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Milford Graves 1941–2021

A multifaceted talent in numerous fields, he redefined the role of the drums in the jazz ensemble

Milford Graves at the 24th annual Vision Festival
Milford Graves at the 24th annual Vision Festival, Brooklyn, N.Y., June 11, 2019 (photo: Marek Lazarski)

Milford Graves, a drummer whose work in the free-jazz milieu helped to transform the voice of his instrument, died February 12 at his home in the New York City borough of Queens. He was 79.

His death was confirmed by National Public Radio, and initially reported on Twitter by NPR producer Lars Gotrich. Cause of death was congestive heart failure, related to a 2018 diagnosis of amyloid cardiomyopathy.

“Jazz drummer” was only one of many descriptors of Graves’ life and work. He was also a percussionist, an acupuncturist, a boxer, an herbalist, an inventor, a martial artist who created his own idiom, a painter and sculptor, a scientific researcher, and an educator. In short, he was a true polymath, the width of whose interests could amaze and intimidate those who encountered him. (A 2018 documentary, Milford Graves Full Mantis, gives a sampling of his remarkable omnivorousness.)

On the drums, he was a unique stylist. Already a professional percussionist when he first began playing a trap kit, Graves used his hands to play rhythms like those of his timbales, tablas, and African drums; with his feet, he tapped out the dances to those rhythms on the hi-hat and kick drums. The result completely restructured the role of the drums, making them as dynamic and abstract as the other instruments in a free-jazz context.

This was not an accident. Graves had a lifelong determination to move the drums away from their traditional timekeeping role; he went so far as to tell students to “throw the metronome and the snare drum away.” Instead, he incorporated West African and African-American dance forms; taught himself the graphic coding language LabVIEW, which is used to visually express seismic waves; and studied heartbeats, regular and irregular, centralizing the concept in what he called “biological music”—a system that won him a Guggenheim fellowship in 2000 and was widely praised by mainstream medical practitioners as well as alternative healers and musicians.

“We want to explore the true body rhythms, people’s vibrations, frequencies,” Graves told New York magazine in 2001. “Because people vibrate, and they vibrate differently. There’s a true personal music. Once you get with it, it can make you feel a lot better.”

When diagnosed with a heart condition in 2018, Graves turned both his research and his musical practice into a treatment regimen for himself, buying heart monitoring equipment on eBay, playing back recordings of his own pulse, and setting the rhythms to music. Told at diagnosis that he had six months to live, Graves instead survived for nearly three years.

Graves’ aesthetics brought him into an ever-expanding circle of collaborators and associates, from Miriam Makeba to Jason Moran to Lou Reed and Alice in Chains. He was an early colleague of free-jazz pioneers Albert Ayler, Giuseppi Logan, and Sonny Sharrock; however, he might be best known for his work in the New York Art Quartet, an avant-garde ensemble that refocused free jazz on subtle, often quiet polyphony with the drums at its forefront. Graves was also a frequent solo performer, and often engaged in drum “dialogues” with the likes of Andrew Cyrille and Rashied Ali.

Milford Robert Graves was born August 20, 1941 in Jamaica, Queens. He began playing drums at age three, teaching himself by way of experimentation on a drum set in the family foyer, and in his childhood he studied congas, timbales, and African hand percussion.

Shortly after graduating from Brooklyn’s Boys’ High School in 1960, Graves became a professional musician. He cofounded the McKinley-Graves band, a Latin jazz ensemble that played around his Jamaica neighborhood; by 1962, he was at the head of the Milford Graves Latino Quintet, which also featured a young Chick Corea on piano. That year, Graves encountered saxophonist John Coltrane’s quartet; inspired by Elvin Jones, he turned again to the trap kit, borrowing one from a neighbor.

“My feet were dormant on the pedals, weren’t doing any damn thing. But upstairs I was tearing things up,” he recalled in 2013. “I said, ‘I’m going to work out some stuff to do with these feet.’ I started thinking of my dance movements. I could dance with my feet on this thing.” This, combined with a revelation that “not everything had to be regular,” became the building block of an idiosyncratic, innovative approach to playing the drums.

Graves soon made an early splash in the free-jazz underground, accompanying saxophonist Giuseppi Logan and recording with pianist Paul Bley on his 1964 classic Barrage. At a gig in the spring of ’64, Graves was asked to sit in with a new band calling itself the New York Art Quartet. It was a seismic moment. The band’s horn players, Roswell Rudd and John Tchicai, were amazed at his unique style; bassist Don Moore was frightened by it and refused to play with Graves; J.C. Moses, the drummer for whom Graves sat in, never spoke to him again. Rudd and Tchicai thus sacrificed half their band to work with Milford Graves. (The bass chair would never again be stable, with 11 players passing through the group.)

Joining the NYAQ was the turning point in Graves’ career. He was a participant (with the Quartet, Logan, and others) in the legendary October Revolution in Jazz festival that same year and a member of the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra that was born out of the festival. He also recorded with Miriam Makeba and formed a duo with pianist Don Pullen. In 1967, he joined Albert Ayler’s band, famously performing with them at John Coltrane’s funeral that summer. His style continued evolving, with Graves eliminating both the snare drum and the bottom heads of the toms from his drum kit by 1970. Around that same time, he began hosting “Dialogue of the Drums” performances with Cyrille and Ali.

Although he continued performing and researching for the rest of his life, Graves’ primary occupation after 1973 was as a professor of music at Bennington College in Vermont. Even during this tenure—which continued for nearly 40 years—Graves spent most of his time at home in Queens, developing a new martial art called yara, teaching drums and percussion, studying herbal and natural remedies (and cultivating them in his garden), and experimenting in his basement.

In the early ’70s Graves discovered a medical recording of normal and abnormal heartbeats. “It blew my mind,” he told New York magazine. “Everyone says the heart is the drum and the drum is the heart, but here were the secret rhythms, man … I started woodshedding the concept.” It led to a lifelong preoccupation with the links between biology, well-being, and music, with Graves even administering treatments that involved attuning one’s body to natural rhythms. In 2017 he patented a process for using cardiac vibrations to repair stem cells.

Graves is survived by his wife of 61 years, the former Lois Harris, five children, and one grandchild.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.