Chicago was my indoctrination. In 1990, I attended the 25th anniversary of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. I was basically an avant rock fan, overly confident in my then miniscule knowledge of free music. I wish now I even knew who I saw during that weekend festival, but it was one of the few actually life-changing events to which I can point.
Three years later, I moved to New York City. I made a goal to understand the connections between Chicago and New York, the vacuum that sucks so many of the great players away from their home. I wanted to find the musicians, like Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre, who seemed to have been sucked up and disappeared, and to see the greats who so rarely played back home. At the top of the list was the mighty Art Ensemble of Chicago.
The opportunity came to see the AECO fairly quickly. Thanksgiving 1994 the group played at the new Knitting Factory on Leonard Street. But the night of the show, a buzz circled the audience: saxophonist Joseph Jarman wasn't in the house. When they took the stage, they were a quartet. No mention was made of the missing member. And as so often happens in the jazz community, where fans care deeply about their heroes and pioneers, rumors about Jarman's health started to go around. I realized that a goal of the latter sort - to see the greats play - had become one of the former, and I set about finding the absent shaman.
It didn't take long. A little asking around and I learned he had an aikido dojo in Brooklyn, walking distance from where I was living at the time. I went to visit and found him to be present, pleasant and hospitable. He answered all of my questions about leaving the group to focus more time on his Buddhist studies and told me stories (the Art Ensemble once shared a bill with The Beatles in Europe, he said). Every magazine I contacted at the time rejected the story.
Perhaps comings are of more interest than goings. Nine years later, Jarman has rejoined the AECO (although with the loss of Lester Bowie in 1999, they're still not the powerhouse quintet they once were). And with his Jikishinkan Aikido Dojo able to stand on its own feet, Jarman, at 66, has recommitted himself to the musician's life.
We met again at the Smith Street dojo, and again he answered my questions with a simplicity and calm befitting a Buddhist priest.
"In January I started again," he said of rejoining the Art Ensemble. "It was a great decision because I loved the Art Ensemble and missed it. We had always been in communication. Even Lester, he was always saying 'come on back.' His transition was really the core. They were just a trio and it was nice to be a quartet again."
The quartet of Jarman, Roscoe Mitchell, Malachi Favors Magoustous and Famoudou Don Moye played a few concerts in Europe and recorded the CD The Meeting
for Pi Recordings. While they’ll play some West Coast dates this month, no New York appearances are scheduled as yet.
"We've had such a good time with the events we've done that it just has to be," Jarman said. "Making the CD is an example of where we're at now. I'm back with the band. It's not temporary because the music is beautiful." Then, with his soft-spoken, unassuming flair, he added, "Everybody's really busy, but it works out."
From 1990 to 1993, Jarman didn't play music at all, even at home, he said. But then violinist and fellow AACM veteran Leroy Jenkins asked him to join a trio with another Chicago-area native, pianist Myra Melford. Melford also studied with Jarman at the dojo, something he considered a requirement for musical relationships at the time. That was followed by a commission from the SEM Ensemble, where Jarman said he discovered a way to incorporate his Buddhist beliefs into composing.
How that melding works, however, is not easily understood. Or perhaps it is. When asked, Jarman simply said, "I don't know, the music just comes to me."
Then he began pantomiming playing an upright bass and sang, "Hail we now sing joy/for the mighty warrior", the opening track from The Meeting
. His point was made, but the a cappella concert continued with a second song: "If you never sat down/on a pillow that's round/you just might be missing a great pleasure."
"I don't feel that I am a creator or a performer," he said. "I feel that the music of the universe passes through me."
His work at the dojo continues, although he said he has more support now, with 80 volunteers, six instructors, a four-person office staff and three priests (Jarman being one of them). "We have a lot more senior students and another Buddhist priest, so if I'm not here everything goes on on a normal basis," he said. "I feel comfortable about this place, whereas years ago I wasn't comfortable."