By the time Milford Graves took up the jazz drum kit, in his early 20s, he had spent years playing timbales in Afro-Latin groups. But on the kit he was confronted with the new challenge of using foot pedals as well as his hands. Rather than learn the standard jazz technique, he drew from what he already knew.
In the Latin ensembles, “we’d be doing dance movements while we were playing,” he remembered in a 2018 profile in The New York Times. “So I said: ‘That’s all I’ll do. I’m going to start dancing down below.’ I started dancing on the high-hat.”
The resulting style became unlike anything heard before in jazz.
Graves mixed polyrhythms constantly, sometimes carrying a different cadence in each limb; the rhythms would diverge, then vaporize. He removed the bottom skins from his drums, deepening and dilating their sound. Often he used his elbows to dampen the head of a drum as he struck it, making its pitch malleable and introducing a new range of possibilities.
But he wasn’t a drummer exclusively, or even first. Graves, who died at 79 on Feb. 12 at his home in South Jamaica, Queens, was also a botanist, acupuncturist, martial artist, impresario, college professor, visual artist and student of the human heartbeat. And in almost every arena, he was an inventor.
“In the cosmos, everything — planets — they’re all in motion,” Graves said in “Milford Graves Full Mantis,” a 2018 documentary film directed by his longtime student Jake Meginsky.
“We’ve got so much cosmic energy going through us, and the drumming is supposed to be very related to the intake of this cosmic energy,” he added. “That’s the loop that we have with the cosmos.”
His life had taken one last poetic turn. In 2018, seemingly at the start of a career renaissance, Graves learned he had a rare heart disease, amyloid cardiomyopathy. He was given six months to live. But since the 1960s he had been studying the human heart, focusing on the power of rhythm and sound to address its pathologies. So he became his own patient, using remedies and insights that he had developed over decades. He lived for over two more years.
His daughter Renita Graves said his death was attributed to congestive heart failure brought on by amyloid cardiomyopathy.
Graves said of his diagnosis: “It’s like some higher power saying, ‘OK, buddy, you wanted to study this, here you go.’ Now the challenge is inside of me.”
Milford Robert Graves was born on Aug. 20, 1941, in Queens and raised there in the South Jamaica Houses, a public-housing development. His mother, Gonive (William) Graves, was a homemaker, and his father, Marvin, drove a limousine. (Early in Milford’s career, Marvin Graves would drive his son to performances in the limo.)
By the time Milford could read, he was already drumming. The first band he put together, in junior high school, was a drum-and-dance group, and he was soon at the fore of his own Latin music ensembles, including the McKinley-Graves Band and the Milford Graves Latino Quintet.
By the mid-1960s he had found his way to the avant-garde, at first through collaborations with the saxophonist Giuseppi Logan. He then joined the New York Art Quartet, whose 1964 debut album prominently featured Graves’ elusive drumming; it has since become part of the free-jazz canon.