joseph jarman, 1937-2019

The Art Ensemble of Chicago, circa 1987. From left: Famoudou Don Moye, Roscoe Mitchell, Lester Bowie, Joseph Jarman, Malachi Favors.

As the volumes of interviews accumulated over multiple decades stack up, it is perhaps understandable to be asked which ones stand as favorites. It is probably just as expected that the answers be names known for some level of celebrity status.

When faced with that question, one of the first names that springs to mind is Joseph Jarman.

Who?

Joseph Jarman, who passed away yesterday at age 81, was an Arkansas-born saxophonist who became a keystone member of the Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and a mainstay instrumentalist for one of the organization’s banner jazz projects, the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

To many, what the AACM and the Art Ensemble were creating was renegade music – a jazz sound that often favored free improvisation over conventional melodic structure, although even that assessment is a generalization of what the groups were after. It wasn’t until I gained an appreciation for the Art Ensemble over time that its mix of heritage and invention revealed itself.

When the Art Ensemble visited Lexington for a December 1987 concert at the University of Kentucky’s Memorial Hall (as part of its historic Spotlight Jazz series), it was easy for unfamiliar jazz listeners to view the band as imposing. Maybe it was the face paint several members (Jarman among them) wore in performance or the shards of sound created on chimes and bicycle horns as well as on conventional wind, brass and percussion instruments. The Art Ensemble was a performance troupe that drew on tradition but celebrated creation of the moment.

I didn’t know what to expect when I phoned Jarman for a late November interview in 1987, as I had accepted the stereotypical view of the time that the Art Ensemble shunned melody for seemingly purposeful musical discord. But within minutes – specifically, after he admitted he was going to munch on turkey leftovers during our talk – all hesitancy vanished.

A scholarly but very congenial individual, Jarman spent the next 45 minutes with me discussing his music, his motivation, the sense of history at the heart of his playing and especially the inclusiveness of his art. The interview wasn’t merely disarming, it was an open invitation to take part in something new, a musical parade down jazz music’s more adventurous and unexpected avenues.

I won’t pretend that I fully understood the Art Ensemble’s performance the following month. But, 31 years on, I feel privileged to have witnessed the band when all its key members – trumpeter Lester Bowie, bassist Malachi Favors and Jarman, all passed on now – were fueling the fire of a music that was new and immediate. I think of these players at nearly every jazz performance I have attended since, especially ones featuring the young indie artists visiting Lexington for the Outside the Spotlight series, and feel grateful for the invite Jarman extended into this world of musical promise.

“America has the youngest cultural entity in the world,” Jarman, already a devout Buddhist, told me in our 1987 interview. “Yet, we’re still trying to define just what our culture is. We’re still breaking away from that heavy European tradition. Just now, we’re seeing those first little seeds of our own sprouting up.

“It’s been a total effort on our part to survive this long. People are really beginning to discover just how serious we are about this music. It’s funny, I’ve heard people say, ‘Hey, those guys are crazy. But they don’t sound too bad.’ “



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