Milford Graves (August 20, 1941 – February 12, 2021) was born in Jamaica, Queens, New York. Graves began playing drums at age three and was introduced to the congas at age eight. He also studied timbales and African hand drumming at an early age. NPR journalist Lars Gotrich confirmed that Graves passed away of congestive heart failure at 79.
By the early 1960s, he was leading dance bands and playing in Latin/Afro Cuban ensembles in New York on bills alongside Cal Tjader and Herbie Mann. His group, the Milford Graves Latino Quintet, included saxophonist Pete Yellin, pianist Chick Corea, bassist Lisle Atkinson, and conga player Bill Fitch. In 1962, Graves heard the John Coltrane quartet with Elvin Jones, whose drumming made a strong impression. The following year, Graves acquired a standard drum set from pianist Hal Galper and began using it regularly.
Graves was an American jazz drummer, percussionist, Professor Emeritus of Music, researcher/inventor, visual artist/sculptor, gardener/herbalist, and martial artist. Graves is noteworthy for his early avant-garde contributions in the 1960s with Paul Bley, Albert Ayler, and the New York Art Quartet, and is considered to be a free jazz pioneer, liberating percussion from its timekeeping role. The composer and saxophonist John Zorn referred to Graves as "basically a 20th-century shaman."
Graves has also provided artwork for some of his albums and more recently has exhibited sculptures that tie together his interests in music and martial arts, writing: "I've been thinking about sculpture as a teaching tool. There's a saying I used to always hear: 'sculpture is frozen music.' I want something with some kind of movement to it. I'm adding elements that are not static, like transducers. I also use my years and years of experience in music and my training in martial arts to understand sculpture. There were movements I used to do that would be very quiet, maybe something from aikido or tai chi.
Very slow, very slow ... then all of a sudden you would burst out with this explosive, passive-aggressive energy. I wondered how I would put that into a piece of sculpture. I thought the explosion would be to put together some unorthodox elements and have contradictions set in. If a person were to look at it, it would provoke a kind of psychological motion inside of them." Graves' 2017 exhibit at The Artist’s Institute at Hunter College tied together with his interests in music and acupuncture, "establishing an energetic connection between music and the natural rhythms of the body."
A 2020-2021 exhibit at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, PA entitled Milford Graves: A Mind-Body Deal will showcase "a collection of Graves' hand-painted album covers and posters, idiosyncratic drum sets, multimedia sculptures, photographs, and costumes, with elements from his home, scientific studies, recording ephemera, and archival recordings, as well as space for performance and a reading room."