The Book Cooks
Excerpts from
Microgroove: Forays into Other Music

John Corbett
(Duke University Press; 2015)

Milford Graves: Pulseology

It’s no ordinary rec room. Descend into percussionist Milford Graves’ basement and you enter his secret laboratory – part music practice and performance space, part computer research facility, part nonallopathic apothecary. Percussion instruments from across the globe fill one side of the low-ceilinged room, along with components of a drum kit (hand decorated with vibrant colors, each with one missing head) and an upright player piano painted bright orange.


At the other extreme of the room, a lovely old wooden bar is neatly arranged with items including anatomical models, an African fetish sculpture, annotated tincture bottles, and bags of dried herbs. Herbs also hang in bunches overhead. In the center of the space are three impressive color screens connected to powerful computers, behind them a wall of manuals, their tops sprouting slips of paper poised at significant reference points. Hanging printouts document eeg and ekg readings of various visitants, and against the opposite wall is a library of older, dog-eared books, including a copy of Helmholtz’s On the Sensation of Tone disintegrating from decades of use. The place has an uncanny air of ancient and ultramodern, organic and inorganic, handmade and industrial.


The abode itself is a miraculous burst of energy on an otherwise unremarkable – if somewhat rough-seeming – street in Jamaica, Queens. Graves has covered it with swirling mosaics of colorful tiles and stones. Inspired by temples he’s visited since his first trip to Japan in 1977, the self-taught artist constructs façades in his backyard workhouse – temporarily converted from its usual function as the space in which he leads martial arts classes – and affixes them to the building. A bamboo garden gently abuts the main house; in it Graves grows some of the harder to procure herbs for his traditional healing practice. Many of these seemingly disparate activities circulate around a basic involvement in studying the human body and the influences of sound on it – something Graves has come to call “biological music.” Graves’ radiant house is a fitting theater of operation for such a multidisciplinary man.


This is the neighborhood in which Graves grew up, the same address he came to on Sundays to spend the day with his grandparents, who often entertained downstairs at the bar. The residence developed a reputation as a social hot spot in the ‘20s and ‘30s, and in the basement in the mid-‘40s, a very young Graves played piano for his step-grandfather’s relatives from Barbados and his grandmother’s white coworkers, learning early about multiethnic blending. “She was the kind of grandma you think you’ve got to be at attention when she’s talking,” he says with admiration. “But always instilling that you can do whatever you want to do in life.”


In 1970, Graves’ grandmother willed him her house. Along with the fact that he’s been teaching regularly at Bennington College in Vermont since ‘73, this precious inheritance has made him less dependent on gigging for a living, and his performances have been relatively rare. But in recent years Graves has played in public more often. He ran a series of personal-invitation-only concerts in his basement, but he’s also performed at festivals and big concert halls, on the bill with Sonic Youth, sometimes with John Zorn or with the newly reformed New York Art Quartet. Zorn’s Tzadik label issued two CDs – Grand Unification (1998) and Stories (2000) – the overdue documentation of Graves’ solo music. Graves was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in Music Composition in 2000, which has allowed him to invest more fully in his research. But recognition for his original contribution has been incommensurately slow. Given what new insights he has offered jazz drumming over his forty-year career, one might expect him to be more routinely celebrated.


“My experience has told me that before you do anything you’ve got to have that divine desire,” says Graves as he lays out natural snacks on an acupuncture table in his basement and pours a couple of shots of apple juice in preparation for our eight-hour conversation. “If you’ve got determination, discipline, and patience, things will open up to you. That’s why I didn’t go out and aggressively knock on every agent’s door. That patience was imparted to me in 1965 by Wasantha Singh, my tabla instructor. He said, ‘You’ll be good when you’re fifty.’ I didn’t want to hear it, because I was young at the time, but it struck me. I was going to have to be patient.”


Graves is a lifelong drummer. When he was a kid, a sublet tenant of his parents, Mr. Page, died and left a bass drum and two field drums in his apartment. His first instrument wasn’t a normal kit, and he’s rarely used one since. This area of Jamaica was less populous then, and Graves liked to slip into the woods and play on tin cans and his newly acquired drums. “I was a Tarzan movie freak – guys swinging through the jungles, so-called African tribal members at war with him. That movie Drums with Sabu fascinated me. I’d go where nobody could see me and play Mr. Page’s drums – sending signals, trying to get everybody’s attention.”


Before he cracked double digits, Graves learned about Latin music from a conga-playing distant cousin. “We were the little guys in the housing project who would put on a show for everybody.” In sixth grade, he met a Cuban boy named Renaldo Tracon. Graves got to be close with Tracon’s family, and this left a lasting influence on him. “I was slowly becoming Cuban in spirit. Later on, all these guys I played with said, ‘Only Cubans can play like that!’” Unbeknownst to him, Tracon’s father was a respected timbale player, a fact Graves discovered one night at the Palladium when “the Old Man” was invited to play on Tito Puente’s instrument. “He showed you how the timbales should be played!”


Graves’ early years were spent playing Afro-Latin music, his appetites and skills nurtured by elder musicians. “It wasn’t about licks or patterns, it was about spirit. And you know that’s not in the tradition of jazz, either, to try to clone people to play like Max, Elvin, Roy Haynes, Philly Joe, Papa Jo,” he says. “They should inspire you to play like yourself. I’d been brought up with this human feeling, not being someone who went to school to become part of an intellectual club.”


At the dawn of the ‘60s, the Milford Graves Latino Quintet included Graves on timbales and cymbal, bassist Lisle Atkinson, Charlie Parker-ish alto saxophonist Pete Yellin, and a young pianist named Chick Corea. The group played Latin jazz in the vein of George Shearing and Cal Tjader. In ‘63, Graves went to Boston to play for the summer at the Ebb Tide with Don Alias and Mexican alto saxophonist Dick Mesa, again playing Latin. When audiences were thin, they would slip in a little jazz, Graves playing his cymbal like it was a ride. That summer he bought his first standard set – including the bass drum he still uses – from pianist Hal Galper and started transferring what he knew from timbales to kit.


“I never thought I was going to be avant-garde, I just knew I wanted to play drums,” he says.


But I knew I couldn’t play the standard way a lot of guys were playing trap drums. When I played timbales, I had two drums! I thought: Why would you have all these drums and not use them? It was the reverse of when I was playing in the Afro-Latin stuff, where the cymbal was the miscellaneous thing. In Latin, playing cymbal through the whole piece was a no-no. You were hitting those skins, cowbell, riffing. So I couldn’t understand how a guy would sit and play a basic beat all the time. In African drumming, the drum is in the forefront. Timekeeping for the drummer? I said no way. When I came into jazz, because of the melodic and harmonic structure, it had much more variety, which gave me more freedom. In Latin, you’re playing the montuno over and over again. In jazz, as a drummer just sitting back, I couldn’t feel it. My reflexes told me to hit those things.


Graves first exploded onto the jazz scene in the mid-‘60s with a concept so shocking that some said it was impossible. Of his initial encounter with the drummer in ‘64, at a rehearsal for the group with Roswell Rudd that became the New York Art Quartet, alto saxophonist John Tchicai wrote: “Graves simply baffled both Rudd and I in that, at that time, we hadn’t heard anybody of the younger musicians in New York that had the same sense of rhythmic cohesion in polyrhythmics or the same sense of intensity and musicality.”


Graves helped revise the role of percussionist, introducing sounds from non-Western percussion traditions and upending some of the most dearly held conventions of group interaction in jazz. Working in ensembles with Albert Ayler, Giuseppi Logan, Paul Bley, Sonny Sharrock, and Lowell Davidson and in duets with Don Pullen, he unleashed complexes of unevenly pulsed rhythms and constructed dense aggregates of multilayered polymeters. Graves reconfigured his kit to accommodate the demands of this new music. He took the skins off of one side of his drums, which he says had always made him feel like he was talking with his hand over his mouth, and in the ‘70s he eliminated the snare from his kit, returning to a setup familiar from his experience with timbales. This enabled him to spread his drumming across the skins rather than focusing on a single central point.


“In the early years I was going along with what was supposed to be done: one hand on cymbal and one on snare. But when I put my own bands together, it was best to make this change. Then I knew they might not complain: ‘Do you play snare? I’d like to hear your snare.’” The new kit opened fresh technical options. “If you know how to manipulate your skins, you can make that dispersed sound – slides, portamento style, sustained tone. Instead of letting your stick free rebound, you can mute it, slide it on there. It calls for greater physicality. And to do it in a certain time span is not easy. But I knew that eventually the drum would have to be restored to its rightful way of articulating sound, not just rhythm.”


That adjustment meant a different function for jazz percussion. “Not taking a greater or lesser role, but an equal role,” he says. “Not reducing yourself to the point that you were considered just a drummer, not a musician. I resented that more than anything.” Graves played in an undocumented rehearsal band of clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre, with bassist Barre Phillips and pianist Don Friedman. “That was a great experience. Jimmy Giuffre wrote out the lines for the drums, usually in duets – clarinet and piano, bass and drums. A lot of the stuff was not in tempo, so it was challenging. He’d have you hitting on the rim, the side of the cymbal. Trying to make the drummer play more tonal. He said, ‘I want a musician, not a drummer.’”


Echoes of Graves’ discoveries were heard in Europe and Japan, in the acoustic avalanches of early Han Bennink, the extensions of color and phrase-shape of Paul Lovens, the long cyclical rhythm patterns of Toshi Tsuchitori. Graves’ reach can be heard more recently in the promising work of his onetime student Susie Ibarra. But Graves’ music is extremely rigorous, difficult to emulate let alone expand upon, so he has perhaps had fewer devotees than some other free drum innovators whose work is more easily digested and/or copied.


Graves’ technique involves extreme physical demands. At sixty, he’s in incredible shape, with better stamina and energy than most musicians a third his age. He recalls an important test that came in 1965 in a string of five consecutive nights playing with Ayler at Slugs, three sets a night. The first set comprised music of utmost intensity, and afterward Don Pullen, who was in the audience, told him: “You can’t do that for five nights.” But Graves saw it differently.


Albert had split one of his mouthpieces and some of the fragments got caught in his throat, so he said, “Let’s play ballads.” I didn’t want to deal with ballads. I wanted to show everybody that you could play like this. But this music wasn’t developed to be played five nights at a high level like that. Spontaneous improvised music doesn’t work that way. You’ve got to be really deep into yourself, to make sure you don’t get into repeats over and over again. You’ve got to supercompute, and if you’re supercomputing you can blow all your resources. I took Don’s challenge.


He pauses, then laughs. “But then I had to take a vacation for the next week, eat all vegetarian meals, juices, supplements and stuff, do some restoring.”


A common set of principles links the distinct parts of Graves’ life – his work in global music, traditional medicines, and martial arts. An axiom of adaptability, a sense that people need to be flexible to deal with new contexts and new challenges, underlies everything. With his Guggenheim Fellowship and money from a sabbatical at Bennington, Graves bought equipment to test ideas about the inherent adaptability of the body that he’s developed as a musician. A self-proclaimed “fanatic,” sleeping only a couple of hours a night, he taught himself to program the computer. Personalizing LabView and BioBench software designed for industrial applications, and the sound-edit program ProTools, he started creating portraits of people’s hearts, doing spectral analysis of these and converting them into pitches. In particular, he became interested in the cardiac activity – markedly different from one to the next – of his musicians. The aims are, on one hand, to find out more about his players in order to create music more fittingly designed for their constitutions, and on the other to collate data about biological activity to better understand how the body uses frequency information in its own self-regulation.


“The heart is more than a pump,” Graves says.


It’s a total connection between the activity of the brain and circulation. I relate it to pulse diagnostics in traditional Chinese medicine, in Ayurvedic medicine, and also in Unani medicine, out of Persia. I coordinate this with the German electro-acupuncture system. The objective is to be able to produce sound that can set up a vibration in the body by using sound waves entering the ear, exciting the eardrum, causing fluid movement, touching all the basal fibers in the membrane that will eventually be converted into electrical impulses and electricity, or energy. I’m trying to develop a highly aesthetic, more balanced form of music.


The most fascinating discovery Graves has made comes from heart sounds of people with various pathologies. He’d expected to find harsh results but discovered instead that their heart activities, when converted into melodic information, were the most beautiful he’d heard. “When people are ill, they should have fantastic, beautiful melodies,” he says. “Your internal doctor is trying to heal you.” Graves recognizes a social and historical dimension to this discovery.


I brought it down to a biological configuration. With Afro-American culture, you’ve got to stop at some point from talking about the negativity that was done to you and see the positive aspect that can come out of your experience. I’ve been observing what happens to people with all this stress on them: they produce great melodies. It’s obvious where black music in this country came from. Gospel, the blues. Such beautiful lines came from stress. When you are denied a kind of existence, you retreat into your place. You get contemplative. And if you’re an artist, you project what’s inside.


But there’s something from this black experience that can be educational for all people. The true practitioners of Zen were black folks in this country. They didn’t have to intellectualize and say I want to forget everything and go into a state of Nirvana. When you were denied existence, you were told to go search your inner soul. When black folks do music, they’re serious. Black musicians who decided to become more conservatory educated, involved in a system unrelated to spiritual and biological activities, lost the black community. Because black folks say you’ve got to have something that can reach their soul. Black people don’t go to church to learn about one and one is two. They go there to find out how to keep some inspiration to stay on this planet, man. I can go into the community and be as “way out” as I want to be, never have a problem. You know why? Because I grew up with the feeling. You lose your sense of relating to people, you’re finished.


Graves’ heart studies also confirm the falsity of one of the easiest potshots taken at nonmetrical or polymetrical drumming in free jazz, namely, that it’s unnatural and doesn’t mimic the heart, which is assumed to have a steady beat.


That’s not natural. You have to go against all the rules of nature, use a metronome, inhibit your true ability to sense the rhythms and vibrations of nature. In a pure metric sense, that means that your inhalation and exhalation would always be the same, because when you inhale your beats per minute increases. If you exhale, it decreases. No one breathes that way. Breath varies, so cardiac rhythm never has that tempo. It’s always changing. All the alignments of the heart are determined off needs of cells, specifically tissue and organs. The heart knows if it needs to speed it up. That’s basically what the Chinese are talking about in their pulseology.


A parallel is clear: the heart is more than a pump, the drummer more than a timepiece for the band.


At the end of a marathon day of discussion and demonstration, his stamina unhampered, Graves stops to say goodbye to his daughter and plant a kiss on the forehead of his granddaughter, both of whom have been visiting upstairs with his wife. The little girl already has her heartbeat on the computer. Graves returns to thoughts of his grandmother. “She always told me not to let racism hold me down, to do what I wanted to do. She had a heavy influence.” He glances around the basement at the herbs and computers and instruments. “It’s appropriate that I do this here.”


© 2015 Duke University Press. Used with permission.

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