Perfect Sound Forever

Joseph Jarman

photo by susannah sheppard

interview by Jason Gross (October 1999)

How would you picture a former member of the legendary Art Ensemble of Chicago, now in his 60's? Humbly and quietly enjoying the fruits of his labors? Well, certainly not what you'd expect of an AEC member. In the past year, I'd seen Joseph Jarman in two seemingly different guises that turned out to be very closely related to who he is and what he's about.

At a performance at Manhattan's Lotus Music and Dance Studios, Jarman played an assortment of horns, woodwinds and percussion along with a singer, poet and dancer for a wonderful, inspiring show. Months later, he was doing the opening invocation for the Vision Festival with a group assembled from his temple who chanted along with him.

Just before meeting up with him for an interview, I witnessed him teaching a martial arts class. The very sight of a small, thin man flipping huge young men around a room was astonishing. The group he taught showed him the proper respect not for a legendary musician (many didn't at first know about his past) but for a master of Japanese arts and spiritual meditation. This is what he has devoted his life to since leaving the Art Ensemble in 1993 and he has no regrets at all about it (though he certainly looks back at it fondly).

So who is Joseph Jarman? Art Ensemble refugee? Bruce Lee? Dali Lama? All of the above and more, no doubt. I had to chance to chat with him about the breadth of his career shortly after one of the martial arts classes he teaches at his temple ('dojo'), now a modest one story building in Brooklyn.

Q: I think a good place to start might be to talk about the dojo itself. How would you explain what dojo is?

JJ: Well, dojo is a traditional Japanese word for training hall. Jikishinkan, the name of our dojo, means "direct mind training hall". And so we have that Aikido dojo, Aikido is a non-invasive martial art, purely based on love and compassion, self-defense. We have the Brooklyn Buddhists Association, we have meetings there, and we have the International Zen Dojo of Brooklyn Sogenkai where we practice (renzai) style of Zen meditation.

Q: You've said that the money to start the dojo came from your Art Ensemble tours?

JJ: Oh, yeah. Some years ago, I guess in 1990 or '91, when I was fortunate enough to work with the Art Ensemble, we would tour every year, and they still do. That one year I just put aside the income from one European tour and invested it in this location here on Smith Street, so that's how it got started. As a matter of fact, the music has always contributed, because the financial aspect of the dojo and the temple isn't quite as sufficient as it would be in a traditional setting. And it's a rare place in the United States to have a non-Asian operating a Buddhist temple, or a (zendo).

Q: I've heard that the dojo itself is involved with music as part of its fund raising.

JJ: There are several members in the dojo, people who've been practicing for some time, and people who haven't been practicing for some time! (laughs) Some happen to be musicians. So the idea came up to have a dojo band, and we organized that, and one of the students is the director, so I don't have to do everything, and generally twice a year we have benefit concerts and non-benefit concerts, and we're trying to work the program so that we can have even more concerts, concerts with dancers, concerts with poets, the whole sort of shebang.

Q: You pointed out one teacher at the dojo who you said gave you a very important lesson in music by teaching you how to breathe.

JJ: Yeah, Master Watazumi do. I went to Tokyo, Japan. Actually Wadada Leo Smith took me there. He introduced me to Watazumi do and the first lesson that he gave me, gave us both, was to breathe. But the breathing lesson was with an eight foot wooden staff, you know? Having to develop flexibility in the body because the whole body has to breathe and it was just amazing, an incredible lesson. It was also an introduction to a lot of the breathing we do in the zendo, we do breathing exercises and stuff. It's really great because it keeps the whole body functioning. Instead of just the lungs, you have to breathe everywhere! (laughs)

Q: When I first walked into your dojo, I was kind of blown away to see a jazz legend teaching a martial arts class. How does what you do at the dojo inform your musical ideas?

JJ: Well, actually, I don't consider myself a jazz legend or anything. In 1993, I retired from the Art Ensemble of Chicago to devote myself full time to Buddhist studies and to the practice of Aikido. It was not until 1996 that a friend of mine, Leroy Jenkins, called and said 'I would like for you to participate in a concert that I'm doing'. So okay, I accepted, and I realized while working for that concert that I'd been missing something very important and vital to me, and that something was music. I hadn't been practicing or playing or anything. But that had been a vital part of my life. So, immediately after that, I got a commission to write a piece for chamber orchestra, and in working on the material I discovered it was possible to incorporate the Buddhist teachings into the music, so that's what I started to do. So all of the music had reference, or is inspired by something of the dharma that I've come in contact with.

Q: Do you feel that leaving the Art Ensemble and putting music aside temporarily was necessary?

JJ: Absolutely. It was a kind of a cleansing process. What happened was, a friend of mine told me I had disappeared from the world, (laughs) and in reality, I had, because I was devoting full time and energy to the dojo and I really had no awareness of what was happening in the world. 'Cause that was the total universe to me. It still is the total universe, except that I've added music back to it.

Q: How do you look back on that time you spent with the Art Ensemble, and how did it inform the person that you are, the way you are now?

JJ: That was a wonderful time. It took me a long time to reach the decision to retire, actually, from the Art Ensemble. But it seemed more important to me to share the vitality of Aikido and the vitality of Zen training with people, even though it would be a smaller number of people, it seemed to give them something that could last and improve their lives. I mean, they could easily remember a song, or a performance, but to be able to incorporate something into their lives that could be useful.... For example, breathing. A gentleman came in today who had asthma, and I showed him an exercise, how to do, and he was like, 'what!?' (laughs) You know, because in our society we're informed that it's impossible to do anything but enroll at the hospital, or whatever.

But back to your question, it was a wonderful experience with the Art Ensemble, and I keep in contact and sort of follow what's going on, but it was also very important to make this step, you may say this leap of faith.

Q: Going way back, Chris Gaddy, Charles Clark, members of an early group of yours, untimely passed away (Clarke in '69, Gaddy in '68). What made you decide to work with Lester Bowie, Roscoe Mitchell and Malachi Favors (which would form the basis of the Art Ensemble)?

JJ: Well, it was their invitation. When Christopher and Charles passed away, I was completely depressed, I felt rejected and real down, and so Roscoe invited me because he had this spirit of compassion, and we had gone to school together, were friends and everything. So he got me to do a concert with them. And I enjoyed it, and they enjoyed it, so they asked me to do another one. When we went to Europe in 1969, that is, Malachi, Lester, Roscoe and I went to Paris in 69, we were being interviewed and when they said what's the name of this group, we decided it should be the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

Q: What was the chemistry like with the other members of the group?

JJ: Well, remember that we were all members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. So we had developed a kind of bond that was spiritual as well as political as well as financial, and through the auspices and the philosophy of the AACM, we were able to manifest this Art Ensemble group, to share and do everything together, and that was very unusual for a group to do. Until Muhal Richard Abrams and Phil Cohran founded the AACM, we had never had that experience, except when were in Muhal's Experimental Band, which was a band that didn't perform publicly. We just went into this place to rehearse, take our music and that'd be it. After two or three years, we had to perform 'cause the place that was allowing us to rehearse needed to know we were actually doing something there! (laughs) That was the Abraham Lincoln Center on Chicago's South Side. It was after that the AACM was founded, and it was based upon that experience that we were able to generate what became known as the Art Ensemble.

Q: Another interesting part of the AEC was the ritualistic aspect, where face paint was used, African drums, I read once you were naked to the waist with just your saxophone...

JJ: I wasn't naked to the waist, I was naked completely! (laughs) Actually, that aspect was explained once as an expression of the various elements of man. For example, Lester would wear a doctor's coat, the scientist, the experimenter. Roscoe was the businessman, the gentleman. I was sort of the shamanistic image coming from various cultures, so was Malachi and [AEC drummer Don] Moye. You know, face painting in non-Western cultures is a sign of collectivism, is a sign of one representing the community, it's not unique at all. But in our society, it's something unique. So what we were doing with that face painting was representing everyone throughout the universe, and that was expressed in the music as well. That's why the music was so interesting. It wasn't limited to Western instruments, African instruments, or Asian instruments, or South American instruments, or anybody's instruments. If we needed a sound [scratches his chair] we'd put a leather chair on stage and scratch it, if that was the only way to get the sound.

Q: Speaking of the non-musical aspects of the AEC, I saw a performance you did last year at Lotus Music & Dance Studios, where you worked with a poet and a dancer. It seems as though multimedia has always been part of your tradition.

JJ: I've always been interested in blending all the elements, and people were saying it was unique or unusual, and some even claimed I was the first quote -- unquote jazz musician to incorporate what they now call "multimedia." We were doing performance art as far back as 1965, just not calling it that. Actually, once I was fortunate enough to go to Marrakesh, Morocco, and there at the King's palace were dancers, musicians, poets, singers, all at once, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, having a festival. But the important thing was, none of these people were professionals. They were from all over the country, farmers, sheepherders! (laughs) From all over Morocco, they came to Marrakesh. That gave me a kind of confirmation for my work. I've found also in other cultures that all of these things are blended in together. Only here, because of the illusion of intellectualism, our society separates the validity of human expression.

Q: You moved from Chicago to New York in 1982. did that change effect your life, your outlook, your music?

JJ: Tremendously. 'Cause as you know, New York is about a million times faster than Chicago. I was just fortunate that all my endeavors were consistent. I had more work here, more opportunities here, basically that was it. Of course, I miss Chicago for its quietude and gentleness. People still say hello to you when you pass them on the street. In New York you say hello and people are like 'Whassup? What do you mean?' (laughs)

Q: You've recently done pieces for large ensembles that have so far gone unrecorded, right?

JJ: Unfortunately, no one's been interested. I've made a few inquiries. The most recent has been the Infinite Compassion, that might have been the most recent orchestral piece I've done. It was '97, for voice and large ensemble. In fact, since no one's been interested in my work, I took the responsibility recently to invest in my own work, so I'm producing a concert that was done at the Vision Festival in May. I'm making a CD of that concert because I want to share this with people and realized I had to make the investment myself. Equal Interest [Jarman's group with violinist Leroy Jenkins and pianist Myra Melford] has a recording coming out this year, but that's a multiple project. But this is the first of my own individual work to come out in some time. No, I haven't had many great recording situations, and I don't have the energy required to pursue it, 'cause in that business, one must really get involved with the various producer's companies, you know, write letters, send e-mails, visit offices. I don't have time to do all that, because I'm committed to the dojo.

Q: Can you talk about the use of space in your music?

JJ: Well space, there's such an infinite variety. It can be concentrated and non-moving, or sometimes its so fluid and rapid, you think it's still not moving at all! I was very impressed with Anton Webern, this composer. I was very impressed with his view and concept of time and space in music. Of course, there's been many others, but if I were asked for a reference, that would be my primary one. Then of course, there's the whole "jazz" lineage. I've been informed by both sides, jazz, western music, Asian music, African music, all sides, because I've been interested in the sound of the universe, and that sound is without limit. As a matter of fact, I bought a recording that NASA recorded of sounds in space and when you turn it on, it sounds like anything else you're hearing all the time. Hear that, that just went by? (Jarman imitates a passing car) You hear that same sound on the space machine, and there's nothing out there except infinite silence!

Q: I wanted to ask about two other reedists you've worked with, Roscoe Mitchell And Anthony Braxton. Having worked with them a lot, how have they influenced your work, or vice versa, considering your different styles?

JJ: That was the nice thing about working with them, was to focus on your own style rather than becoming an imitator and trying to emulate them. Both of them are my very good friends and in addition to playing music together, we just hang out. We also grew up together. Lotta people don't realize when you grow up with people, you have an affinity, a relationship you don't get with anyone else. After you're twenty years old, anyone you meet after that, it's different from the people you knew before.

Q: I saw a great quote of yours, 'Anyone who deviates from Parker or Gillespie, they're gonna have a hard time, they're gonna be discriminated against'. Do you see that as still being true today?

JJ: ABSOLUTELY! I think it's clear, really. Unfortunately, its probably worse now than whenever that was written. 'Cause the conservative revolution, I've only heard about. People keep me informed, and I read the Internet news, stuff like that. People call to keep me abreast of what's going on. It's probably worse today because of the popular music, also because of the conservative traditional return in jazz. People doing the kind of sound research that I'm interested in still have a difficult time.

Q: You were describing members of the Art Ensemble earlier and in talking about yourself, you mentioned your interests were serialized. I wondered what you meant by that.

JJ: Well, you have to go see THE MATRIX. You know the movie? You saw it?

Q: Oh yeah.

JJ: Good, then you understand! (laughs)

Q: That everything is all an illusion?

JJ: Yeah, there you go. Perfect. See I say serialized because the approach to sound has infinite capacity and possibility and we can get in a fixed place and not be able to move. I've been fortunate in that I've been forced to move from zone to zone. For example, when I went to Japan to study Buddhism, and to get my hair cut, or ordination. I like to call it my haircut, other people say you must be formal and say "ordination." So, when I went to get my ordination, I was introduced to a whole different view and concept of music. I mean, the kind of music I would never hear here, would absolutely never hear the wonderful, deep intensity of silence I was introduced to over in Japan. And Japanese theater! Kabuki and No theater, all of that, just awesome. Which we could use and which we do use, but because of the limits of our society's education culturally, there's still so many problems. Even in Europe today, they look at America and say, 'America, ha ha, yeah right! Well, you've got jazz, so what the hell?' (laughs) You know, you have jazz so you don't have to worry about anything else. But we've got a great deal more than jazz, a great deal more, but we're in many instances not allowed to investigate it, nor are we informed about it. I like the title of your magazine, because it's like, it's in motion, it's got something else going on.

Q: Did you at one time study or work with John Cage?

JJ: Yes, I worked with Master Cage. He was in Chicago, they used to have something called the Once Festival, and they came to Chicago, and I followed them up to Ann Arbor, and there was a student music society there, and I was invited to play with Mr. Cage on a composition where he was doing all this electronic stuff. It was -- I forgot the name, and I just saw it, just recently moved and unpacked and saw some information about it. But it was his composition, he gave us an outline, and told us what we had to do to create the music in the time and the space related to what he was doing. And it was great, we were moving all around, just doing our thing while he controlled the acoustics.

Q: Did his philosophy continue to have bearing on your work?

JJ: Oh yeah, absolutely. Prior to that, I'd been reading his books, studying his music, in fact I had everything that had ever been made by him. I was very impressed with his work, and when I met him, it was even better. He was, like, cool! He wasn't like [affects robotic voice] 'Yes -- I'm -- Cage -- you -- must -- o -- bey.' He was like, you know, 'how are ya?'

Q: What do you think of the next generation of musicians like Sabir Mateen, Raphe Malik, and Matthew Shipp, somewhat younger musicians who are picking up some of the threads of your own music?

JJ: Yeah, these guys are an inspiration, to see the tradition is still alive and doing well, even though it still has very small outreach compared -- now, its a large outreach on its own. The Vision Festival was packed every night, always has been for the four years it's been happening. Matthew and all the other artists are wonderful musicians and its great to see this happen. You know, Equal Interest played at the Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival Awards and not one musician from that category was even thought of. Even thought of! The idea, that here's this vital energy, and that element doesn't even know it exists!

Q: What are your future plans for the dojo? You said you were hoping to expand it?

JJ: Well, by the end of the millennium, five, six months from now, we hope to somehow manage to move into a new location where we have the whole building, so we can devote space to all our activities. For example, we can have one space devoted to martial art, another to meditation, another to Buddhist practices, another to Tai Chi, Zen Therapy, space just for that. As a matter of fact, we have a fund raising program, and its amazing, we have about 28 - 30 thousand dollars donated by Japanese Americans in the bank, and we have from our members and friends of the BBA, about maybe six thousand on this end and we have so many promises, we feel fortunate we'll be able to make this move by the end of the year.

Q: And what are your plans for Joseph Jarman?

JJ: (sings) As we float throughout the universe we go / Find the Buddha way and let your sorrows go / As we float throughout the universe we go / Find the guru that will show you how to glow / As we float throughout the universe we go / Let the visions of your human heart show / As we float throughout the universe we go / See the light within you and your love will grow / As we float throughout the universe we go / There is no sorrow that cannot be cleared / There is no passion that cannot be seared... (I forgot the other two lines!) Oh, there is no bondage that cannot be freed / there is no pain that we cannot let go. La da da da da da da da da... that's the answer to that question! (laughs)

For 62 years, I feel like I'm sixteen. I said that in 1990 when I got my hair cut, that I got a whole different perspective. We were sitting in the Higashi Honganji Honzon in Kyoto, Japan, and it was February and it was cold and we were in this temple that didn't have nothing! What are you talking about, lamps and heat? Are you kidding? They came and everybody had their hair cut, right? They touched everybody on the head and do this thing. And that actual touch, touched me. It was an energy field that not only changed my whole consciousness, but my whole view of life, and I'm very grateful and thankful for that.

And as I said, I'm 62 years old now and I feel like I'm sixteen because I feel creative and I feel the future holds a lot of wonderful stuff. Even if I were to space and take off tomorrow, I'd still think it was an incredible past few minutes!

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