"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."