Fanfare for the Warrior: Remembering Joseph Jarman

John Litweiler

Joseph Jarman                                                                                                    © 2019 Terry Martin

The AACM was already about eight months old by the time I attended alto saxophonist Troy Robinson’s concert in a South Side Masonic lodge in January 1966. At the Jazz Record Mart, where I worked that winter, visitors who dug free jazz invariably insisted, “Now you must hear Joseph Jarman and Roscoe Mitchell.” By then Jarman had already made history by playing in the first AACM concert with his and Fred Anderson’s quintet and by improvising in a free-jazz quartet with classical composer-experimenter John Cage added (Pete Welding reviewed that event in Down Beat).

That spring I finally got to hear what the fuss was about. The first half of the Jarman concert was his quintet, with tenor saxophonist Anderson, trumpeter Bill Brimfield, bassist Charles Clark, and drummer Thurman Barker. Then came the transcendent “Tribute to the Hard Core,” a very very long alto sax solo accompanied by the young bassist and veteran drummer Steve McCall – a terrific trio. It was very fast and Jarman was so dazzling – the big, clean, brilliant sound; the virtuoso technique, every note perfectly defined; the wild atonal leaping between high and low notes, the cries in overtones and multiphonics – and all his extremes were within a dramatic musical line that heightened the music’s impact. Moreover, it was obviously original. Jarman has spoken of the influences of Dolphy, Coltrane, Ornette, and Rahsaan on his development, but neither then nor subsequently have I heard him sound like any saxophonist other than himself.

Except. In the early 1960s Roscoe Mitchell had practiced with Jarman, had played in a hard bop combo with him (I’m told they had even played on an amateur-hour television show), and both had joined and composed for that prehistoric, legendary ur-band, the Experimental Band and studied with its generous leader Richard Abrams. It was a rehearsal band that probably did not play any concerts until after the AACM was formed. Over the years the two sounded close enough that you very often needed to be familiar with their saxisms (Mitchell with recurring stylistic obsessions and a rather harder sound) to tell one from the other.

“Tribute to the Hard Core” may have been where I first heard Jarman use “little instruments,” the bells, toys, found objects that he and Mitchell and Malachi Favors were now integrating into their works. This was a whole new world of sound in jazz, nobody previously had so deeply explored using such sounds in their works. Mitchell and Favors used “little instruments” to help explore relationships of sounds and silence. By contrast Jarman filled spaces with sound and liked masses of little percussion. These sounds were part of the new sensibility the Chicagoans were introducing into free jazz. In 1966 the visceral excitement of energy music, fast, aggressive, ecstatic, exhaustive, was the dominant trend in the free jazz emanating from New York. Chicago’s new music was vastly more sonically and emotionally varied, and structured – it expanded the meanings of “freedom” and “free jazz.”

That year Joseph Jarman shared an apartment across the Midway parkway from the University of Chicago. His student roommate formed an extracurricular club called the Contemporary Music Society so Jarman could put on Friday evening jam sessions at a student lounge. Very good, very awful, and other musicians showed up weekly and it may have been where I first heard the short-lived, classic Joseph Jarman quartet. Charles Clark took the big, purposeful Mingus bass style into rhythmically and harmonically free territory, while teenaged drummer Thurman Barker was a prodigy, a master already. The young pianist Christopher Gaddy’s colorist lines and harmonies were active (not busy) and more than accompaniment, he beautifully enhanced Jarman’s alto mastery. He too was thoroughly original, far freer than Bill Evans, as active as but far less belligerent than Cecil Taylor. With Jarman, it was a perfectly complementary quartet.

This was an extraordinary period for musical discoveries by AACM artists. Lester Bowie brought the quite original drummers Leonard Smith and Philip Wilson, both so sensitive to relations of sound and space, from St. Louis to play with Mitchell’s combos; Wilson stayed. Abrams led big bands in concerts. There was much talk about a new saxophonist just out of the army: Anthony Braxton. His eagerly awaited AACM debut came in Jarman’s “Hollows Ecliptic” concert, January 1967, playing a solo alto sax composition by Henry Threadgill, who at the time was still on the other side of the world in an Army band.

In fact, Jarman himself did not play any saxophone in the concert, which opened with a big band playing his composition “Winter Playground 1965,” featuring an especially fine tenor sax solo by Fred Anderson. I only recall that the piece was a beauty, one of the many that should have been recorded and preserved but wasn’t. The concert’s piece de resistance was the large work “Hollows Ecliptic,” which offered the “little instruments,” poet David Moore (aka Amus Mor) reciting, and Jarman’s band walking through the audience while collectively improvising in the drafty, echoey auditorium of Abraham Lincoln Center, an old South Side settlement house.

This was the period of “happenings.” For instance, at some Mitchell concerts Smith had danced with a white rag doll and Wilson had stalked him with a shotgun; Favors had worn a raggedy “darky” costume and strummed a banjo; Mitchell had shot an actor wearing a Lyndon Johnson mask. These bits were interjected into extended musical works, whereas the abstractions of the multimedia circus were the content and meaning of “Hollows Ecliptic.” Jarman expanded the circus to include art, flashing lights, film, dancers in some subsequent concerts in 1967-68. The spiritual, mysterious aspect of his concerts, including calls to seek the light, love one another, join in the spirit of the universe, was important to Jarman. Singing, poetry, even preaching appeared, audiences held hands and participated. In addition to statements against injustice and racism, Jarman also used satire – he once required the entire audience to dress in our customary sloppy duds at one concert, and to dress formally (suits, dresses) at the next night’s concert. Improperly dressed concertgoers were turned away both nights. On another night as a Jarman band played and paraded grandly inside a South Side tavern, I wondered what the regular barflies thought of the invading young music lovers and musicians.

In fact, 1967 was in some ways a high point for AACM adventures and discoveries. The weekly Jarman jam sessions ended early in the year. At times Jarman styed and played at Detroit’s Artists Workshop, where Don Moye was based for a time, and he also spent a minute in New York – he didn’t mention playing there, though he met poet-critic Leroi Jones in Jones’s pre-Baraka Black Arts period. That summer Oliver Lake and Julius Hemphill checked out the AACM for a few weeks in Chicago, where they played informally on the lakefront with Jarman and Mitchell and formally in concert with a Mitchell octet (six saxophonists, including tenorist Byron Bowie and Jarman, two drummers). Back home in St. Louis, Lake and Hemphill would contribute to the creation of the Black Artists Group (BAG). The Mitchell-Bowie-Favors trio played a beautiful memorial to John Coltrane with an improvisation that included a number of Coltrane themes and concluded with Mitchell’s poignant “People in Sorrow.” Jarman played on the terrific Nessa albums Numbers 1 & 2 by Lester Bowie and Early Combinations by the Art Ensemble. About that time, the AACM school was begun. Jarman taught there, and woodwind artist Douglas Ewart was one of his first students.

This may be the place to correct an omission from George Lewis’ enormously important book A Power Stronger Than Itself. The student-Jarman roommate who ran the Contemporary Music Society in 1966 was not named John Gilmore; but a very good pianist who really was named John Gilmore did graduate work at the university the next year and re-formed the Contemporary Music Society. He gave concerts of his original music with some AACM artists, and Jarman and Braxton proposed making him a member of the AACM. The AACM as a whole not only voted down the proposal to add this white artist, they voted to expel their only Caucasian member, vibraphonist Gordon Emanuel (Emanuel Cranshaw), who had grown up in a black family and was the brother of bassist Bob Cranshaw.

The large-scale events were interesting or fun, but the musical meat was in stand-alone works by Jarman’s wonderfully empathetic young quartet. The time that sticks in memory was a poetry reading by Diane DiPrima. In a long piece Gaddy was especially beautiful in solo and in exalting a brilliant Jarman solo with piano accompaniment; there was also an unaccompanied “Nature Boy,” among Jarman’s most beautiful alto solos ever. Gaddy’s death in March, 1968 was devastating. Did Jarman regret expending so much energy on large-scale events rather than explore further with the quartet? Subsequently the Jarman-Mitchell-Bowie-Favors quartet appeared more often, now as the Art Ensemble (not as the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble) or on one memorable night as Joseph Jarman and Company accompanying Kim On Wong’s naked dance troupe in a cold theater, performing Kim’s work based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

After Clark’s death in winter 1969, Jarman concentrated on the Art Ensemble. The departure of drummer Philip Wilson in mid-1967 had left Mitchell’s group in a dilemma. Probably no great ensemble, from Oliver 1923, Basie 1938, Parker-Gillespie 1945, Coleman 1959-60, to Mitchell’s 1967 quartet, retains its musical closeness, its peak of greatness, for very long – we poor old humans all change, after all. Before Jarman the Art Ensemble explored the world of sound and silence in tension. For one thing, Jarman and Mitchell were collecting instruments in those days, including all the woodwinds they could get their hands on. I remember a Mitchell group with Jarman and others playing only baritone, bass, and contrabass saxophones and clarinets accompanied by Favors, string bass, and Bowie, bass drum. Instead of maintaining peaks of technique on alto, Jarman spent his time mastering flutes, single and double reed horns, Theremin, and others. After Jarman joined full-time, spaces tended to fill and the Art Ensemble became a different band, the band Paul Steinbeck wrote about in his book Message to Our Folks: The Art Ensemble of Chicago, which I strongly recommend.

But, and it’s a big but, Steinbeck omitted the most important part of his story. Not only did the major discoveries by these AACM artists happen in the 1960s – that’s when they created their finest, most important works, too. The rare closeness, empathy, and brilliance of the Jarman quartet, whose only recording was the setting of Jarman’s poem “Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City” from Song For, and the beauty and virtuosic brilliance of Jarman’s alto solo in “As If It Were the Seasons” from the album of that name – both albums are now Delmark CDs – are qualities we’d come to expect in his concerts back then, and qualities only intermittently heard since then (his alto solos in the AEC’s 1969 People in Sorrow are a rare post-Chicago example).

Even now, over 50 years later, has there been anything to equal the breathtaking tension of sound and silence in the Bowie and Maurice McIntyre solos in Mitchell’s “Sound”? This tension was the Mitchell group’s most important innovation, even more than the “little instruments,” which found wonderful form in “Little Suite” (in Mitchell’s Sound, Delmark). Mitchell’s alto solo in “Number One” is one of the great post-Coleman solos (Numbers 1 and 2, Nessa) and the other 1967 albums, Mitchell’s Old/Quartet (Nessa) and the Art Ensemble’s Early Combinations are equally crucial musically and historically.

The creative heat of Jarman and the other emerging AACM artists came amidst new writing, poetry, theater, painting and sculpture, all during that period of demonstrations, police rioting, and the Freedom movement in Mayor Daley’s Chicago. The world seemed to be imminently about to change back then. Thanks to Jarman and his friends, jazz certainly changed. Those two Delmark albums tell me that my memory doesn’t lie about Jarman’s music back then – it really was that wonderful. As Chicago jazz disc jockey Mike Rock used to say, “If you can’t dig this music, you must have been born without a shovel.”

©2019 John Litweiler

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