Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Graves, Milford

Milford Graves’ adventurous, often explosive style of drumming made a distinctive mark on the New York avant-garde scene in the 1960s. Since the 1970s, he has devoted most of his time to teaching at Bennington College, but in the new milennium has recorded several albums for saxophonist John Zorn’s Tzadik label.

Milford Graves was born on August 20, 1941 in the Jamaica neighborhood of Queens, New York, and grew up in the Samuel Hutchinson Houses, a public housing project. His uncle played folk music, and his grandfather played the rhythm and blues songs on guitar. Growing up, there was a drum set in the house, and Graves began playing on it when he was 2 or 3 years old.

When Graves was 8, a friend’s older brother introduced him to the congas, and Graves concentrated on Latin percussion until he was about 20. When he was about 18, he went to see Tito Puente play, and asked to study with him. The timbale expert invited Graves to stand next to his drum set at the next show, which Graves has described as “a great lesson.”

Around 1962, Graves had a major epiphany while watching Elvin Jones play with John Coltrane at the Copa City club in Queens, and refocused his interests on jazz and the drumset.

“That was the first time I ever saw Elvin Jones,” Graves told writer Mark Jacobson in 2001. “Elvin, he was so loose… and I said to myself: that’s it for the timbales. I went out and got myself a trap set.”

In 1964, Graves recorded for the first time on Montego Joe’s Arriba!, a date that also included pianist Chick Corea. He recorded again with Joe on the album Wild & Warm in 1965, and on singer Miriam Makeba’s Makeba Sings! that same year,

After these recordings, Graves became deeply involved with New York's avant-garde jazz scene, and has since worked almost exclusively in this idiom. This dedication to the outer reaches of jazz led him to turn down several high-profile gigs, including an offer from Miles Davis.

“I had the opportunity to make a lot of money in music but it would have been doing things that I didn’t think I particularly wanted to do,” Graves told Valerie Wilmer in As Serious As Your Life. “I feel as though music has been controlled by people who have been using it as a kind of commercial, economic tool, but I see something in music that goes beyond the ordinary things that people think about.”

Around 1964, Graves met the saxophonist Giuseppi Logan, and recorded on Logan’s Quartet in October of that year, for the ESP label. “Tabla Suite” from this album features Graves’ passionate hand drumming beneath Logan’s wailing oboe and Don Pullen’s jagged piano runs.

Less than two weeks after the date with Logan, Graves was back in the studio for ESP, recording on Paul Bley’s Barrage with a cast that included the bassist Eddie Gomez and Sun Ra alto saxophonist Marshall Allen. At this date, a fierce and wild session, the group recorded the compositions of Carla Bley, like “Batterie” and “Walking Woman.”

Also around this time, Logan invited Graves to Mike Snow’s New York loft, where Graves would meet the New York Art Quartet, which included the saxophonist John Tchicai and trombonist Roswell Rudd. Graves replaced drummer J. C. Moses in the group, and record on both of the group’s albums, in 1964 and 1965. The group disbanded in 1966.

“Some people may say it’s an ego thing right now,” Graves said about joining the New York Art Quartet, “but I was the only drummer at that time playing in a certain free concept, using different rhythms in that way, and it kind of shook John and Roswell’s thing up. They had their thing harmonically and melodically, and then the rhythm came in and changed the whole thing around.”

Graves appeared on pianist Lowell Graves' trio album for ESP in July of 1965, then recorded his only date as a leader for the label, Percussion Ensemble The album featured Graves in a duo setting with the late percussionist Sunny Morgan, performing a freewheeling and ecstatic piece in five parts entitled “Nothing.”

In 1966, Graves performed at Yale University in another duo, this time with the pianist Don Pullen. This concert yielded two albums: At Yale University and Nommo.

“There’s a different rhythm of the self that a lot of people are not aware of, but when you condition and train yourself, it can come out at any time,” Graves has said of his affinity with Pullen. “Don Pullen and myself are like this, we motivate each other. But what we do calls for deep understanding of the instrument itself and years and years of just studying the possibilities of sound. The thing with jazz is that people just practice tunes! And in those tunes they know there’s so many simple changes, but if you sit down and talk about musicianship and just play music, all the scales you can conceive of, that’s something different. People call this “way out” music, but no – we’re just not playing things that are simplified.”

Graves also began working with Albert Ayler around this time, and appeared on the saxophonist’s Holy Ghost in 1967, and Love Cry in 1968.

“[Ayler] didn’t talk so much,” Graves said in an interview with All About Jazz in 2003. “He hummed a lot. He was constantly humming. His playing, the way he played was quite different from him as a person. His playing was more aggressive in volume. He, as a person, was not like that.”

In 1969, Graves appeared on guitarist Sonny Sharrock’s Black Woman album, and performed in a duo with drummer Andrew Cyrille in Brooklyn. The pair recorded together on 1974’s Dialogue of the Drums.

In 1973, Graves joined the music faculty at Bennington College in Bennington, Vermont, where he still teaches. Since joining the faculty at Bennington, he has performed and recorded only sparingly, preferring to teach music healing and percussion at the college, and what he describes as researching the rhythms of the human heart at his home in South Jamaica, Queens.

In recent years, Graves has returned to recording on John Zorn’s Tzadik label. A pair of solo drum albums were issued in 1998 and 2000, and a live duo date with Zorn was released in 2004. In 2008, Tzadik released Beyond Quantum, a trio record featuring Graves, bassist William Parker, and saxophonist Anthony Braxton.

Select Discography

As a leader:

Percussion Ensemble – ESP (1965)

Babi – IPS (1976)

Meditation Among Us – Kitty (1977)

Grand Unification – Tzadik (1997)

Stories – Tzadik (2000)

With Montego Joe:

Arriba! – Prestige (1964)

Wild & Warm – Prestige (1965)

With Miriam Makeba:

Makeba Sings! – RCA (1965)

With Paul Bley:

Barrage – ESP (1964)

With New York Art Quartet:

New York Art Quartet – ESP (1964)

Mohawk – Fontana (1965)

With Giuseppi Logan:

Quartet – ESP (1964)

More – ESP (1965)

As Coleader With Don Pullen:

At Yale University – PG (1966)

Nommo – SRP (1966)

With Albert Ayler:

Holy Ghost – Revenant (1967)

Love Cry – Impulse! (1968)

With Sonny Sharrock:

Black Woman – Vortex (1969)

As Coleader With Andrew Cyrille:

Dialogue of the Drums – IPS (1974)

As Coleader With David Murray:

Real Deal – DIW (1991)

As Coleader With John Zorn:

50th Birthday Celebration Volume Two – Tzadik (2003)

With William Parker and Anthony Braxton:

Beyond Quantum – Tzadik (2008)



Contributor: Brad Farberman