance on albums such as Fanfare For The Warriors, A Jackson In Your House and Les Stances A Sophie, to name but a few, is quite thrilling, above all because Jarman was able to make his long solos as tender and introspective as they were impassioned and explosive.
In addition to his work with AEC Jarman recorded a number of noteworthy albums as leader that included 1968’s As If It Were The Seasons, 1979’s The Magic Triangle and 1980’s Black Paladins, a quite beautiful session with AEC colleague Famoudou Don Moye on drums and Johnny Dyani, of the legendary South African group the Blue Notes, on double bass. Another important entry in his catalogue was 1984’s Inheritance, featuring pianist Geri Allen and bassist Fred Hopkins, which gave Jarman an opportunity to pay tribute to the founding fathers of jazz such as Sidney Bechet and Charlie Parker.
Following his departure from the AEC Jarman spent far less time in the studio and became increasingly involved in eastern spiritualities such as zen Buddhism and the martial art aikido. But he did nonetheless continue to make some excellent music on occasion. The collaborative trio with pianist Myra Melford and violinist Leroy Jenkins, Equal Interest, whose eponymous album was issued in 1999, remains one of his most engaging record dates, showing that Jarman had lost none of his desire to prod and probe all of the boundaries of the unheard.
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He affected many younger players, partly because of an unquenchable thirst for both folk and art music from around the world, which is an attitude that struck clear parallels with that of the great Don Cherry. Jarman was as comfortable with a Vietnamese oboe as he was a Turkish hand drum, a gong, bells, siren, whistle, or his own voice.
Indeed his recitation of the poem Non-Cognitive Aspects Of The City, from 1967 debut album Song For, remains a classic moment in modern black music for the entirely personal picture that Jarman painted of the psychological and emotional complexities of profound urban alienation, or what he boldly termed the ‘hell of where we are’, which is an acutely topical statement in an era of runaway gentrification and the related evils of exorbitant rents and homelessness. It is a reminder that the poet and musician was somebody who thought deeply about the state of the world and engaged with realities as he saw them in literal ways, through words, as well as in a more lateral manner, through sound.
Just a few days prior to his death the British vocalist and movement artist Elaine Mitchener and multi-reed player Jason Yarde led a stellar band at London’s Café Oto where they performed a set of ‘Vocal Classics of the Black Avant-Garde’ which included work by Eric Dolphy, Archie Shepp and Jeanne Lee. It was a truly scintillating gig and a key moment occurred when guest poet by Dante Micheaux read Jarman’s Non-Cognitive Aspects Of The City. Jarman’s spirit therefore crossed the water in ritual preparation for his departure from planet earth.