Word reached me this morning that Joseph Jarman has died. I knew Joseph just a little, but for a long time. My teenagers rock band rehearsed in the basement of our drummer’s parents’ enormous house in the Hyde Park neighborhood on Chicago’s south side. Because the drummer’s mother was Joseph’s close friend, he was often just hanging around upstairs. He would listen and make supportive comments. Although I never had the nerve to ask to play with him back then, I did listen to ad hoc sessions he had at the house. A couple of years later, when I was part of an incredibly loud free jazz trio that was heavily influenced by the AACM events I attended in the neighborhood, he came to a couple of concerts and said kind things and didn’t mention the issue of my attempted appropriation of the AACM approach. That wasn’t universal. After one of these concerts Pete Cosey was so mad that he headed up the center aisle, yelling and shaking his fist at me. His friends intercepted him.
When I was in my early 20s, I moved to Madison, Wisconsin (coincidently at about the same time as Joseph’s bandmate Roscoe Mitchell, whom I didn’t know at the time). I stopped performing entirely and went months without touching my instruments. Fifteen years later, having confirmed that although life as a musician is tough, everything else is worse, I started taking lessons and playing occasional gigs. That’s when I called Joseph to ask if he would perform as part of a quintet that I would assemble.
Joseph pretended to remember me. He came to Madison, where we rehearsed for two days and then performed his compositions in Edgewood College’s beautiful chapel. That’s the photo below (by Joseph Blough).
Not much longer later, I asked Joseph to play in an octet for what turned out to be my first CD released on a label other than my own. It was also my first modular composition, “48 Motives.” He suggested that during his visit that he and Marilyn Crispell, who was the group’s pianist, for no extra fee, play a fundraising concert for the project. My trio with two other members of the octet, Matt Turner and Vincent Davis, opened. I hired a pair of engineers to record Joseph and Marilyn’s set, which I later produced as the CD “Connecting Spirits,” for the Music and Arts label. Shortly before my trio went on stage, Joseph asked what material we were going to play. I said some of the Motives from the octet. Marilyn and Joseph looked at each other and she said, on no, we’d better play something else. If I’d kept my mouth shut, Connecting Spirits would have included a collection of my little motives.
Perhaps two years later Joseph played on my second modular composition, 96 Gestures, which was released as a triple CD on CRI. This project, a 12-member ensemble, included a premier at the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Unitarian Meeting House where we had recorded Connecting Spirits. The approach of Joseph throughout the project was collective and subtle. But when I saw him see Roscoe in the audience, he played as beautiful and powerful a solo as I’ve ever heard from anyone. I wish Roscoe had been in the booth during the recordings.
Although we spoke on the phone a few times later, the last time I saw Joseph was when I attended several recording sessions for the Art Ensemble’s PI Records release “The Meeting.” Lester Bowie had died and Joseph had returned to the fold, although, as it turned out, briefly. There was clearly tension among the members and Joseph and Roscoe were vaudevillian in their complements of each other’s playing. CRI had recently closed and their catalog passed to New World Records. I had acquired the remaining copies of the CRI pressing. Joseph gave me the complement of asking for CD sets so that he could give them to students at his Dojo in Brooklyn. He said that my concept of compositions that had no fixed form and could be constructed in infinite combinations fit his Buddhist teachings. At the premier of 96 Gestures a few years earlier, after the first half I said to the audience “We will be back in 20 minutes to finish this piece.” Joseph said to me “How can this piece ever finish?”
Joseph could be difficult, but he was never difficult with me. When I was a teenager he was nothing but supportive. And as an adult the only time he showed impatience was when he saw that other ensemble members were trying to take advantage of me. One of my fondest memories is after the first take of 96 Gestures, a session during which Joseph rarely spoke, the youngest and least experienced member of the group decided to explain to the rest of us exactly how he thought the piece and recording should go and how the conductor should react to hand-signal suggestions from the musicians. When the young guy finished, Joseph looked at me and said “I would be more interested to hear what the composer thinks.” That may not seem like much, but it meant a lot to me.