Milford Graves, the pioneering jazz drummer, professor, inventor, herbalist, visual and martial artist, has died, according to NPR’s Lars Gotrich. He was 79 years old. In 2018, Graves was diagnosed with amyloid cardiomyopathy – colloquially known as stiff heart syndrome – and had six months to live.
Graves was born in Queens in 1941 and was a pioneer of free jazz. He made dozens of recordings throughout his life (including the Giuseppi Logan Quartet, Albert Ayler’s Love Cry, and Sonny Sharrock’s Black Woman), as well as various television and film projects. He was Professor Emeritus of Music at Bennington College, where he taught from 1973 to 2012. Known for drawing musical influences from around the world, he mastered African polyrhythms and studied the Indian tabla and Latin jazz timbalas. Together with saxophonist John Tchicai, trombonist Roswell Rudd and bassist Lewis Worrell, he helped found the New York Art Quartet in the 1960s. He played at John Coltrane’s funeral in 1967. Graves worked as a consultant for both the New York City Board of Education and PS 201 in Harlem. In 2000 he received a Guggenheim grant for music composition. A 2018 documentary titled Full Mantis explored his musical philosophies alongside performances from around the world.
But Graves could hardly be defined as a mere musician. He earned an Associate Medical degree in the 1960s and ran a veterinary laboratory while performing with band leaders such as Albert Ayler and Sun Ra. In 1972 he invented Yara, a martial art based on Lindy Hop, ritual African dances and the movements of the praying mantis. An accomplished visual artist, his work has been featured in various galleries and museums, including a 50-year retrospective recently held at the Philadelphia Institute for Contemporary Art.
He also worked as an acupuncturist, studying the relationship between music and the natural rhythms of the human body and developing what he calls “biological music”. Graves believed that exposing the body to certain frequencies could have healing properties; He once treated a friend with arrhythmia with music and helped synchronize the irregular heartbeat with a steady beat. After winning the Guggenheim Fellowship, he used the money to buy laboratory equipment to continue his heartbeat research in his basement in Jamaica, Queens. In 2017, he co-invented a method by which stem cells can be repaired using heartbeat vibrations, and received a patent award. Graves also worked with some of the many contemporary musicians who were influenced by his work, including John Zorn, Sam Amidon (The Following Mountain) and Greg Fox, whose experiments with Graves’ bio-sensing devices appeared on the 2014 LP Mitral Transmission Fox sought music in the natural rhythms of his body.
After his diagnosis, Graves’ research intensified as he tried to put his findings into practice and heal himself. Former students would often visit his basement and document and record his daily activities after his diagnosis in 2018 as he prepared for display at the ICA in Philadelphia. He hoped that his research would be continued by his students after his death.