In an interview with a French journalist, Joseph Jarman compared the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the avant-garde jazz quintet to which he belonged, to ‘a cake made from five ingredients: remove one of the ingredients and the cake no longer exists.’ Jarman, who died earlier this month, at 81, after a long illness, was the ingredient that made the band one of the most aesthetically adventurous groups of its era: he put the 'art' in Art Ensemble.

Jarman played saxophone, flute, woodwinds and percussion, but he was also a student of theatre and dance, and it was largely thanks to Jarman that the Art Ensemble’s concerts combined music with performance art and motion, surreal pranks and comedy skits, and a kind of ceremonial ritual that was meant to evoke the ancestral African motherland. (Jarman, the bassist Malachi Favors and the drummer Famoudou Don Moye often wore face paint on stage.) ‘I seek new sounds,’ he wrote in a poem, ‘because new sounds/seek me/Why, please tell me/must i limit myself/to a saxophone or clarinet!’

Jarman wrote some of the ensemble’s best-known compositions, such as the soaring modal blues ‘Dreaming of the Master’, but his most striking contributions were settings of his poems. Although he was powerfully influenced by the Black Arts poetry of Amiri Baraka, his work was quieter and more delicate. On A Jackson in Your House, an album recorded by the Art Ensemble in Paris in 1969, Jarman – his voice floating over a haunting backdrop of African thumb piano, zither, flute, harmonica and percussion – imagined the future of a young girl called Ericka:

child of our uncharted microtones
thrown through the dawn the maze of
longing
as she matures in Black America
the Panther paying homage to the people
torn with gun, television hero
gone to madness –
seeking the answer
can we … endure

For Jarman and the Art Ensemble, music was not simply a form of expression; it was a pillar of black existence and survival in a hostile world. ‘We Survive for the spirit of GREAT BLACK MUSIC and for the spirit of GREAT BLACK MUSIC alone,’ Jarman said. ‘Otherwise the great gray haze would overtake us (all humanity) and we would vanish, into what we are already – Light.’

An only child, Jarman was born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, in 1937, but when war broke out he moved to Chicago, where his mother Eva Robinson, a single parent, had taken a factory job in the defence industry. Jarman spent his first few years in the Near North Side, one of Chicago’s only integrated areas, and attended an elementary school where there were both black and white students. At DuSable High, he studied snare drums – he couldn’t afford a saxophone – with Captain Walter Dyett, but dropped out to enlist in the army.

He became a paratrooper in the 11th Airborne Division, and in 1956 was deployed to Vietnam, in a secret mission against a Communist hideout. As Paul Steinbeck writes in his history of the Art Ensemble, A Message to our Folks, ‘they destroyed their target, only to discover that it held women and children.’ Jarman, who had been wounded in his leg, got himself transferred to the 11th Airborne Division Band, stationed near Munich, where he began playing saxophone and clarinet.

Back in Chicago after his discharge in 1958, he succumbed to the bottle and the needle, and lost his ability to speak. Hoping to recover his voice, he travelled across the States on a Greyhound bus. In spring 1959 he arrived in El Paso, a city ‘full/of dust and silence. High off – pills, smack/other deadly joys, mute, silent and noiseless.’ He ‘wandered into the white district’, where he was beaten up by a racist police officer:

‘don’t you hear us boy!’
I write on my pad ‘MUTE’ ‘I CANNOT SPEAK’
bang, against my chest, night stick
‘nigger this ain’t where you want to be,
now about three block thata way is the
nigger-wetback place.’

Next stop, Tucson, where he spent a few months recovering from depression in a veterans’ hospital. After reading The Teachings of the Buddha, he was able to speak again. When he settled in Milwaukee, he met the Japanese Zen Buddhist priest who became his lifelong teacher. ‘I give you ten thousand years and then I will kill you,’ the priest told him. ‘And I said: “OK.”’

He returned to Chicago in 1960. At the Woodrow Wilson Junior College, where ‘all areas of music were open,’ he met two of his future bandmates, Favors and the saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, and joined the Experimental Band, an ensemble formed by Muhal Richard Abrams. The Experimental Band evolved into the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a black musicians’ collective and school founded in 1965; Jarman was one of the twenty signatories of its charter.

He quickly distinguished himself as a saxophonist of lyricism and imagination, and as one of the AACM’s most radical innovators. In one of its first concerts, his quartet performed Imperfections in a Given Space with John Cage. Sitting at a table, Cage made sounds with erasers, paper and water, amplified with microphones, to which Jarman’s quartet replied. ‘I don’t care what you do,’ Jarman’s mother told him, ‘I hope you never play with that guy again.’ He never did – and Cage would condescendingly recall his concert with a group of unnamed ‘black musicians’ – but the experience reinforced Jarman’s decision to ‘present a total expression that an audience has to approach with greater involvement than mere listening’.

He included dancers and actors in his performances, accompanied the Beat poet Diane di Prima on his saxophone, and began setting his own poems to music. Jarman debuted his best-known poem, ‘Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City’, on his first album, Song For, a work for sextet released in 1966. It’s a 14-minute vision of the coming urban apocalypse, depicting the city as a place

where no one is more alone than any other
moan, it’s the hip plea for see me, see me, I exist
exit the tenderness for power/black or white
no difference now/the power/city

A writer for Downbeat described the piece’s premiere in Chicago:

The curtains parted to reveal a psychedelic setting: variously hued lights flashed, junk was piled like a Rauschenberg sculpture, clothes were strewn everywhere, giant pop-poster canvas of Ku Klux Klansmen and Alabama sheriffs hung high at stage rear.

In 1968, Jarman’s pianist, Christopher Gaddy, died of kidney failure, at 24; hardly a year later, his bassist, Charles Clark, also 24, died of a cerebral haemorrhage. Jarman fell once again into depression.

His AACM collaborators Mitchell, Favors and Lester Bowie invited him to join a new band, the Art Ensemble of Chicago. ‘Those guys pulled me out of the great dark despair … through the wonder of music,’ Jarman said. ‘They understood my pain and my hurt, but that I still had to play.’

In May 1969, the band moved to Paris, where they were joined by Moye. Over the next year, the Art Ensemble recorded with the singer Brigitte Fontaine and the Beninois poet Alfred Panou, and made some of their greatest albums, including their masterpiece, People in Sorrow. As Jarman wrote in one of his poems, in Paris the band found a ‘vibration/free of air, clear somehow/even of America’. He wandered around the Left Bank, met the bebop drummer Kenny Clarke, and made friends with Allen Ginsberg, whose ‘nihilistic concept of being’ he admired. His on-stage theatrics, meanwhile, made the Art Ensemble the talk of Paris. At the Actuel Festival in Belgium in October 1969, he did a frenzied burlesque of James Brown during a performance of ‘Rock Out’, a Mitchell piece based on the drumbeat of Brown’s ‘Cold Sweat’. By the end of the song he had torn off all his clothes and tossed them into the crowd.

‘African musicians were also actors, dancers,’ Jarman said. ‘What we’re doing just re-establishes an old tradition.’ But he conceded that the Art Ensemble’s performance art was something more than African revivalism. ‘It was not only the black community that had influence on me and several others, but it was also the parallel hippie community that had developed during that time.’ Some of his peers, he added, ‘would never admit that they were into hippie culture – the flower children, free living, the awareness of LSD and what it did to people’s consciousness. That’s not part of the illusionary black history orientation that they want to be identified with.’ But he knew all the Beatles’ songs, and the Art Ensemble often performed opposite rock bands. For Jarman, ‘great black music’ was not a sanctuary from the world, it was the world – the world as experienced and interpreted by great black musicians.

The Art Ensemble distinguished itself as the greatest free jazz collective of its era, and as the AACM’s signature touring band. The horn section embodied the AACM’s philosophy of collective and individual emancipation, of a raucous unity-in-difference: Mitchell, a sonic visionary with a taste for marathon circular breathing exercises and other forms of extreme aesthetic experiment; Bowie, a travelling bluesman with a love of pop who wore a lab coat on stage; and Jarman, the group’s spiritual seeker and poet. In 1977, he published a collection of poems, Black Case Volumes I and II: Return from Exile. By exile, he meant not physical separation from one’s homeland, but mental isolation of the kind he’d experienced after Vietnam:

a state of mind that people get into in order to escape from the reality of themselves in the world of the now … If you are “in Exile” this book as small as it is – is to say to everyone, without exception, that you are loved and can indeed RETURN.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Jarman performed on four of the Art Ensemble’s remarkable series of albums for ECM records, which were recently assembled in an anthology of 22 discs, The Art Ensemble and Associated Ensembles. He made several albums with Moye, notably the mesmerising concert Egwu-Anwu (Sun Song) and Black Paladins, where they were joined by the exiled South African bassist Johnny Dyani. Jarman also met and married the poet and novelist Thulani Davis. (They eventually divorced, but remained close, and Davis looked after him when he grew ill.)

His music had grown out of silence, and to silence he ultimately returned. In 1990, after a visit to Japan, Jarman was ordained as a Shin Buddhist priest. Three years later, he left the Art Ensemble, devoting himself to the Brooklyn Buddhist association, which he founded with Davis, and to the Jikishinkan Aikido Dojo, where he taught martial arts. He appeared very rarely in concert, and when he did it was usually in a sacred register, such as his performance of Coltrane’s ‘Dear Lord’ with the pianist Marilyn Crispell. Although he briefly rejoined the Art Ensemble in 2003, his career as a musician was behind him. ‘Silence is the artist’s ultimate other-worldly gesture,’ Susan Sontag wrote: ‘by silence, he frees himself from servile bondage to the world.’ But Jarman’s silence, for all its appearance of retreat, was a worldly gesture, reflecting his commitment to the faith that had enabled him to speak again, and brought him back from exile.