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Milford Graves.
Milford Graves.

Milford Graves (1941–2021)

Groundbreaking free-jazz percussionist and polymath Milford Graves died today of congestive heart failure at the age of seventy-nine, as reported by NPR’s Lars Gotrich. Described by composer and saxophonist John Zorn as “basically a twentieth-century shaman,” Graves possessed an astounding intellect that was matched only by his curiosity: Apart from contributing heavily to the emergence of free jazz, he was an accomplished martial artist, herbalist, inventor, and visual artist who for decades recorded his own heartbeats in order to study and manipulate them to various ends, including his own art and a patented medical procedure. Only two weeks ago did “Milford Graves: A Mind-Body Deal,” a major exhibition of his work at the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art, draw to a close after a five-month run.

Born in Jamaica, Queens, Graves began playing drums at the age of three and congas at the age of eight. He was playing in dance bands in his early twenties when he heard Elvin Jones drumming with John Coltrane (whose funeral he would play in 1967); shortly thereafter, in 1964, he joined up with trombonist Roswell Rudd, saxophonist John Tchicai, and bassist Lewis Worrell to form the New York Art Quartet, whose music critic David Toop described as “deliberately ragged, bleary themes tumbling out in spasms, notes tailing away as if lost to daydream, the music so open that total collapse seems perpetually imminent.” The group’s first recording featured Amiri Baraka reading his poem “Black Dada Nihilismus.” Quickly developing a unique and unmatched polyrhythmic style, Graves went on to play with artists including Albert Ayler, Paul Bley, Sonny Sharrock, and Sun Ra over the course of a career that would span seven decades.

In the 1970s, while playing with Sharrock and working on his own album, he earned an associate’s degree in medicine and began managing a veterinary clinic. Shortly thereafter he was offered a position teaching music at Vermont’s prestigious Bennington College; he accepted it and taught there for thirty-nine years, retiring as professor emeritus. During that time, he developed his many interests, painting his own album covers; pursuing his interest in researching heartbeats, inspired by his fascination with the similarities between cardiac arrhythmias and Afro-Cuban drumming patterns; and tending what he described as his “global garden,” pursuing a passion that was born when, as a teenager, he tired of the effects of cheap wine. A former Police Athletic League boxing champ, he was an avid practitioner of Yara, a form of martial art, based on the praying mantis, that he invented in the 1970s.

In 2000, he won a Guggenheim Fellowship and used the funds to purchase equipment to work on his heartbeat research in the basement of his Queens home, which once belonged to his grandmother. In 2017 he sought and obtained a patent for a process that he co-invented via which stem cells could be repaired with the use of heartbeat vibrations. The following year, a documentary of his life, Milford Graves Full Mantis, was released. Writing in the pages of Artforum, Christoph Cox described Graves addressing an audience that same year, as vibrant and forward-looking as ever. “Well, I must say this is a new adventure for me,” he opened, smiling happily. “It’s like I’m starting all over again.”