The Heartbeat of Queens: Milford Graves

The Heartbeat of Queens: Milford Graves

by Mark Jacobson
copyright © 2001 Mark Jacobson

One never knows what beauties, or terrors, lurk in the basements of Queens. "Something down there," sang Joey Ramone, former resident of Kew Gardens. For years I pedaled my bike along the Flushing byways of the extravagantly misnomered Utopia Parkway, never once imagining that Joseph Cornell, devout Christian Scientist follower of Mary Baker Eddy and rider of the Q-31 bus, created dreamworlds in tiny boxes down the staircase of the modest unattached home a few blocks north of Bohacks.

The building containing Milford Graves' basement in South Jamaica is somewhat more noticeable.Driving through the rambling, often ramshackle area between the Liberty Avenue factory zone and the JKF cargo runways, the visitor comes upon the three-story house at the corner of 156th Street and 110th Avenue and knows: this must be the place.

No other dwelling in the pothole-strewn, Guiliani-neglected neighborhood looks like a single family Gaudi palace, a home-as-folk art Watts Tower, covered from foundation to attic with oddly angled mosaics, slivered sections of mirror, curvilinear panels of cemented stones.

"Funny how that got started," recalls Graves, the 60-year old avant garde jazz drummer, herbalist/roots doctor/acupuncturist, martial artist, teacher/savant/shaman who is known to most as Professor Graves, an all-encompassing honorific due in part to his position at Bennington College in Vermont where he has taught a variety of music courses for the past 27 years.

"The storm window upstairs rotted away, fell in. It was so old, nothing at the hardware store fit. I built a window and put in myself. That got me thinking. It was dull up there. So I put a border around it. People from the neighborhood noticed. That was a very high compliment because people usually just walk by, going about their business, they don't look up. They asked me what I was going to do next. That got me into a groove.

"For the next year and half I worked on the house, sometimes day and night. I was possessed by the house . . . That's how I am . . . . The more things you can become possessed by -- the more deities you get possessed by -- the better. Someone like me, I've got a lot of possessions."

Accoutrements of Milford Graves' variegated states of possession are on display down here in the cozy, low-beamed basement of the home which belonged to Milford's grandmother before the Professor moved in 1970 with his wife of 42 years, Lois, and their five children. Headquarters of the Professor's non-profit organization, ICMSS, International Center for Medicinal and Scientific Studies, and fondly referred by its primary resident as "my little hole,"the Graves family basement is a subterranean African-American Tesla-scape of true eccentricity, or genius, or both -- the hothouse laboratory of a (way) outer boro Essene, a below-the-radar New York City renaissance man.

For Milford, an exceedingly limber man with a grayish, wispy neo-Ho Chi Minh beard and a playful yet ever-wary look in his eye, everything starts with the drum, and towards the back of the basement, close to the stove which he uses to heat the place in winter, are his tablas, his Cuban batas, his Senegalese jambays, several stringed "talking" drums, a full set of Indian temple bells (which Graves often plays by batting with his forehead), and the psychedelic-painted trap set once utilized by the late Tony Williams.

The internationalist percussive array is a Graves trademark. Back in the Day when avant garde jazz music seemed to embody politics, risk, spirit and everything else, no "free" player was more free, hit harder, or knew more strange polyrhythms from strange places than Milford Graves. This was when, in a 1965 piece, Whitney Balliett called Graves "the best of the new-thing drummers" . . . someone "who could become the modern counterpart of such pioneering drummers as Sidney Catlett and Max Roach." A star on the thorny scene, Graves worked with "out" stalwarts like Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor (whom Milford calls "a great player but light on the human relations"), did solos as Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka recited firebrand poetry at the Audoban Ballroom,developed a griot-like yodeling style which sounds like a cross between Leon Thomas and Jimmy Rodgers, and cut records on the Ur-off-beat ESP-disk label comprised of tracks entitled "Nothing 5-7,""Nothing 11-10,""Nothing19,""Nothing 13,"and "Nothing."

Leaving the skins section of Graves' basement, the visitor wanders northward past the library (titles like African Fractals, Introduction to Surface Electromyography, Physiological Effects of Noise, The Beginner's Guide To the Construction of the Universe and Multivariate Statistical Analysis),the filing system("in" boxes labeled "New,""Now,""In Use" and "Peruse"), a series of personal notes tacked to the wall ("don't forget: angular diversion of linear and curviar motion will produce components of fundamental frequency within the performance of the higher pitch harmonics"), and approaches the Professor's impressive apothecary.

Recipient of a Guggenheim grant in the year 2000 for his proposal entitled "Biological Music" which details his recent, computer-based experimentation on the interplay of human heartbeats and healing properties of syncopated music, Milford became involved with "alternative"medicine early on.

"There's nothing I'm into now I wasn't always into," Graves explains with a spritz of his typical exuberant hip-bop verbiage. "When I was a kid I was always fascinated when I saw those cowboy movies, and the Indians would put some plant on a wound. We'd be out playing in the lot out behind the projects, man, and someone got cut, and I'd grab a leaf and say, put this here . . . You know, I'd mix up, vibing out potions with tabasco sauce and tree bark. I didn't know what I was doing but it never hurt nobody, man! It was from stuff like this that I developed a whole other way of thinking about allopathy and, really, when you get down to it, western culture, in general."

The Professor's herbal remedies are arranged in large plastic bags which hang from the two-by-four beams of the basement ceiling and in jars sitting on shelves. Here are stashes of cascara sagrada (a purgitude), tinctures of conopsis (Chinese derived, for kidney problems), yerba santa (for respiratory ailments), gentian (for stomach imbalances), golden thread (an immune system booster), and hundreds of others -- each one labeled in the Professor's distinctive slashing handwriting. Also present in the basement's medicine sector are Milford's acupuncture dummies, including a giant ear and a full human skeleton, with the meridial pathways delineated by little colored stickers.

"Man, when I first got into acupuncture back in the '60s, I read everything I could. I knew this was DEEP . . . I got my first needles down in Chinatown. Acupuncture needles, man. I had to experiment. But black folks, when they hear about needles they're thinking of voodoo. They think you're some witch doctor, trying to turn them into zombies. Kids were running away from me. So I figured, I'll stick myself. I'll be my own dummy. That's how I started." A few years later, as a certified practitioner,he was making regular trips to the Orient, where Chinese and Japanese masters expressed admiration for his technique.

Until fairly recently Professor Graves also kept several heavy bags in his basement on which his many martial arts students would practice. Milford, a 112-pound PAL boxing champ back in the 1950's, who fought many "sham battles" when growing up in the roughneck South Jamaica Samuel Hutchinson Houses (a.k.a "the 40 Projects"),teaches a eclectic fighting style of his own devise called Yara, which is Yoruban for "nimbleness." A windmilling, perpetual motion form which borrows from boxing, Akido and other Oriental disciplines, Yara is, according to Milford, "an elevated street thing" based on "knowing the anatomy of the human body -- basically the other side of the healing arts -- because what we want to know is where to hit someone to really hurt them, man. We're not interested in posturing around making intricate designs with your hands and feet. We're on you, like wham, trying to get you out of there as fast as possible."

Yara sparring sessions, sometimes six hours long and always full contact, have been legend in South Jamaica for years. "People come in here thinking they're bad," says Wendell Orr, a longtime Yara student and current international security expert, "but once they get a load of those bodies flying around, they walk away thinking about rethinking everything they ever thought." Of all Yara practitioners, everyone agrees, no one is more dangerous than its inventor, Professor Graves, who knows every pressure point and even at age 60 still throws a very wicked double left hook.

"Me and Shaq O'Neal?" remarks the 160-pound Professor, dead serious. "Anytime. With a guy like that you have to him hurt where he's not used to being hurt."

Asked what it is like to spar with Milford, Yara student Jeffrey Reed, a videographer from Philadelphia, says, "Well, you look across the floor and see everything you've already seen him do. All the giant guys off the street who thought they were invincible but who he's brought down -- it intimidates you. But you've got to be Zen about it. You take your beating, but you always know: even as he's killing you, the Professor's teaching you how to take less of a beating next time."

"This is a University, different than Bennington, but a University the same. The University of South Jamaica, " Milford says of his basement sanctum. "A lot of people have been through here over the years." Most of the Professor's students do what Graves calls "everything." They play drums, they learn medicine, they practice Yara. To Milford, it is all part of same thing, a churning synthesis of "natural correlation . . . a system, one thing leading to the next and back again." A humble earnestness is demanded of all students, since the Professor has "no toleration for people who are more mouth than practicalities." Except to cover the barest of expenses, tuition at this University is free.

"I'm not into this to buy a new suit of clothes or a better car," says Milford, who once thought he wanted a career in "mercantile salesmanship in the clothing field" but "ran into that race thing" and wound up doing "seasonal work" for the City Parks Department, sweeping up and painting benches in Jamaica playgrounds.

"I say you can't pay me enough to tell you what I know, so don't pay me anything . . . But there was this guy once. Some rich guy. He said, look, I want to know everything you know. I said okay. But you've got to come to this basement every day for a year. Prepare to stay all day. I'll make you my only student because I won't have time to do anything else. When we're done, you'll know everything I do . . . For that I said I'd have to charge him a million dollars. I'm glad he backed out, because I don't know if it was a good deal for me or not."

According to Graves, whose father was chauffeur in Forest Hills and whose five children all attended local public high schools, it was growing up in "some country outpost like Queens" which enabled him to become "something different . . . If I'd grown up in Manhattan I'd have been tainted with being hip. You can be too hip for your own good. Out here, you didn't have those influences, you could be more creative."Graves traveled hours a day on the subway to Boys High in Brooklyn (where he sat next to basketball icon Connie Hawkins in many classes) so he could run on Boys' famous track team. "Running for Boys, that was the top," Graves recalls. "I loved that stripe on their pants and the way they passed the baton with the left hand, everyone else did it with the right . . . "But his worldview is Queens, especially in jazz.

"We used to hang around Bernice Johnson's dance studio on 150th Street and Jamaica Avenue. She's the wife of Budd Johnson, the old tenor player, and taught African dance. But mostly I was into that Latin thing. I really wanted to play timbales. Around here, a lot of the project crowd was into Latin. One time, I was about 18, I saw Tito Puente and I said, 'Hey Tito, I want to take some timbales lessons from you' . . . So he said, just come early to the show and stand by my timbales and watch -- that's your lesson.' He wasn't being funny. That was a great lesson. Watching. Observing. . . . Later on, I had this friend, he moved from Cuba. I just loved being in his house, soaking up that Cuban vibe. We had this little drum band together. His father was a respected drummer, but I didn't know how respected until once I was seeing Tito and there's my friend's father, up on the stage. Tito sees him and steps aside, gives him his sticks. I mean, man: Tito bowed to the guy.

"After that I really wanted my friend's father to notice me. I was living on the fourth floor of the project and his father used to walk past my house at 5 o'clock on his way home from work. So I set up my timbales and kept the window open wide, man! I'd be playing so timbales, tearing them up, and peeking through the curtain at the same time. I wanted him to stop and look up and see me, man! I wanted him to critique me. But he never did. Then one day, I'm kicking, playing hard, man . . . And my friend's father stops . . . looks around. Then he looks up. He sees me and he grunts, like, 'Good Cuban stuff!' Man, that was one of the greatest things that ever happened to me playing the drums."

"I didn't get into jazz until maybe 1962. It was John Coltrane who did it. There was this place out here on Merrick Road called Copa City. A little Queens club. A tenor player friend of mine, Joe Rigby, a great high jumper from Cardinal Hayes, he was a Trane man. He said, 'Hey man, get your head out the sand, the greatest saxophone player who ever lived is playing out in Queens, right by your house, and the greatest drummer is with him.' We went down there, young guys, got a front table. That was the first time I ever saw Elvin Jones. They were playing My Favorite Things, man! 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."

It has been a long road since then, Milford says, running through the names of guys he grew up with who met bad ends around the Queens projects. "Lots of dead guys, shot, O'Ded on dope, people who went in directions not in a positive vein." Several musicians Graves played with have likewise met unfortunate ends. Albert Aylerwas infamously drowned in the East River, but Graves disputes the long held rumor that the musician was murdered, his body supposedly found tied to a juke box. "Albert was spaced out, depressed about his Impulse contract that wouldn't let him play what he wanted. You'd go by his house on Dean Street in Brooklyn and there'd be these clouds of incense," Graves says. "If you ask me, he jumped in. Almost just to see what it might be like."

Then again, living the ultra-bohemian life of the "out" jazz player pretty much "guarantees your economics are going to be on low side" reports Milford, who once staged a series of concerts in his basement featuring himself, bassist William Parker and noted avant sax player Charles Gayle. "It was something, we had a hundred people down here, huge pots of food. Charles had been homeless, playing on the street. We gave him a home, for a minute, at least.

"It can be difficult," Milford continues, recalling another time, when he was walking down 57th Street with his friend and fellow drummer Andrew Cyrille he ran into Giuseppi Logan, a touted multi-instrumentalist whom once led a group with which Graves recorded several sides for ESP during the middle '60s.

"I don't want to say nothing, but his clothes were soiled and he had a paper cup in his hand," says Milford, who can be a hard trader when it comes to self-survival issues, artistic and otherwise. "Look, man, when you're different, when you hear different, when you think different, you got to watch out. That's why I stopped going around too much. Why give them a target? I stick to my business and stay in my little hole. That's how I get along."

* * *

Today a great experiment is underway in the basement on 110th Avenue.

The project began in an epiphany 30 years ago when Professor Graves was spending a good deal of time in the medical section of the old Barnes and Nobles on 18th Street. "I found this LP, Normal and Abnormal Heart Beats . . . It was a record intended for doctors, cardiographers. I put it on and it just blew my mind. It's something people say all the time: the heart is the drum and the drum is the heart, but here were the secret rhythms . . . You search the world looking for a million different beats, and there they were: inside. The real internal music of the universe. I started woodshedding on the concept . . .

"Its about vibration, people's frequencies," Milford says, getting that eureka look in his eyes. "People vibrate, and they vibrate differently. Everyone is unique. There's a true personal music. But you go to school, things are doled out a certain kind of way. You got the 12 scales of the piano. That is a tyranny: 12 scales! Notes broken down into four parts instead of triplets. Who says that's so? It is just intellectual, made-up,artificial time. One more industrial compromise. It has nothing to do with the way we function on the planet, no one functions like that . . . Let me tell you, the heart is smart. It has got its own rhythm, like fingerprints, no two the same. People forget that."

Possessed again, the Professor, ever the Space-Age Edenist, sought "to merge the bush guy with the computer guy." He used his Guggenheim grant money to seriously bulk-up his hardware (both Mac and Windows machines, supercharged with the help of many students), took a sabbatical from Bennington, and began spending 16 hours a day in his basement. Key to his research software is the Lab View system, primarily a medical program which is also used to measure everything from earthquake tremors to the shudder of Formula One race cars. To "get with" the Lab View stuff, the Professor, attired in his usual dashiki tops and homemade baggy pants, attended several tutorials, hanging out at suburban Holiday Inns with name-tagwearing electrical and mechanical engineers.

"You know, guys like that, they're not usually in my set, man. But I always feel comfortable around hard science," Milford remarks.

After a long winter which he describes as a "pain in the brain of study" during which Milford's wife Lois wondered "when I was ever going to get out of the hole and do some work around the house," on this bright mid-spring day, the Professor is ready to "lay on the heavy duty aesthetic." Even though he feels his expanded heart research will add the health of the general population, mostly he works on "the well-being of musicians, to let them hear how they sound naturally, let them compare that with what they're playing."

To this end, today Milford's old childhood buddy, reedman Joe Rigby, has arrived the basement. Also present is long-time Milford student and South Jamaica resident soprano player/computer whiz/Con Edison worker Tony Lorokko, and guitarist Bruce Eisenbeil. Along with Oseiku Dan El Diaz, a Miami-based conga player, the group is working up an ensemble composition based on the collective rhythms of their hearts.

"Okay, let's tune you guys up,"the Professor says, bidding Joe Rigby to open up his shirt and lay down on the cushioned gurney/massage table positioned in the middle of the cement basement floor. Rigby, a distinguished, generous-natured cat who's played with Cecil Taylor, toured with gutbucket bluesman Johnny Copeland and still plays weddings to augment his gig teaching music at IS 10 in Long Island City (note to Bd. of Ed. -- give this man a budget!) lies down flat, using Graves' strategically-positioned bata drums as arm rests. The Professor hovers, tuning fork in hand, pressing an electronic stethoscope to Rigby's chest.

"Thank Lord Guggenheim! You're really grooving now, Joe, like somewhere in b flat range," Graves pronounces, inputting the information. Soon after, Eisenbeil, Lorroko and Milford himself lie down, go through the process. A moment later the musicians are sitting on fold-outchairs, watching the separate, color-coded read outs of their respective E.K.G.s projected onto a five foot high screen hung from the basement ceiling.

"Beats the hell out of the Sci-Fi Channel," Rigby remarks, as the sound of group's collective heart beat fills the basement. "Listen, there's a lot of things going on in there. Milford, he's always coming up with something to keep you interested. He connects with stuff you didn't know was there, then you hear it and that's like the way its always been. There is an element of faith to it."

After a fast-moving, exhortatory monologue from the Professor on how he plans to augment the heart beat "prima materia" with the "ancient mathematics" of the Golden Ratio (Graves keeps a print-out of the Greek value for phi, worked out to 16 places, above his desk) and a quick aside concerning the "head deficiencies" of New York Knickerbockers' forward Glen Rice, Milford begins to play. Working with only a snare drum and a couple of symbols, he mimics with the ensemble's heart beat rhythm.

"That's where we start, then we go out," he says. And: bam-ba-ta-bam, he's solid, right on it. Eisenbeil, awed in the manner of other down town cats like Thurston Moore and John Zorn to be working with the Professor, comes in with his Fender, followed by Rigby and Lorokko, blowing hard.

The sound, a rising swirl which no neighbor has ever complained about, is fantastic. And that's great, because if the truth be known, "free" jazz (with a couple of notible exceptions like Coltrane's Ascension, maybe) almost never works on disc. An immediate thing, totally in the moment, it doesn't travel well. But down here, inside Milford Graves' "little hole," in this sorcerer's lair, surrounded by the acupuncture ears, the hanging bags of remedies, the blinking computer terminals -- the source feels very near. The effect is loud and soul-shaking, a kind of pulsing musical Rorschach. Right in the middle, tucked inside the nimble flash of symbol crash and rimshots, heard and unheard, Graves, a centering fury, raconteur of the Spirit, keeps the heartbeat stoking.

Watching Graves play in the basement, his demeanor by turns as seemingly remote as a Olodum sky god and hot-buttonedly engaged, you're reminded of what Whitney Balliett said about him, more than 35 years ago, in his essay on "the new thing." "He (Graves) never sounded a regular beat . . . repeatedly developing a welter of booms and rifle shots and clicks and tinklings . . . his playing needs no one to accompany and no accompaniment; he is a one-man drum corps."

This assessment has proved prophetic, especially recently. Most of Graves' concerts are solo efforts now; his two most recent recordings, both for John Zorn's Tzadik label, have been solo druming sessions. Remarkable as many of these sides are, this nonpareil apartness has always been the rap on Milford Graves: that for all his pleas for synthesis and "mixing"(resolutely humanist, he can be quite eloquent in his argument against the exclusivity of Afro-centricism), he really is too much of a lone wolf hiding away in his basement, that amid the collaborative spirit of jazz he is someone who doesn't really play that well with others.

"No one says Milford is not a great drummer," says one well-known player on the current neo-avant garde scene, "but you play with him and feel all this ego pouring off him. It makes it hard."

"I hear that," Graves says in reply. "People saying I go for myself too much. But I don't really believe it. When I play, I'm there to entertain, no question. But this music is about experimenting, and moving to another place. I am active, I try hard to equip myself with information. I learn things. So I ask myself, do I really want to stay in that place where everyone else is comfortable? Do I want to hold myself back like that?

"I used to wonder, you know, was I just this oddball guy, sitting down here in this basement, fooling myself?" Graves goes on, someone forthrightly contemplating the realistic potential of his own genius. "Or were these things I thought, the things I did, actually something special? Was I one of those guys? It was a little frightening, kept me up nights. That's not easy, because you don't want to have a big head about it. You want to stay humble. Where I've come to is: if I get an idea I don't ques tion myself too much. I just go ahead and do it."

And so the music poured on, 20 minutes without stop. Afterward, the Professor critiqued the group's effort, reprising sections in his eerie/beautiful griot yodel. "It was like a hurricane, rocking and shaking, and harsh -- that's good," he said. "But we need a life line. An easy, melodic line coming through. The hope of rescue. That feeling that someone's on the cell phone saying, 'Don't worry, we're coming to help you.'"

A few minutes later, after he burned CDs of their heart beats for Joe Rigby and the rest, Milford and I went outside to look at his garden. After half a dozen visits, this was the first time I'd ever seen the Professor out of his basement, in natural light. Up here was where he grew a lot of herbs, he said, happy that the verbena and sages were finally coming up after the cold winter. The soil of Queens was a lot more fertile than most people figured, Graves said.

"You know, sometimes you just got to eat like an animal," the Professor said, surveying the greenery. "I tell that to my students. Think about it: the energy of the plant comes up through the ground, through the roots, the stem. You cut off the leaves, you might as well be doing an amputation. You're truncating power. I know its not practical, but sometimes, eat right from the source. Just open your mouth and start chomping, hard."


Mark Jacobson is a New York City writer; this article was originally published in somewhat different form in an October issue of New York magazine.


C o m m e n t s

Milford Graves/ICMSS 1 of 2
Jan Loudin November 09, 04

On CBC (Canada) this a.m., on Tom Allen's "show", he gave a report about Milford Graves and his work with the rhythm and pitch of the heart and how diseased hearts can be "corrected" by changing that rhythm and pitch. This is fascinating and I would like to know more about it! Which brings me to ICMSS. How do I contact Milford Graves and/or Interactive Center for MEdicinal and Scientific Studies to find out more???? Thank you!

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