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Joseph Jarman : All The Voices Are There Again

I met Joseph Jarman as a student at the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, New York. I didn't actually meet him at CMS, I met him at the Albany airport. It was a few days before the 1977-1978 New Year's Intensive session with the Art Ensemble of Chicago was to begin. Now let me explain these New Year's Intensive sessions a little bit. I attended two of them with the Art Ensemble: 1977-1978, and the following year, 1978-1979. We were about to spend ten days under the same roof with one of the most influential ensembles in the Omniverse to ever expound the richness of "Great Black Music, Ancient to the Future". Somewhat isolated in the snowy woods of the Catskill Mountains, we would live together, eat together, hang out together, rehearse together, perform together, do whatever could be done together in that relatively confined space and time to which all in attendance were amenable. Yes, it was homey and intimate. I can remember Malachi Favors Maghostut leaning over to one participant during a particularly conflagrant jam session and asking, "Would you go downstairs and see if my red drawers in the dryer are dry yet?" No one had ever had such an experience, not even the Art Ensemble.

I jumped, leapt, or perhaps threw myself at an opportunity to take a Ryder rental truck from Woodstock to the Albany airport to pick up Joseph Jarman, Famoudou Don Moye and all of the Art Ensemble's equipment on or about December 27. Armed with scant information about where or when I would find the gentlemen I sought, I went first to the airline ticket counter to ask for assistance from the ticket agent. She knew immediately that they were in the cocktail lounge. Identifying them was made easy by the fact that they were the only two black men in there. But I knew what they looked like only from album covers—painted faces, African garb, the whole mysterious image. So, imagine my surprise when I saw these two guys were wearing finely tailored Italian suits! I introduced myself—I in my cruddy jeans and faded army fatigue jacket—and didn't hesitate to express my surprise at seeing them in such cosmopolitan splendor. Joseph explained that they received far less hassle from customs people if they dressed in this more "incognito" style. No need to make an image statement while traveling. They get to where they're going and then make the statement. My education had begun.
Hail we now sing joy
For the Mighty Dharma King
For the one who stops and holds
All the elements of despair.
[from "Hail We Now Sing Joy", Art Ensemble of Chicago, The Meeting (Pi Recordings), 2003.]
Although the CMS participants' initial meeting session with the Art Ensemble, in which we were given some slight idea of what to expect in the ten days to come, was cordial and filled with a positive expectancy, I was unsettled by a question of my own that I was afraid to ask, but which wouldn't leave me alone. So I asked the Art Ensemble of Chicago what I would now consider to be a rather naïve question. I wanted to know how we, an assemblage of CMS participants that was nearly all white (trumpeter Hugh Ragin was at that session and perhaps one or two other black musicians whom I no longer remember) could find a place, or meet with a means of expression, in the context of "Great Black Music, Ancient to the Future". The answer was quite simple in Joseph's mind, and the rest of the Ensemble seemed to be in concurrence. "Great Black Music, Ancient to the Future" refers to a tradition and a vision of music that was, is, and will be universal. The Art Ensemble of Chicago, being a group of African American musicians, would only naturally look to those forms and elements of music-making that come out of their heritage. The music doesn't know if you're black or white, Joseph explained. The forms and the elements of Great Black Music bespeak a universality that allows anyone to choose to express himself or herself within their contexts.
Of the new music

you are asked

it is


it is

and you
are right

          if you are asked again

say of it

it is the sound

of GOD

and you
are right

and/if you

are asked

once more


it is




are right

[from Joseph Jarman, Black Case Volume I & II, Return from Exile (Chicago: Art Ensemble of Chicago Publishing, 1977).]
The memory of that meeting came back to me—well, no, it actually never left me—but it reasserted itself with a fresh poignancy in a recent conversation that I had with Joseph. We were talking about Joseph's return to the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and I was trying to get a sense from him of how or whether the Art Ensemble's music had changed as a result of his increasing devotion to Buddhism. He said, "I'm very different, because all of my music is Buddhist oriented." Yet, although the Art Ensemble is playing a few of Joseph's recently composed tunes, listeners will note that most of their twenty-first century compositions retain the same, decidedly non-Buddhist flavor that has distinguished the Art Ensemble of Chicago over the decades.

How, I wondered, if Joseph's music is all Buddhist oriented did he now fit within the context of "Great Black Music, Ancient to the Future"? His answer was simple: "Well it's like that either way you go."

Cryptic? Perhaps. But let's not forget that we're really dealing with themes of the universality of the music, and the labels have only so much utility. A quote from Reverend Gyoko Saito, formerly the head minister of the Buddhist Temple of Chicago, upon his welcoming Joseph into the "Sangha of the Universe" on August 8, 1981, when Joseph took the name Shaku Gyo-On, might shed some light:
In listening to music I am bothered most by the main elements that make up the music; in vocal music by the voice, and the instrument in instrumental music. I'd like to hear a song without the lyrics, piano music without a piano, or the music of violin, flute, cello, samisen, koto, without any of those instruments!

There is the echo of a rhythm that transcends individual lyrics or individual instruments. There is a melody that is played from one heart to another.

What has most bothered me in the music of Joseph Jarman is Joseph Jarman. Shaku Gyo-On, the true self of Joseph Jarman, must play the music of the whole universe, echoing the heart and guts of humanity—not play it with any particular kind of instrument but with total being.
I didn't realize back in 1977 that Joseph was involved in Buddhism. We had talked about the fact that we were both Eagle Scouts—yes, it's true—but, perhaps more because of my worldview at the time than his, the topic of spirituality didn't come up. His history with Buddhism goes back, though, at least until 1969. In a 2002 interview with the Chicago Tribune, Joseph said, "In 1969 the Art Ensemble went to Paris, and we had everything there. All the success we could imagine, all the materialistic things we could imagine. But that made me a little bit distressed, actually. So I wrote Rev. Saito a letter about my psychological condition, and he wrote me this beautiful, beautiful letter that was extremely encouraging and uplifting."

We did talk about aikido, though, which Joseph had already been studying in Chicago with Shihan Fumio Toyoda, and which, for Joseph, is a discipline perfectly unified with Buddhism. And, what he helped me to see, and for which I am eternally grateful, is that aikido, the way of harmony, is a discipline that is also perfectly unified with music. I began my own study of aikido shortly thereafter, having been thoroughly smitten by the energy-projection exercises that Joseph put us through at CMS. "Project a note past those trees on to a place that you can't see", he'd tell us. Of course, we thought that meant play loud. On the contrary, it was a mental exercise, not a physical one. Aikido became our common ground. It has always created a basis for Joseph and me to reunite on the handful of occasions that we've been able to meet or speak since 1977.
Hail we now sing joy
for the mighty warrior
for the one who show the way
to the spirit of love we share.
[from "Hail We Now Sing Joy", Art Ensemble of Chicago, The Meeting (Pi Recordings), 2003.]
Joseph opened the Jikishinkan ("direct mind") aikido dojo (training hall) in his Brooklyn home in the early eighties. He also began teaching meditation classes at the same time. "Ours is the only system that has meditation training along with aikido", says Joseph. "People find the benefits of them being together, and it helps eliminate violence so quickly within people that it's just extraordinary."

The Jikishinkan and the Brookyln Buddhist Association eventually moved into their current location, where they've been for the last twelve years, and the center continues to grow all by itself. "We don't have to do anything on that particular aspect of it", Joseph commented. "We constantly get new people all the time. We just get a lot of people from all around; a lot of musicians come because I'm there. [It grows] because of the way of harmony, and the way of harmony is what is exactly expressed in both of those activities, Buddhism and aikido. They encourage human beings to be human beings and live in harmony with all elements throughout the universe."

In the beginning, though, that growth proved to be burdensome. It required all of his attention and energy. Joseph: "The reason I even left [the AEC] was because I didn't have any support for Buddhism and I didn't have any support for aikido. So I had to be there [at the dojo], because every time I went away everything would fall apart." For those who might wonder why or how the demands of spiritual and martial-arts practice could take precedence over a decades-long involvement with one of the world's most influential creative music ensembles, I turn again to the words of Reverend Saito: "To commit oneself to the Teaching is something beyond one's imagination."

But he never quit playing. Joseph recalls, "I started studying Buddhist music. That's why my playing today is oriented around that. I wasn't playing publicly, and I wasn't playing at home very much. I was playing at rituals and stuff like that. It was very different from the music that I had all my life been associated with. As I started out I was very focused on the tradition. However over the past few years I have blended my [personal] historical perspective with that [Buddhist] perspective.
"There is a tradition of Chinese and Japanese forms and scales that is very different and much broader; it's very consistent, and there's no space for improvisation. If you chant a mantra from India from 2000 years ago, you have to chant it the same way they did it 2000 years ago in order for it to be effective and useful. I have done a recording using some of those old sutra and mantra chants. And while they're playing, I'm blending them with some contemporary music—some improvisation or even just some whole compositions."
the object/then
to create
a music
from the source of all life—
[from Joseph Jarman, Black Case Volume I & II, Return from Exile (Chicago: Art Ensemble of Chicago Publishing, 1977).]
In 1996, Joseph reemerged for an AACM performance with Leroy Jenkins, his first public performance since 1993. "At the recording", Joseph remembers, "Leroy and Myra [Melford] said we ought to get together and play some. That was very inspiring because I realized that I had been depressed from losing the music, because the music has been a vital element in my life from the very beginning. So that made me very happy to start playing again, because for three years I didn't play at all. They inspired me and so I was able to get on back into it." He realized, as stated in the Chicago Tribune interview, that he could "associate the teachings of the Dharma with music."

I couldn't help wondering whether in 2003 there had been some shift in Joseph's consciousness, some spiritual evolutionary arrival, or perhaps some epiphany that brought about his reentry into the Art Ensemble of Chicago. No, it was just time. "After Lester made his transition it was just a trio", he recounted. "And they were having a hard time because for so many years they had been more than a trio. So they sort of convinced me to try it out. And I was able to because I had enough support at the dojo already." Simple as that. The natural growth of his dojo and Buddhist center brought with it other instructors and support people, and he was relieved of much of the burden of making it all run. And, Roscoe Mitchell, Malachi Favors Maghostut, and Famoudou Don Moye asked him to come back. Was the hard time that the trio had been having due to lost bookings or demands placed on them by the music business and which a trio simply couldn't sustain? No, they simply "wanted to hear all the voices".

Does it feel good to be back? "Oh yeah, it's good. Everybody is older and calmer. The music is very beautiful and inspiring. We're looking forward to more [performances]. Everybody is very delighted, so we want more performance opportunities in the United States. The future is wonderful for the Art Ensemble of Chicago—as long as we last."

Nonetheless, Joseph's commitment to projects that are connected with his teaching and study of the Dharma remain a high priority. He continues to hold monthly concerts at the dojo and elsewhere with his Lifetime Visions Orchestra, made up entirely of musicians who practice meditation with Joseph or who have been affiliated with aikido. But he seems particularly proud of and touched by a performance that he put on at a "very important" Buddhist convention in Kyoto, Japan, in 2002. He gave a Dharma talk and did several music performances, one with twelve Japanese students and three with forty-eight children all playing little flutes and little percussion instruments. "We played only compositions that I had written". Joseph said. "And it was wonderful and very well accepted."
Hail we now sing joy
for the mighty human kind
for the ones who know the way
to enlightenment is fair.
[from "Hail We Now Sing Joy", Art Ensemble of Chicago, The Meeting (Pi Recordings), 2003.]
In our latest conversation, Joseph related that a fifth voice had been added to the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Trumpeter Corey Wilkes, from Chicago—naturally—is now on board. No, he's not there to replace Lester Bowie—can't be done. But at least all the voices are there again. "He's very nice," Joseph told me. "Only problem is, every time we played the theme at the end, tears would come to my eyes because I would think of Lester."

"But everything's working out fine."

Bob Sweet is the author of Music Universe, Music Mind: Revisiting the Creative Music Studio, Woodstock, New York (Ann Arbor: Arborville Publishing, 1996, ISBN 0-9650438-4-3).