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Milford Graves, circa 2000, in front of his house in South Jamaica, Queens, N.Y.

New York Daily News Archive/NY Daily News via Getty Images

Drummer, scientist, educator and improviser Milford Graves died in his Queens, N.Y. home around 3 p.m. on Fri., Feb. 12. He was 79. Lois, his wife of sixty-one years, confirmed to NPR that the cause was congestive heart failure, related to a 2018 diagnosis of amyloid cardiomyopathy. Mr. Graves was surrounded by Lois, his five children (four daughters and a son), his beloved granddaughter, Tatiana, and a cross-section of students across generations who had bestowed him with the honorific "Professor," a nod to his guidance in music, botany, martial arts and metaphysics.

Milford Graves was Professor Emeritus of Music at Bennington College in Vermont, where he taught the power and aesthetic of Black Music as a faculty member from 1973-2012. He used his platform there to express his many ideas, most well beyond the confines of the performance stage, operating instead as a kind of shamanic artist and teacher, whose emotional and intellectual connection to traditional music he fused with scientific inquiry and study.

Graves graduated from the Eastern School for Physicians' Aids in the 1960s, and worked in a diagnostic veterinary lab for two years. He purchased an album of stethoscopic heart recordings during a lunch break in 1973, and its content led him to pursue the path of his life's work: He began to record heartbeats and transcribe them into music notation. What started as a rudimentary documentation on reel-to-reel tape increased in sophistication with the adoption of advanced computing technology, culminating in Mr. Graves's use of algorithms to create visualizations and sound data that plotted the human heartbeat and its varied electrical states for the purpose of healing. His discoveries led to a patent for preparing non-embryonic stem cells from a tissue derivative, subjecting those cells to vibrations from a heart sound to control the degree of differentiation into several other types of cells. He once said, "Drumming should be taught in medical school. Know your beats. There are subtleties in the heartbeat that cannot be picked up through electronic imaging," and his scientific rigor on heart rates informed a non-linear approach to playing rhythm.

"Throw away your metronome and listen to your heart."

Detail from from the exhibition Milford Graves: A Mind-Body Deal, taken in 2020. Constance Mensh/Ars Nova Workshop hide caption

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Constance Mensh/Ars Nova Workshop

Detail from from the exhibition Milford Graves: A Mind-Body Deal, taken in 2020.

Constance Mensh/Ars Nova Workshop

Milford Robert Graves was born in Queens, N.Y. on Aug. 20, 1941. His father, a chauffeur and his mother raised Milford in the South Jamaica Houses, known as The Forty, some of the first housing projects built and operated by the New York City Housing Authority. According to Val Wilmer's As Serious As Your Life, Milford began playing drums at age three and congas by eight years old. He learned hand drums and Latin timbales, then began to play in dance bands to earn money.

That's how Graves's longtime friend and collaborator, drummer and composer Andrew Cyrille, met him – playing opposite Graves in trombonist John Gordon's band for a Jamaica, Queens dance floor. "Milford and I were both urban kids," Cyrille, 81, tells NPR. "He had a lot of energy and ideas about what we could do together, keeping in mind the tradition we learned but expanding the thinking."

Graves' creativity took a quantum leap after witnessing a 1962 performance of the John Coltrane Quartet, specifically the propulsive style of drummer Elvin Jones. Elvin's independent coordination of polyrhythms, connecting concepts of African drum choirs to Western European rudiments and sticking patterns, was just the inspiration Graves needed to advance his own musical thinking.

New York City in the 1960s was an artistic cauldron, and the ideas of freedom and struggle coursing through the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements began to manifest in an expansive view of improvisation and music-making. The avant-garde, or New Thing, loosened certain strictures and gave improvisers like Graves an opportunity for wide-open self expression, and even established artists like Coltrane seemed to be drawing from the same creative well. "Milford played how he felt music should sound related to what was around him," says Andrew Cyrille. The music felt like a departure from tradition, and some writers derided the striking new music with withering criticism. Meanwhile, Graves was transforming the role of the drums. He viewed his holistic approach to drums as an extension of how he lived with "outside forces having less control of you, allowing you to have more flexibility, more freedom and listening to the vibrations of the earth, that nature gave you."

Graves became a member of saxophonist Giuseppe Logan's quartet in 1962, and he was an important contributor to Logan's first recording for ESP-Disk. That association with Logan led to Graves joining what became New York Art Quartet (NYAQ), a landmark ensemble featuring Danish saxophonist John Tchicai and trombonist Roswell Rudd. In November 1964, NYAQ recorded their self-titled debut album for ESP-Disk; it stands as a cornerstone in the discography of free jazz music. Graves, a right handed-drummer, bursts forth with frenetic animation, drawing Tchicai and Rudd into his maelstrom of percussive sound. Graves contributed to seminal works of the era, including his own Percussion Ensemble recording with Sunny Morgan for ESP in 1965. He also released In Concert at Yale University, Vol. 1 and Nommo, two milestone duo recordings with pianist Don Pullen, captured live and released independently on their own label, SRP (Self Reliance Productions). The rare first copies are prized by collectors for their hand-painted covers, which Graves and Pullen created (and sold) themselves. He became the drummer in saxophonist Albert Ayler's band in 1967, and they performed together at John Coltrane's funeral.

Graves also began exploring martial arts in the late 1960s. He created a new form called Yara, from the Yoruban word meaning "nimble." He followed a teacher's interest in the praying mantis as a model. He subsequently bought and released these insects into his own garden, followed their movements and developed his own martial arts study based on their natural behavior. This inspired the title of a 2018 documentary on Graves, Full Mantis.

But his life nearly took a wrong turn in 1969. He was arrested in Brooklyn for gun possession while attempting to protect his eleven year old son from neighborhood violence. His decision to spring into action, motivated by a belief that police responded slowly to crime in Black neighborhoods, resulted in the possibility of his facing up to fifteen years in prison. Miraculously, he was acquitted following a chance friendly encounter with his eventual prosecutor at a cheese shop in lower Manhattan, as he recounted in that 2018 documentary.

When his grandmother died, in 1970, Graves moved into her modest 20th-century home at the corner of Brinkerhoff Avenue and 156th Street in Queens, just blocks from the South Jamaica Houses he once called home. He personalized the lot and dwelling with a distinctive flair, adding stone and ceramic architectural elements to the exterior structure in a playful style akin to Antonio Gaudi. He created an organic garden to promote healing arts and added a dojo to teach Yara. Inside there's murals, sculptures and drums from around the world; a downstairs laboratory includes dried herbs and botany research, elixirs, Eastern medicine texts and acupuncture practice juxtaposed with electrocardiogram machines and computer monitors. And books. Lots of books. Graves was a generous polymath who openly shared his knowledge.

Pianist Jason Moran collaborated with Graves in 2018 at Big Ears in Knoxville, and visited Graves at his home on many occasions. "In one of our visits, I took one of my [kids] with me," he says. "We sat in his laboratory for hours, and by the end of the session, Milford had me hooked up to his EKG to create a melody from my heartbeat. I needed my son to witness this, that music was beyond sound, it shook the soul, and to a certain extent, the soul can be measured."

Mark Christman, artistic director of Ars Nova Workshop, has been measuring and curating aspects of Graves' immense contribution to music, science, botany and martial arts over the last several years. The collection spent four months at Philadelphia's Institute for Contemporary Art, with a five-week pause due to pandemic restrictions. The exhibit, A Mind-Body Deal, drew more than 2,000 attendees and over 5,000 participants to its many virtual events, including this solo performance from Moran. "Milford Graves offers a perspective that isn't limited by the way we've been forced to learn," says Christman. "That linear way of study doesn't allow a mixture or mash-up of thoughts and decision-making. That's why he's adored, and people looked to him for answers."

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