A Fireside Chat with Milford Graves
“ I have a certain kind of personality when I play tabla and a certain kind of personality when I play conga. ”
If you like the 'free jazz' or 'avant-garde' or 'loft' or 'downtown' or whatever other bullshit name they give this music, you are a fan of Milford Graves. You may not know it, but you are. Much like Henry Grimes, Graves is one of those musicians that those in the know, know and those in the, well, not know, don't. Albert Ayler's Love Cry, that's Graves. The killing ESP sessions, New York Art Quartet, Barrage, Giuseppi Logan Quartet, and Lowell Davidson Trio, that's Graves. And Sonny Sharrock's Black Woman, you get the picture. I was honored to speak with Graves, a musician I have long admired and never lived long enough in New York to see live. Folks, Milford Graves, unedited and in his own words.
FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.
MILFORD GRAVES: I had no special reason. From a talk with my parents, I was probably around two or three years old when I started hitting a drum. The drums were in the house and I tried to figure it out over the years, why did I enter music and why did I play the instrument that I play and I really can't come up with anything that would give me a definite reason why, other than that's what I was put on the planet to do.
FJ: Every child, at some point or another, plays drum hands, but only a very diminutive minority take up the art.
MG: I was in junior high school and I was playing for the assembly programs. I was asked to play for the special events that we had at our school. I formed a drum group and we had some dancers. We called it interpretive dancing at the time, but they were actually trying to do African dance. I realized that there was something happening when I would be playing before a bunch of my friends in an auditorium and that is when I started realizing it and started to get serious.
FJ: When did you begin studying the tabla?
MG: I started learning tabla in 1965 and I studied with Wasantha Singh.
FJ: Apart from aesthetics, what are the differences between a tabla and a conga?
MG: First of all, it is the make of the drum itself. The tabla is a much smaller instrument compared to the conga. The tabla is also played with each individual finger. You can do that with the congas too, but the congas really play with all the fingers really hitting at the same time. With tabla, the fingers are hitting at individual, different times. It is a sequence you do with each finger. The way that the tabla is made allows you to manipulate the skin to get these different kind of tonal properties out. That is really the big difference. I have a certain kind of personality when I play tabla and a certain kind of personality when I play conga.
FJ: Talk to me about your collaborations with the New York Art Quartet.
MG: That group started before me. I met that group in 1964. They had already had a group and J.C. Moses was the drummer before I was in that group. I met Roswell (Rudd) and John Tchicai through Guiseppi Logan and Guiseppi Logan asked me if I would like to a rehearsal of the New York Art Quartet, that he had met one of these guys and they invited him to a rehearsal and he told me to come along. The rehearsal was at a loft that was owned by Michael Snow, who is a Canadian artist. We went there and they played and asked Guiseppi if he wanted to sit in because he brought his alto saxophone. So he played and then he asked Roswell and John if I could play and then I played. J.C. Moses had left and they listened to the tape because they recorded the whole session and said that they liked what I was doing and if I would like to be the new drummer and that was it. John Tchicai is no longer a member of that band. At the present time, John Zorn is playing with the band. John Tchicai decided it was time for him to leave the band.
FJ: Guiseppi Logan is a free jazz urban legend. Is Logan dead or alive?
MG: Well, the reports that I've received is that he is still alive. He was spotted up in Harlem, New York. That's what people say. I don't know. I was approached to go up to Harlem to seek him out. Somebody spotted him in a hotel on 125th Street and I haven't had the opportunity to do that. Someone said they saw him, but I don't know. I wouldn't say that he is still alive. That was the latest on him. I last saw Guiseppi Logan in the Seventies and he wasn't in good shape. He was in the streets. He is a question mark whether he is still alive. Hopefully, he is. I was the one who told Bernard Stollman (founder of ESP) about Guiseppi Logan. I met Bernard Stollman through the New York Art Quartet. He wanted to record me and in turn, I told Guiseppi that I have some time because I'm a young guy and instead of me taking this record date and being the leader, I gave him the record date and so he took the record date. It was 1965 when we did that together.
FJ: And your work with Albert Ayler, who has in death become an underground superhero.