Joseph Jarman, a saxophonist, flutist, woodwind player and percussionist who helped expand the parameters of performance in avant-garde jazz, especially as a member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, died on Wednesday at the Lillian Booth Actors Home in Englewood, N.J. He was 81.
His former wife, the writer and scholar Thulani Davis, said the cause was cardiac arrest as a result of respiratory failure.
Over the last two decades Mr. Jarman was less active in music than in other pursuits, notably his ministrations as a Buddhist priest and aikido instructor. With Ms. Davis, he founded the Brooklyn Buddhist Association in 1990. And his students at the Jikishinkan Aikido Dojo, which he established in Brooklyn, typically did not enroll there because of his jazz career; some may not have known much about it.
But Mr. Jarman was revered for his tenure in the Art Ensemble, from its inception in the late 1960s, through his departure in the early 1990s and again early in this century.
The group was an indomitable presence in experimental music, and a flagship of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a nonprofit cooperative with a focus on new music and African-American artists. It drew inspiration not only from jazz and blues but also from world music, ritual and folklore, all keen interests of Mr. Jarman’s.
Onstage, the band members embodied archetypes. The trumpeter Lester Bowie usually performed in a white lab coat, and the saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell looked the part of an everyday businessman. Mr. Jarman brought a more vivid theatricality to his role, typically appearing in African face paint and ceremonial vestments. He shared that tribal motif, meant to represent shamanism in non-Western cultures, with the band’s bassist, Malachi Favors, and its drummer, Famadou Don Moye.
Mr. Jarman played various saxophones in a style both earthy and imploring, with strong projection, impressive breath control and an abundance of extended techniques. He also played flute, clarinet, oboe and bassoon, and employed an array of percussion and toy instruments. And he was responsible for many of the spoken-word and visual elements that gave the Art Ensemble its reputation for multi-platform expression.
His solo career was no less an interdisciplinary pursuit. “Song For” (Delmark), his first album, recorded in 1966, included a track called “Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City,” constructed around his recitation of a poem. His concerts often involved dancers and performance artists. One large-scale work, “Bridge Piece,” presented in 1968, supplemented music with elaborate extras, including strobe lights and a juggler.
George Lewis described this performance in his book “A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music” (2008): “The audience was seated while the musicians moved around the space; a woman hung aluminum wrapping paper on audience members while a Top 40 station blared on a portable radio.”
Born in Pine Bluff, Ark., on Sept. 14, 1937, Joseph Jarman grew up in Chicago, mainly on the predominantly white North Side, where he attended an integrated elementary school. He attended DuSable High School on the South Side, where he fell in with an early mentor, the celebrated music educator Capt. Walter Dyett. Mr. Jarman’s instrument at the time was the snare drum, which he played in the concert band.
He dropped out of high school in 1955, his junior year, to join the Army. It was while in an Army band, stationed in Germany, that he picked up alto saxophone and clarinet and began listening seriously to jazz records. He was discharged in 1958 and eventually returned to Chicago, enrolling in Wilson Junior College, where he met Mr. Favors and Mr. Mitchell.
Through Mr. Mitchell he met the pianist and composer Muhal Richard Abrams, who was leading weekly rehearsals of an ensemble later known as the Experimental Band. The rehearsals, and Mr. Abrams’s composer workshops, led to the formation of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in 1965.
Mr. Jarman was a charter member of the organization and one of the first to draw widespread attention to it. In November 1965, as part of a series organized by students at the University of Chicago, he played a concert in Hyde Park there with the avant-garde composer John Cage. Their collaboration, “Imperfections in a Given Space,” received the first full-fledged review of an association member in a national publication, Down Beat. (It was a pan. “Nobody liked it, and that made it even better,” Mr. Jarman told Mr. Lewis.)
In 1967 Mr. Jarman joined the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble. A triumphant trip to Paris two years later transformed the group’s reputation (and its hierarchical name) and expanded its horizons.
“There was not only a wide development in the music, but more exposure to theater and dance and all of these kinds of forms, and we began to incorporate many of these elements into our work,” Mr. Jarman said in a 1987 interview with the New York radio station WKCR.
Mr. Jarman moved from Chicago to New York in 1982, while maintaining his touring schedule with the Art Ensemble. His travels took him to Japan, where he discovered another calling. He was ordained as a Shinshu Buddhist priest in 1990. By 1993 he had decided to retire from music to focus on his duties as priest and sensei.
Mr. Jarman’s survivors include two sons, Joseph Jr. and Jeffrey; a daughter, Calypso Jarman; and a number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Mr. Jarman was drawn out of retirement after several years by the violinist Leroy Jenkins. During the late 1990s they worked in a collective trio called Equal Interest, with the pianist Myra Melford. And Mr. Jarman began to enjoy an honorary stature among his musical heirs in New York. One of his customary responsibilities was the opening invocation at the Vision Festival, an annual gathering of avant-garde jazz, dance and performance art.
The Art Ensemble, which had become a trio after Mr. Bowie died in 1999, welcomed Mr. Jarman back into the fold in 2003, touring on a limited basis and releasing several albums on Pi Recordings. The reunited group released its first studio album, “The Meeting,” in 2003; a follow-up, “Sirius Calling,” was rendered bittersweet by the death of Mr. Favors before the album’s release.
The most recent Art Ensemble album, recorded live in 2004 and released in 2006, is “Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City,” named after the poem that Mr. Jarman recorded on his first album. He made his last public appearance in 2017, during a 50th-anniversary concert for the Art Ensemble of Chicago at the Miller Theater in Manhattan, reading his poetry and singing his songs.