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Joseph Jarman (1937–2019)

Joseph Jarman, a saxophonist, percussionist, and founding member of avant-garde jazz group the Art Ensemble of Chicago, died on Wednesday, January 9, in Englewood, New Jersey. He was eighty-one years old. Jarman, whose practice combined music with poetry, polemics, painting, and experimental dance and theater, was known for his tenure with the Art Ensemble, a flagship of the nonprofit cooperative Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). Drawing from the blues, folklore, world music, and ritual, AACM was an important part of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. Jarman was involved with the Art Ensemble from its founding in the late 1960s through his departure in 1993, when he retired from music to focus on Buddhism.

Jarman was born in 1937 in Arkansas and grew up in Chicago, where he learned to play drums under Walter Dyett, whose students also included Nat King Cole and Bo Diddley. After picking up the alto saxophone and clarinet while stationed with the army in the mid-1950s, he was discharged in 1958 and returned to Chicago, where he met his future Art Ensemble collaborators Malachi Favors and Roscoe Mitchell. In 1990 he was ordained as a Buddhist priest and went on to establish the Brooklyn Buddhist Association with his former wife, writer and scholar Thulani Davis, as well as the Jikishinkan Aikido Dojo in Brooklyn, though he did return to composing and performing later on.

In a 1987 interview, Jarman described his work with the Art Ensemble: “And this is another thing that was perhaps a bit different from many of our predecessors, the idea of looking for a sound, rather than playing a musical instrument and getting all of the sound out of that. Because each instrument is a different universe, and each instrument does contain of its own-ness a wonderful thing.”

“All of this music, this kind of breath, cosmic breath, is flowing, and some people it touches. And if we’re practicing music and we’re open enough and it touches us, then we have to respond.”