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Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Milford Graves: Music Meets Medicine and Science

Milford Graves from 2012. Photo by Peter Gannushkin.
By Eric Stern

June 27, 2019 @ Gavin Brown’s Enterprise: This presentation was produced by Blank Forms at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, an art gallery on 127th Street in Manhattan. The sold-out performance had a diverse audience of approximately 150 people. The performance comes at a time when Graves’s profile has been raised by the release of the documentary Full Mantis and his recent appearance at The Vision Festival.

The evening began with a half hour of Graves telling the audience about his formative experiences in the Latin-jazz scene. For me, this was the most compelling part of the night. Graves was clear, articulate, and in complete control of his personal narrative. As a jazz fan, hearing tales of how a musician gets his start and meets his colleagues with whom he will make history is fascinating. He shared with the audience how he went from a child who would get visits from the local police who told him to keep playing but keep it quiet, up through the story of his meeting Giuseppi Logan and joining the New York Art Quartet.

It is here where the evening shifted. Graves started the next portion by indicating that he might talk about Albert Ayler, something he has not done in many years. Had he continued his narrative, I would have been delighted. However, he immediately defied expectations by breaking off from the anticipated story and instead took up the titular theme of this evening, which was “Music Meets Medicine and Science”. Unfortunately, this part of the evening included a strange rant which made it seem that he believes he is more knowledgeable than people with multiple advanced medical degrees by virtue of having read a couple of very good books. He took a full 20 minutes to make that argument. His dislike for academia extends to conservatory trained musicians. He proposed at one point that the metronomic rhythms used by conservatory trained musicians are unhealthful to one’s heart. If you know Milford Graves or saw Full Mantis, you know how big a role alternative medicine has played in his life. But, no matter how valid his grievances may be, I did not feel this portion of the evening was at all worthwhile. I felt put off by the fact that little information was being imparted beyond personal prejudices. I really would have preferred it if he actually explained some of his alternative medical ideas regarding heart rhythms and how to modify them to improve functionality.

The next portion of the evening was given over to introducing his guests, who each talked for a few moments, mostly praising Graves and describing their relationships with him. This was somewhat interesting, especially Jake Meginsky’s comments on the process of making the Full Mantis over 15 years.

Shortly thereafter the musicians began to perform with Graves. The performers deferred the spotlight to let Graves be the focus. This was what the audience had been waiting for. If nothing else, this evening demonstrated to me that this part of New York City is underserved by creative musicians and someone should start putting on more shows in this part of town.

I have experienced dozens of performances by Milford Graves. He can be brilliant one minute and act the clown the next. I am sure that if he does another appearance like this, it will be completely different. Such is the nature of improvisation. I truly wish the man who spoke to us for that first half hour had stayed around for the duration of the evening.