Joseph Jarman, mainstay of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, dies at 81

Mr. Jarman expanded the province of music, melding it with performance art in the Art Ensemble of Chicago.
The New York Times/1978
Mr. Jarman expanded the province of music, melding it with performance art in the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

NEW YORK — Joseph Jarman, a saxophonist, flutist, woodwind player, and percussionist who helped expand the parameters of performance in avant-garde jazz, especially as a member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, died Wednesday at the Lillian Booth Actors Home in Englewood, N.J. He was 81.

His former wife, writer and scholar Thulani Davis, said the cause was cardiac arrest as a result of respiratory failure.

Over the last two decades, Mr. Jarman was less active in music than in other pursuits, notably his ministrations as a Buddhist priest and aikido instructor. With Davis, he founded the Brooklyn Buddhist Association in 1990. And his students at the Jikishinkan Aikido Dojo, which he established in Brooklyn, typically did not enroll there because of his jazz career; some may not have known much about it.


But Mr. Jarman was revered for his tenure in the Art Ensemble, from its inception in the late 1960s, through his departure in the early 1990s and again early in this century.

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The group was an indomitable presence in experimental music and a flagship of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a nonprofit cooperative with a focus on new music and African-American artists. It drew inspiration not only from jazz and blues but also from world music, ritual, and folklore, all keen interests of Mr. Jarman’s.

Onstage, the band members embodied archetypes. Trumpeter Lester Bowie usually performed in a white lab coat, and saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell looked the part of an everyday businessman.

Mr. Jarman brought a more vivid theatricality to his role, typically appearing in African face paint and ceremonial vestments. He shared that tribal motif, meant to represent shamanism in non-Western cultures, with the band’s bassist, Malachi Favors, and its drummer, Famadou Don Moye.

Mr. Jarman played various saxophones in a style both earthy and imploring, with strong projection, impressive breath control, and an abundance of extended techniques. He also played flute, clarinet, oboe, and bassoon, and employed an array of percussion and toy instruments. And he was responsible for many of the spoken-word and visual elements that gave the Art Ensemble its reputation for multiplatform expression.


His solo career was no less an interdisciplinary pursuit. “Song For” (Delmark), his first album, recorded in 1966, included a track called “Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City,” constructed around his recitation of a poem. His concerts often involved dancers and performance artists.

One large-scale work, “Bridge Piece,” presented in 1968, supplemented music with elaborate extras, including strobe lights and a juggler.

George Lewis described this performance in his book “A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music” (2008): “The audience was seated while the musicians moved around the space; a woman hung aluminum wrapping paper on audience members while a Top 40 station blared on a portable radio.”

Born in Pine Bluff, Ark., Joseph Jarman grew up in Chicago, mainly on the predominantly white North Side, where he attended an integrated elementary school. He attended DuSable High School on the South Side, where he fell in with an early mentor, the celebrated music educator Captain Walter Dyett.

Mr. Jarman’s instrument at the time was the snare drum.


He dropped out of high school in 1955, his junior year, to join the Army. It was while in an Army band, stationed in Germany, that he picked up alto saxophone and clarinet and began listening seriously to jazz records. He was discharged in 1958 and eventually returned to Chicago, enrolling in Wilson Junior College, where he met Favors and Mitchell.

Through Mitchell he met pianist and composer Muhal Richard Abrams, who was leading weekly rehearsals of an ensemble later known as the Experimental Band. The rehearsals, and Abrams’s composer workshops, led to the formation of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in 1965.

Mr. Jarman was a charter member of the organization and one of the first to draw widespread attention to it. In November 1965, as part of a series organized by students at the University of Chicago, he played a concert in Hyde Park there with the avant-garde composer John Cage. Their collaboration, “Imperfections in a Given Space,” received the first full-fledged review of an association member in a national publication, Down Beat. (It was a pan. “Nobody liked it, and that made it even better,” Mr. Jarman told Lewis.)

In 1967 Mr. Jarman joined the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble. A triumphant trip to Paris transformed the group’s reputation (and its hierarchical name) and expanded its horizons.

“There was not only a wide development in the music, but more exposure to theater and dance and all of these kinds of forms, and we began to incorporate many of these elements into our work,” Mr. Jarman said in a 1987 interview with the New York radio station WKCR.

Mr. Jarman moved to New York in 1982, while maintaining his touring schedule with the Art Ensemble.

His travels took him to Japan, where he discovered another calling. He was ordained as a Shinshu Buddhist priest in 1990.