Milford Graves: Time Piece


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"Don't tell me how many years you've been doing something." Milford Graves's delivery is surprisingly restrained given the directness of his statement. "I want to know how completely you're filling that time, how you're spending each nanosecond."

The statement defines the energy and vitality that this extraordinary musician brings to every aspect of his artistic life. To label Graves as one of the pioneers of free jazz is to define his work in far too narrow a scope. Leaving aside, for the moment, his contributions to herbology, the martial arts, acupuncture and to the healing characteristics of music, his approach to the drums places him apart from many of those with whom he has so often been compared. Each phrase he plays resists simple categorization, whether in the service of fire-and-brimstone free improvisation or as heard in the melodies he conjures from skin, metal and wood. His appetite for learning is as enormous as his thinking is broad, but beyond learning and cultivation, feeling is of paramount importance to him. He states, "The drum is the heart" and his is music of the heart, figuratively and literally, with all its rhythmic intricacies and melodic subtleties. Those attending the Vision Festival this month will have a rare opportunity to hear and see Graves filling time as only he can.

While long and intensive research informs all aspects of Graves' art, his experience with jazz began comparatively late. Until his early 20s, his interest in that particular musical category was limited, but his fascination with the music of other cultures was manifested quite early. "I really loved the music of India, which I first heard in movies. As a kid, I'd watch those films about the British in India and I remember being so taken with the music. It sounded different than anything I'd heard, but I liked it." As a player, his main attraction was to Latin music, particularly to the timbales and congas, on which he became proficient at a young age after a distant cousin began to demonstrate rhythms. "I came from a musical family and several of my close relatives were drummers. We always had drums in the house and since I was an only child, those drums were my brothers and sisters." His passion for Afro-Cuban rhythms led to an eventual interest in Art Blakey, but most jazz drumming left him cold, especially when brushes were involved. "I didn't want to hear brushes on skin. As far as I was concerned, give me sticks!" Yet, he began to enjoy the melodies of jazz standards, "How High the Moon" being an early favorite. Meanwhile, as he was gaining valuable experience accompanying dance, he began to realize that job opportunities for timbale, bongo and conga players were limited.

It was on a 1962 visit to the Copa City club, the premier jazz establishment in Jamaica, Queens that Graves' musical path opened before him. "I went with a friend of mine, [saxophonist] Joe Rigby, who said we were going to hear John Coltrane. Well, the name meant nothing to me, but I'm sitting in front of the stage and there's Elvin Jones. Most of the other drummers I'd heard were playing fairly simple patterns and I'm listening to Elvin thinking, Wow, you can really play all that?"

That evening's experience caused Graves to rethink completely his preconceptions about jazz drumming. In that context, the appearance of his ESP album Percussion Ensemble in 1965, in addition to his precisely sensitive trapsmanship on seminal recordings by Giuseppi Logan and Lowell Davidson, are all the more miraculous. "I really woodshedded," Graves smiles at the period of intense contemplation and practice following his revelation. "I heard what Elvin was doing, but I also began to imagine what I would do if I was playing in that group." It became clear to him that if he translated what he'd been playing in other musics of the African Diaspora, he could achieve some of the ideas that had so recently exploded into his consciousness.

Graves now sees the '60s as the brief time in which the nebulous but all-pervasive powers-that-be did not yet control the populace to the present degree. Yet, he does not perceive the revolutionary activity so prevalent in those turbulent years as a product of one race or group. "Oh yes, plenty of white people were doing revolutionary things during that time." Furthermore, Graves does not limit freedom to a generation. He tells a story of the day Papa Jo Jones walked him to the subway. "He said to me, 'You know what, young man? We wanted to do that avant-garde stuff too' and I thought, My gracious, this guy knows who I am." The fact that such a venerable figure in the music was watching, listening and acknowledging his contribution proved a rite of passage for him. "I think that the guys from what we might call the old school were putting down the avant-garde because it's really what they wanted to do. It brought back old anger in them, because that freedom was denied them."

Graves lent his unique rhythm and timbral freedom to the two New York Art Quartet (NYAQ) albums in 1964 and 1965. The later '60s found him taking part in more landmark sessions, Albert Ayler's Love Cry and Sonny Sharrock's Black Woman chief among them. Less discussed but equally important are his duo discs with pianist Don Pullen, released on SRP, an independent label then owned by the pair. The second side of Nomo, recorded at Yale University in 1966, opens with Graves executing microtones, which are then imitated by Pullen in a way that Graves found energizing. "He's playing clusters there, which approximate microtones that the piano can't manufacture and it complements what I'm doing on the drums." NYAQ colleague Roswell Rudd remembers: "[Milford's] playing was like an anti-gravity vortex, in which you could either float or fly depending on your impulse."

The '70s were a pivotal time for Graves in that he began the simultaneous inward and outward journeys that would determine his present activities. He began to travel to Japan and to Africa, the initial trips to both regions occurring in 1977. His exposure to the cultural riches of Asia and Africa would manifest themselves 25 years later on his two solo discs for John Zorn's Tzadik label. In 1973, he was invited by Bill Dixon to join the Black Music department at Bennington College, where he has remained for 36 years and which has given him a platform to address his music in its sociopolitical context. Of equal importance, in 1975 he began to study the pitch levels of heart sounds, a subject to which he has devoted many hours of research. Listening to the complex pitch relationships produced by different areas of the heart can serve diagnostic purposes, some of which have been documented in national media, but there are also musical implications to Graves' studies. "We are simply not making music that is up to our potential. The complexities you can hear in the sounds of one person's heartbeat are very similar to free jazz and if we were to make music that was in tune with the vibrations of our bodies, the results would be very powerful." Recently, Graves has used heart sounds in performance. He records the sounds of each musician's heart and plays them back while the musicians are performing and he is contemplating using this technique on a future recording project. However, the ideal of achieving potential informs every performance in which he takes part, recorded or otherwise. "My job as a musician is to inspire whoever I'm playing to the best of their abilities and more! The worst thing that can happen would be to play with somebody and to find that there's no exchange, no giving back."

While Graves performed with a degree of regularity in the '80s and '90s, recording projects became infrequent, the multi-percussionist Pieces of Time (Soul Note, 1983) and The Real Deal with David Murray (DIW, 1991) being notable exceptions. "I took myself off the scene. I saw too many musicians getting overrecorded by certain American labels, or exploited in other ways." He feels that the Japanese labels with whom he's been associated treat him with more respect. "There are times when a person needs to make a statement, and I thought that conditions were such that it was my time to take a stand against what I saw as unfair treatment of the artists."

Graves sees his upcoming appearance at this year's Vision festival as a sort of re-emergence; he will be joined by pianist DD Jackson, saxophonist Grant Langford and bassist William Parker; of the three musicians, Parker is the only one with whom Graves has previously played, most notably on a recent collaboration with Anthony Braxton [Beyond Quantum, Tzadik, 2008]. "I met Jackson at Don Pullen's hospital bedside and since Don couldn't be present, DD came to mind. I heard Grant play at a Bennington College function and even though he was playing inside, I heard things that I thought we could develop." Given the power and individuality of Graves' most recent music, this event should constitute a unique statement. Of Graves' accomplishments, John Zorn puts it best: "Milford's approach to music, life and thought is perhaps best described as shamanistic—for him, music is quite literally a healing force. He is a true renaissance man, with a vision both ancient and modern in its scope. He is intensely focused, honest and passionate—a technical master who has long ago transcended technique itself... Ever curious in a thirst for knowledge, he continues to study, learn and grow, gaining strength, power and wisdom with each passing day."

Recommended Listening

New York Art Quartet, Eponymous (ESP-Disk, 1964)
Albert Ayler, Love Cry (Impulse, 1967)
Milford Graves, Babi Music (IPS, 1976)
Milford Graves, Grand Unification (Tzadik, 1997)
Milford Graves/John Zorn Duo, 50th Birthday Celebration Live, Vol. 2 (Tzadik, 2003)
Anthony Braxton, Beyond Quantum (Tzadik, 2008)

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