When appraising the work of Milford Graves, you need to reimagine what constitutes jazz and improvisation. Yes, he’s a master percussionist who helped take the drums beyond mere timekeeping. But he’s also much more than that. Now 78 and a faculty member emeritus at Bennington College, Graves is the rare (perhaps sole) musician whose pursuits have crossed multiple disciplines for decades, resulting in dozens of important jazz works, patents for medical devices, herbal cures for various ailments, paintings, sculptures, costume art, and a lifelong study of the human heartbeat as a means to creating music and healing illness.
In the first major retrospective honoring Graves, Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in partnership with Ars Nova Workshop is presenting Milford Graves: A Mind-Body Deal, which also marked the reopening of ICA to the public. Running from September 25, 2020 through January 24, 2021, A Mind-Body Deal spans six decades and comprises more than 40 artworks, including rare hand-painted album covers and posters, unusual drum sets, multimedia sculptures, photographs, and costumes, as well as artifacts from Graves’ home, scientific studies, recording ephemera, and archival recordings.
The exhibition’s timing couldn’t be more profound: Graves has amyloid cardiomyopathy, sometimes called stiff heart syndrome, which is currently incurable. When diagnosed in 2018, Graves was told he had six months to live, which launched the former heart researcher into healing his own failing heart muscle. “I don’t want to leave the planet with things undone,” he told The New York Times from his home in Jamaica, Queens, New York, in August 2020.
A Mind-Body Deal includes “The Professor,” the 15-minute promo video for Full Mantis, a 2018 feature-length documentary on Graves; the excerpt focuses on his incantation-worthy, atmospheric solo drumming, along with remembrances of performances with Albert Ayler and early Afro-Cuban and Afro-Caribbean instruction. The 90-minute 1982 documentary Speaking in Tongues documentary is also here, featuring Graves, David Murray, and Billy Bang (and a cameo by the late Stanley Crouch) in performance and discussion of Ayler, at whose funeral the trio performed in 1970. Here and in other videos, Graves’ performance is marked by a unique attribute: His sticks at times seem to not make actual contact with his drums (though they obviously do somehow), while creating waves of rhythms that don’t necessarily mirror his body movements. It’s masterful sleight of hand. Or is it? Some note that his curious left-hand traditional-style grip is sometimes augmented by muting the snare drum with his left elbow; others call him a shaman.
Nearly 50 videos by filmmaker Jake Meginsky (who directed Full Mantis) cover Graves’ martial art Yara, a performance with Arthur Doyle and William Parker, another with Peter Brötzmann, solo drum concerts, lectures, workshops, demonstrations of healing techniques, garden planting in Queens, and a Reuters video interview titled “The Heartbeat Drummer.” Footage of heart ultrasounds, concerts, martial-arts displays, and interviews fills another 100 or so videos. Audio recordings reveal Graves performing on trumpet, saxophone, trombone, and various gongs, plus performances with Arthur Doyle and Hugh Glover in various formats, and audio and photos taken from Graves’ personal cassette library.
Hundreds of photos document Graves’ concerts, acupuncture techniques, martial-arts training, drum set and conga instruction, boyhood and family. There’s also a baby picture and—dated April 12, 1962—a Village Voice concert ad including Herbie Mann, Cal Tjader, and the Milford Graves Latin Jazz Quartet, which consisted of saxophonist Pete Yellin, pianist Chick Corea, bassist Lisle Atkinson, and conga player Bill Fitch.
For those hoping to delve deeper into Graves’ mind, closeup photos of his personal library are included. Titles include Wavelets and Their Scientific Application, Multiwave Statistical Analysis, Zen and the Brain, Where Mathematics Comes From, On the Sensations of Tone, A Recitation of Ifa—Oracle of the Yoruba, African Ceremonies, The Secret Doctrine, and Chasing the Dragon’s Tail, among hundreds of hardbacks and paperbacks.
Battling his illness while continuing to work, Graves ceaselessly monitors his own heart with a stethoscope while his students document his findings, hoping to continue his research in the future. Treating students, neighbors, and colleagues (this reporter once requested a cure for enlarged prostate from the master), he has since 1990 recorded some 5,000 heartbeats. His self-designed computer programs analyze the heart’s rhythms and pitches, amplifying the more obscure patterns and relating them to melodies and vibration frequencies, which can then be used for both musical and medical analysis. Hopefully, “The Professor” will cure himself.
Though his contributions are stunning, from music to medicine, knowledge of Graves’ life and work still seems to require an inside track, like an aural history passed among devotees. A Mind-Body Deal opens the door to his many achievements.