Milford Graves (1941–2021)

February 19th, 2021

AS A CHILD IN JAMAICA, Queens, Milford Graves played on tin cans in the woods, “sending signals, trying to get everybody’s attention.” This spirit of adventure, showmanship, and defiance of convention never left him. Beginning on conga drums, he learned about Afro-Cuban music through a distant cousin, viewing it as the missing link between bebop and the African diaspora, and studied with tabla player Wasantha Singh. Forming a Latin group with pianist Chick Corea, who predeceased him by a matter of days, he gravitated toward jazz for its greater harmonic openness, switching from conga and timbales to drumkit but incorporating the percussion-heavy approach of his Cuban groups. In 1964, he joined the New York Art Quartet, co-led by Afro-Danish saxophonist John Tchicai and trombonist Roswell Rudd. His highly active style—what Rudd called an “anti-gravity vortex”—virtually eradicated divisions between “front-line” and “rhythm section.” To Amiri Baraka, Graves sounded “like some kind of natural phenomenon.” It was as if he wanted to exhaust every possible rhythmic, timbral, and tonal combination available at any given moment, operating in a space of almost limitless discovery.

“The music was just as free as people [who] wanted to ride in the front of a bus [...] to go into the front entrance of the store in the South,” Graves later remarked. Feeling the music to be political at every level, he was involved in the Black Arts Movement and in musicians’ self-organization endeavors such as the Jazz Composer’s Guild and the October Revolution in Jazz. In 1966, he and pianist Don Pullen set up the label SRP (Self-Reliance Project) as an alternative to an exploitative, largely white-controlled music industry. The following year, he joined Albert Ayler’s band: Playing with Ayler at John Coltrane’s funeral, his drums resembled bursts of thunder. Graves recalled a night where Ayler played with such intensity that particles of the mouthpiece became wedged in his throat. But whereas Ayler bookended collective improvisation with composed melodies, Graves pushed the envelope of “energy music” even further. His duos with Pullen abandoned any fixed structures, and in the 1970s, his “Bäbi Music” ensembles—Graves on drums with at least two horn players—approximated, as he put it, “car horns and the continuous cracking of glass.” Bäbi Music (1977), Meditation Among Us (1977), and other unofficial live performances are extraordinarily joyous, multiphonic squalls, as if every rhythm under the sun were sounding at the same time.

Graves’s 1965 Percussion Ensemble may have been the first full-length percussion record in “jazz.” He followed it up with the Dialogue of the Drums collaboration with Andrew Cyrille, sometimes expanded to a trio with Rashied Ali, and with numerous solo recitals. Graves sought to create a new vocabulary for the drum kit: removing heads and drumskins; playing surfaces with beaters, shakers, even tree branches; and incorporating vocal glossolalia based on the international phonetic alphabet and on tonal languages such as Yoruba. His approach fundamentally physical, Graves moved with the music, traversing every inch of the kit—and often dancingly away from it too. He invented a martial art, yara, based in part on West African dance, and collaborated with Japanese butoh dancer Min Tanaka, with whom he shared a whole-body aesthetic highly adaptable to different natural and human environments, on visits to Japan playing outside at Tanaka’s Body Weather Farm, in sports halls for developmentally impaired children, and for old age pensioners awaiting health appointments.

From 1973 until 2012, Graves taught at Bennington College, Vermont. Viewing music as a community endeavor, and resisting commercial pressure, he recorded only rarely, but appeared at William Parker and Patricia Nicholson’s Vision Festival every year from its founding in 1996 to 2019. In 1970, Graves inherited his grandmother’s Queens house, turning it into a kind of lived installation, decorating it in the fashion of artists like Henry Dorsey: his grandfather’s rusting tools hung up like a bottle tree, his garden—the visual centerpiece of Jake Meginsky’s 2018 film portrait Full Mantis—used for herbs and tinctures. Beginning in the mid-’70s, he conducted research into heart rhythms and their relation to drumming practice, building a laboratory in his basement, and collaborating with Italian microbiologists on stem cell research. Receiving a terminal diagnosis for a heart condition in 2018, he treated himself through percussion work, likely extending the span of his life by several years.

Graves’s upbringing in the Baptist church, along with his study of santería and voodoo, gave him a conception of music as healing and survival. “Black people [go to church] to find out how to keep some inspiration to stay on this planet,” he commented. “I grew up with the feeling.” Black music served for Graves as a route to a global pursuit of what he called “a different rhythm of the self.” “Do he swing? Do anything?” asked Baraka. As Graves himself put it in Full Mantis: “Swing is getting you to move from one point to another point. It’s putting life into you. It means when you can feel, like, hey man, I want to live till the next day.” Graves saw free jazz as “a people’s music,” a working knowledge of survival, from Queens to Cuba to Nigeria to Japan and back: not just a musical form, but a way of life. His music teaches us how to continue in the heart of the storm.

David Grundy is a poet and scholar based in London.