|Milford Graves.Photo by Peter Gannushkin|
For quite some time it was known that Milford Graves’s state of health was not the best. In 2019 at the Vision Festival he needed the help of his son to master the three steps at the entrance. The reason was a depressing one: his doctors had informed him that he was suffering from amyloid cardiomyopathy, sometimes also called stiff heart syndrome or cardiac amyloidosis. The disease has no cure and when Graves was diagnosed with it in 2018, he was told he had six months to live. However, he has always been a tough guy and in the end he managed to live with it for a much longer time.
Milford Graves was born in Jamaica, Queens/New York. There was a drum kit in his house and by the age of three he was already playing on it. Like many African-American musicians he was exposed to a lot of rhythm & blues music as a child. Additionally, he studied African hand drumming and the tabla until the age of 19 - a period he considered to have been highly significant in the development of his tonal concept. In the very early 1960s he led dance bands and played Latin gigs in New York. Then he met Giuseppi Logan and they started rehearsing together. When they were invited to a session this turned out to be a rehearsal by the New York Art Quartet, at that time consisting of J. C. Moses (drums), Don Moore (bass), Roswell Rudd (trombone) and John Tchicai (saxophone). Soon Graves replaced Moses because according to him he “was the only drummer at that time playing in a certain free concept, using different rhythms (which) changed the whole thing around“. Graves revolutionized jazz drumming with his sense of rhythmic cohesion, intensity and musicality. His emphasis was on playing freely instead of playing time, he focused on clarity and tuned his snare drum higher than other drummers did, so that his tom-toms were sounding deeper than usual. This dampened sound became his trademark.
For Graves, the drum set was an archaic instrument. To him, beats were heartbeats, ecstatic dances, rhythmic convulsions, trance. It was a constant up and down. Just life. He said that the drums were the foundation of all music, the basis. Milford Graves was not just a drummer. He was the personification of the drum set. In free jazz there has never before and never after been someone whose body seemed to form a more perfect unity with the hodgepodge of drums, cymbals and additional materials. Saxophonist Hugh clover said about him: “He says that it’s all rhythm. We breathe in rhythm, we talk in rhythm and we get up in rhythm. All our things are rhythm whether we know it or not.“
Milford Graves has recently moved into the focus of the jazz public again through Full Mantis, a documentary about his life. The film accompanies the audience through the artist’s lush garden and ornate home into the martial arts dojo in his backyard and the laboratory in his basement. Graves tells stories of discovery, struggle and survival, ruminates on the essence of “swing“, activates electronic stethoscopes in his basement lab to process the sound of his heart in order to study it to prepare for treating himself and fight his disease.
Although his music is not as thoroughly documented as one might expect, free jazz owes great albums to Milford Graves. My favorite ones are his first two LPs with the New York Art Quartet, Mohawk (Fontana, 1965) and New York Art Quartet (ESP, 1965) as well as the 5-LP box Call It Art (Triple Point Records, 2013), the first two releases certainly free jazz landmark records. Also in 1965, he played the drums on the only album of the Lowell Davidson Trio (ESP) with Davidson on piano and Gary Peacock on bass and on Paul Bley’s beautiful Barrage (also on ESP). Exceptional albums as a band leader are Bäbi (IPS, 1977; later released as a double CD on Corbett vs. Dempsey) with Arthur Doyle and Hugh Clover on reeds, and Meditations Among Us (Kitty Records, 1977) with a crème de la crème of Japanese musicians. Newer releases showing what a great drummer he was are his duo with John Zorn, 50² (Tzadik, 2004), and Beyond Quantum (Tzadik, 2008), a trio album with Anthony Braxton and William Parker. I also want to recommend his drum duo with Andrew Cyrille, Dialogue of the Drums (IPS, 1974), which is one of the rare proofs that an album consisting of percussive instruments and vocals only can be exciting and entertaining. At the Vision Festival in 2019 they revived this duo and Milford Graves told the story how the two met in 1961 and how they played Latin Jazz. At the end of the set Cyrille said how much he appreciated and loved Graves as a person and that he was proud that he had been been part of his life. Graves wanted to respond but his voice failed, he was in tears. It was an incredibly touching, unforgettable moment full of heartfelt, honest emotions.
After a long fight one of the greatest drummers the jazz world has known has lost his fight against cardiac amyloidosis. One of the last founding fathers of free jazz, a real musical revolutionary, has gone for good. Not many of them are left now. Rest in peace, Milford Graves.
Watch Milford Graves at a performance in 1988 in Japan: