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Take Five With Milford Graves

Milford Graves, keynote speaker from Bennington College, International Centre for Medicinal and Scientific Studies - Topic: Tono Rhythmology and Biocosmology: New paradigms for creating a unified all-pervasive music.

Originally, I was to have interviewed Professor Graves by phone. When I called him at his home in N.Y.C he asked how long this was going to take. "As long as you like", I replied. He explained to me that he was still packing and had to catch an early flight for his keynote address at Guelph University the next afternoon. Rather than be rushed, I asked if we could get together in Guelph and do the interview in person. Professor Graves liked that idea and he assured me we would connect in Guelph, he gave me the phone number of his hotel. I asked Professor Graves if he had seen the title of his piece. He told me he had; I asked, what does it mean? He said, "That would take a long time to explain. Come to the conference and all will be revealed."

For those who may not be aware, Milford Graves is one of a handful of drummers who changed the concept of the role of the drummer, from one of strictly time keeper to something outside of that tradition. He may be best known as a key member of the free jazz movement of the 1960’s. Working with all of the top names in free jazz, Paul Bley, Don Pullen, Albert Ayler, Giuseppi Logan, John Tchicai, Eddie Gomez and Roswell Rudd to name a few.

I heard Professor Graves speak at his keynote address in Guelph and I was enchanted. I expected a high brow talk for the University crowd. Instead I heard a down to earth chat from an individual who is passionate in his desire to open up the minds and hearts of mankind. Professor Graves said, "I am dedicating myself to having people express their own vibrations." He spoke of improvised spontaneous music; he asked if we knew what H.R.V. stood for. Heart Rate Variability. He asked people not to use a metronome, don’t get stuck into a standard beat. He played a track of electronic music heavily synthesized tones and a funky bottom end. It was the recording of one of the participant’s heart beats. It had melody and sounded very cool. He explained, "I’m not saying to take anything away from the curriculum. What I am saying is for you to add to the curriculum. Listen to your heart melody and learn from that."

When I asked what Graves wanted people to come away with? He replied, "Well let me tell you something, one guy came up to me after my talk, this guy came over to me. He looked like a Jamaican guy, with dreads, he said, "I really enjoyed your talk", and he wanted to get a copy of the video. I told him I saw him and he was smiling and digging it. Well, he wanted a copy of the talk because he didn’t think he could relay what I was explaining properly. He was involved with some youth organization in Montreal. He said I reinforce the things that he felt. And it was about wanting to free your self up. After the late night concert at the church a guy came up to me, he was a teacher from around here and he said, "I heard your talk, it really turned me around. I will be thinking about what you said all week." So the message I wanted to get across is that we need some new human information on the planet, we need more people to get involved. Everybody has something they want to do, they want to express themselves, they want to be somebody, they want to be creative. You know I listen to people. I’ve never told anybody I was anything, but I listen to people and you begin to except yourself. People come to look up to you. You know it’s like with children." He asked me if I had any kids. I told Professor Graves I had two girls, age twenty six and twenty one. He said, "So you’ve got experience now. Initially you had an opportunity to make a difference. I have a granddaughter Tatiana, she’s eight years old, I have a special affinity for her. You know I learned a lot from my other kids. I know how do deal with things now. I’m a seasoned veteran. I’ll give you an example, before this Vision Festival gig, I had D.D. Jackson on piano, William Parker on bass and this up and coming young cat named Grant Langford on sax. It was about a week before the Vision Festival and I invited them over to my house to play. Not to practice, just to get together and play. I called up my daughter and I told her to bring over Tatiana, she had to come over and check this out. So she came over and she checked out every body and she said, "I want to play the drums just like my grandfather."

I asked Professor Graves if his granddaughter wanted to pursue a professional career as a musician would he be supportive. "Oh yeah, why not?" he responded. "I could help get her some stage experience."

We spoke about everything. We talked music, his granddaughter, he said, "She’s really coming up." He is obviously very proud of her. We spoke at great length on medicine, the challenges facing President Obama on the health care issue. On work, on the martial arts, and how more musicians should be involved in taking care of themselves. On healing, something most advanced martial artists know about. We spoke on the plight of the world, on raising and being a positive influence to children. On families, on school, culture and community. We kept coming back to his pride in being self taught. Something he feels was pushed on him; he was educated in America during a revolution.

When looking at a Milford Graves Discography, it is quite obvious this was a musician who was very busy in the 60’s, probably twenty or more recordings in a short time period and then very sporadic recording, I asked him what happened? Professor Graves went on to explain, that in 1969 his fifth child came along and as he said, "I had to make some decisions. Either I was going to be a musician and not fulfill my job to be a husband and a father. I looked around me and I watched other musician’s and I watched their families deteriorate. Two reasons, they’re always out of the house in the clubs or on the road and then there is the financial situation so I decided to do something else other than music. I’ve always had an interest in other things, medicine and science, so in 1969, I made the decision to go back to school to study something that would give me a skill, not just academics. So, I went to a community college to study medical laboratory technology. I didn’t think I was going to learn too much from that school. I didn’t want to go to New York Medical College because that was a four year program teaching laboratory procedures and you come out of there as a technologist, not a technician. You know the difference? A technologist talks about what he does and a technician does the work. So I took the one year community college course and I graduated. I was an honor student. I really worked and I learned laboratory procedures inside out."

"I went for a job interview at a laboratory of a veterinary clinic. Not human medicine, I went for animal medicine. I didn’t care, I needed a job. I took my leave of absence from the music, just one year; I mean I still played, just in my house. So I went for the job interview and this guy showed me the lab and I started telling him about all the equipment in his lab. Well he looks at me and says when do you want to start. I worked for this guy for two years, and we developed new procedures and we were really the top guys during this time. You know this guy took me aside and he tells me, I have two masters’ degrees from Cornell University and you know everything I know, actually you know more than I know about laboratory procedures. You are an example of how if somebody wants to do something they can and will do it."

I asked Professor Graves how he ended up teaching at Bennington College. "At about this same time, I got the call from Bennington College and they offered me a three year contract. But I didn’t know if I wanted to teach college, so I asked for a one year contract." The one year contract has turned into a permanent position after thirty five years and still going strong.

On drumming and drummers the main stage concert after Graves talk featured Fred Anderson, Hamid Drake and Marilyn Crispell. Hamid Drake was at the colloquium he performed prior to the talk by Professor Graves. What I noticed, was a definite respect from Hamid Drake towards Graves and during Drakes trio performance I also noticed some obvious influences from Graves coming through in Drakes style of playing. Professor Graves went on to explain, "If you have contributed to society in some way, in an innovative way and you’re not getting any respect for it, it bothers you. I never told anybody I was a great drummer. I’ve had others come and tell me that. I’ve come up through playing a progressive music. I had the daring and the courage to go on stage and play the whole set. Elvin was great but he didn’t do it the way I did it. I broke the whole set up. I had all the top guys come over to me and tell me what I was doing was great, Elvin Jones, Roy Haynes, Philly Joe and even Max Roach. All the greatest guys gave me the highest praise for being an innovative drummer. They recognized me. Just give me a little bit of what I worked for, at least I had the guts to come and make an innovative contribution. I’m glad these guys (Guelph) called me to come out here so people can see what I’m into. And I am happy you can see where influences are coming from in other drummers. I mean, I know a lot of guys who are influenced by me. They use to talk about it, but they don’t talk about it any more."

Professor Graves asked that I turn the recorder off at that point. He went on to mention some drummers who are obviously influenced by him and have not afforded him the credit he feels he is due. They know who they are and you will too if you have a listen to any Milford Graves CD. Check out his latest. He is at the top of his art form on Beyond Quantum, 2008 Tzadik Records with Anthony Braxton and William Parker.

Interviewed September 12, 2009 by Paul J. Youngman Guelph, On.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Milford Graves
  • Interview Date: 9/12/2009
  • Subtitle: Guelph Jazz Festival & Colloquium
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