Milford Graves, free jazz pioneer, rest in peace
Renowned jazz percussionist Milford Graves died today from congestive heart failure, reports NPR's Lars Gotrich. He was 79. In 2018, Graves was diagnosed with amyloid cardiomyopathy, often called stiff heart syndrome, and was told he had six months to live. He used his own studies of the rhythm of the human heart to fight the condition. “It turns out, I was studying the heart to prepare for treating myself," he told The New York Times in August of 2020.
A true multi-hyphenate, Milford also counted himself an acupuncturist, herbalist, martial artist, programmer, and professor, and he continued to perform live after his diagnosis. (We most recently caught him as part of the Andrew Cyrille celebration at the 2019 Vision Festival.) He led quite a life. From his bio:
A pioneer of free Jazz, Graves was a member of the New York Art Quartet, whose iconic first recording in 1964 featured LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) reading his poem "Black Dada Nihilismus." In 1967, he played at John Coltrane’s funeral. A consummate autodidact with a syncretic approach, Graves invented a martial art form called Yara based on the movements of the Praying Mantis, African ritual dance, and Lindy Hop in 1972. Shortly thereafter, Graves joined the Black Music Division at Bennington College, where he taught for 39 years and is now Professor Emeritus. In 2000 he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and began to study human heart vibrations to better understand music’s healing potential, and in 2015 he received the Doris Duke Foundation Impact Award.
If you'd like to learn more, Milford is the subject of 2018 documentary Milford Graves Full Mantis which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Rest in peace, Milford. Read tributes from fellow artists, and watch the trailer for Milford Graves Full Mantis and clips of vintage performances and more, below.