Milford Graves, Polymath and Pioneering Jazz Drummer, Dies at 79
Milford Graves, the pioneering jazz drummer, professor, inventor, herbalist, visual and martial artist, has died, as NPR’s Lars Gotrich reports. He was 79. In 2018, Graves had been diagnosed with amyloid cardiomyopathy—colloquially known as stiff heart syndrome—and told he had six months to live.
Born in Queens in 1941, Graves was a pioneer of free jazz, making dozens of recordings over the span of his life (including The Giuseppi Logan Quartet, Albert Ayler’s Love Cry, and Sonny Sharrock’s Black Woman) along with various television and film projects. He was a Professor Emeritus of Music at Bennington College, where he taught from 1973-2012. Known for drawing music influences from around the world, he mastered African polyrhythms and studied the Indian tabla and Latin-jazz timbalas. He helped found the the New York Art Quartet in the 1960s with saxophonist John Tchicai, trombonist Roswell Rudd and bassist Lewis Worrell, and is credited with helping to liberate jazz percussion from its metronomic role of keeping time. He played at John Coltrane’s funeral in 1967. Graves worked as a consultant for both the New York City Board of Education and P.S. 201 in Harlem. In 2000, he was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship for music composition. A 2018 documentary called Full Mantis explored his musical philosophies alongside performances from around the world.
But Graves could hardly be defined as merely a musician. In the 1960s, he earned an associate medical degree and ran a veterinarian lab while performing with the likes of bandleaders Albert Ayler and Sun Ra. In 1972, he invented Yara, a martial art based on the Lindy Hop, ritual African dances, and the movements of the praying mantis. An accomplished visual artist, his work has been exhibited in various galleries and museums, including a 50-year retrospective that recently ran at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia.
He also worked as an acupuncturist, and researched the connection between music and the human body’s natural rhythms, developing what he calls “biological music.” Graves believed that exposing the body to certain frequencies could have healing properties; he once treated a friend with a heart arrhythmia with music, helping sync up the irregular heartbeat with a steady beat. After winning the Guggenheim fellowship, he used the money to buy lab equipment to continue his heartbeat research in his basement in Jamaica, Queens, and in 2017, he co-invented a process that can repair stem cells using heartbeat vibrations, and was awarded a patent. Graves also collaborated with some of the many contemporary musicians influenced by his work, including John Zorn, Sam Amidon (The Following Mountain), and Greg Fox, whose experiments with Graves’ bio-sensing apparatuses appeared on the 2014 LP Mitral Transmission, in which Fox sought to find music in the natural rhythms of his body.
After his diagnosis, Graves’ research intensified as he sought to put his findings into practice healing himself. Former students would often visit his basement, and after his diagnosis in 2018, they documented and recorded his daily activity as he prepared for the exhibition at the ICA in Philadelphia. He hoped for his research to be continued by his students after his death.