For Milford Graves, Jazz Innovation Is Only Part of the Alchemy
Posted April 26, 2018 11:16 p.m. EDT
NEW YORK — Calling Milford Graves an autodidact would be basically correct, but it gets at the wrong idea. Known as a game-changing drummer of the 1960s avant-garde, he’s also become a kind of underground thought-leader in martial arts, natural healing and cellular biology. That wasn’t just by learning from what was available; he likes to build new systems, reshaping the channels by which information comes to him.
Graves prefers to live in territory that’s uncharted, which often means unseen, but a small wave of recognition has started to flow his way. Since fall, he’s been featured in a range of major art magazines and has exhibited his first sculpture (exploring connections between body and rhythm) at Hunter College. Last month, he played two triumphant sets at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee. And on Friday, the documentary “Milford Graves Full Mantis” has its New York premiere at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
The film’s main lesson is that it’s possible for an artist to spend an entire life working his way back from the source material: If he makes his principles expansive enough, he might even succeed in creating a loose society of learners around him, with or without an institution’s help. In one scene, Graves, 76, stands in his backyard garden in Jamaica, Queens, speaking to the film’s director, Jake Meginsky. A vegetable provides more nutrients if you eat it directly, he says. Then he bends over and gobbles up a spinach leaf, chewing it down to the stem. This moment shows where his creativity flourishes — at the square root of super-seriousness and total innocence.
Walking into his basement laboratory Saturday, I found a wall lined with bottles of herbal extracts he’s made. He’s frequently sought out as a healer and acupuncturist by neighbors and artists across the city.
Even to a knowledgeable jazz fan, the depth of Graves’ inquiries would probably be a surprise. He’s spent decades directly researching the human heart in that basement, using software he’s built to measure its textured pulse and convert it into a melody. By feeding those sounds back to a person, he’s found he can increase blood flow and possibly even stimulate cell growth. This work recently led Graves to a partnership with a team of Italian biologists. Last year, they patented a device that aims to use these melodies to regenerate stem cells.
Graves does this research in the semisuburban Queens home where he and his wife, Lois, have lived since 1970. (He grew up nearby, then inherited the house from his grandmother.) Years ago, he festooned its exterior with a creeping, Gaudíesque mosaic of stones and colored glass. In the comfortably cluttered basement, books on biology, Kundalini yoga and 20th-century music perch next to West African drums and Indian tablas.
“I guess I’ve always been my own person,” Graves said, sitting in baggy sweatpants and a flannel jacket by a bank of six computer monitors. “I didn’t have no teacher, and that was great, because I was allowed to figure it out without anybody telling me to do it this way or that way. That came later, when I said, Oh, that’s the conventional way.”
He grew up playing timbales in Latin jazz and mambo bands, where the rhythmic complexity is greater and more gravity-defying than in standard jazz drumming. Graves decided to move to the kit after hearing Elvin Jones with John Coltrane at a club — not to imitate what he’d heard, but to transcend it, add more range. “I said, ‘He’s cool, but I hear something else, man,'” Graves said. “I heard what he wasn’t doing.”
On the drum kit, he met the new challenge of incorporating foot pedals. Playing Latin percussion, he recalled, “we’d be doing dance movements while we were playing. So I said: ‘That’s all I’ll do. I’m going to start dancing down below. I started dancing on the high-hat.” He fell in with the improvising avant-garde around 1963, recording first with the New York Art Quartet, a group that’s now iconic. He had begun to develop a polyrhythmic style of free playing, shapely and articulate and unabating. Delivering most strokes at about 60 to 80 percent force, Graves sometimes holds multiple sticks in one hand, each tapping a different drum with a different rhythm. He maintains a low and certain flow, even as patterns tilt and tempos shift.
Soon he had radically remodeled his drum kit, ditching the snare drum and taking the bottom skins off his toms, getting a soupier resonance. He said the snare’s stiff-toned sound fit its European military origins better than it did his music. “The potential of how you can manipulate a vibrating drum membrane is much greater,” Graves said. He suggested that jazz drummers who use the snare might simply be “following orders without questioning those orders” — his idea of a grave sin.
In 1973, he began teaching at Bennington College in Vermont, where he stayed on as a professor until 2012, holding forth on topics well beyond any single subject, despite having no more than a high school diploma. But he spent most of each week back in Queens, teaching percussion and yara, a hybrid martial art of his own creation, to interested artists and neighborhood residents.
In “Full Mantis,” Graves is the only speaker, which makes for both a captivating sound poem (philosophical speech interleaved with performances) and a risk: It positions him as a solitary figure, too far ahead to relate to, whereas, in fact, he’s always been a convener and a sharer. For many years, he has hosted informal Sunday get-togethers in his basement, assembling different groups of guests, teaching and opening up broad discussions.
“At the house, you meet people from all over,” said Meginsky, who served as Graves’ personal assistant for more than a decade before making “Full Mantis” out of a combination of his own recordings and Graves’ old videos. “You’re meeting classical musicians there, you’re meeting consecrated priests in Santeria and Ifá and voodoo, you’re meeting doctors, you’re meeting guys who run the health food store in South Jamaica, drummers, gardeners.” Pianist Jason Moran, who sought out Graves for a duet at Big Ears, said in an interview that he’s long been impressed by the way Graves “turns the way that knowledge functions around, into the personal, away from the textbook.”
He added: “He follows through on all those intuitions where I think most of us sometimes don’t, really spending his time.”
Onstage at the Bijou Theater in Knoxville, the two musicians let their instincts multiply, Moran moving from chunky chords to rippling repetitions of a single high note. Even when the pianist swept down to the lowest reaches of his instrument, Graves seemed to stay underneath him, a ballast in constant flux, offering only the guarantee that he would listen, and change.