Monday, January 26, 2015
"You don't get it in front of a blackboard, man": A Milford Graves master class
Never enough Milford Graves, okay? His drumming, its presence, the sonic and physical space it inhabits, is one of my musical food groups. As I wrote last week, I'm currently on the lookout for nourishment, hungry for truth and wisdom in music. At that point, I was finding what I needed in Paul Motian (I was remiss not to link to this incredible 1986 Motian/Frisell/Lovano vid, btw), another one of my listening staples. Then I stumbled across the clip above (part one of a three-part Milford Graves master class, filmed last year at the New School, and graciously documented in full by bassist Nicolas Letman-Burtinovic) and my attention shifted. For the past few days, I've been all about this series of videos. I have some thoughts to share on this document, but the most important observation I can offer is that it's precious and essential. I urge you to watch the whole thing.
If you've ever attended a Milford Graves concert, you know that he loves to rap with the audience at different points. He always drops bits of heavy knowledge during those mini sermons, and the above is like a two-hour version. Concentrated, conversational insight. Mystery and majesty. Not capital-T Truth; just the distilled experience of one lifetime. The testimony of a fully realized artist, scientist, healer, scholar.
This master class does have an element of rant to it. Graves is, to cite one of his central principles, which he discusses at length here, anti-metronome and pro-biorhythm. He's anti-machine, pro-man; anti-rigidity, pro-fluidity. Clichéd notions, perhaps, when taken in the abstract, but when coupled with the great sweep of Graves's knowledge, his hard-won authority, seven-plus decades in the making, and with the way he plays—and, it should be said, he barely plays at all during this master class, though there is an intense musicality to the delivery; even when speaking, he's all about rhythmic soundmaking, teaching through song and dance as much as word—his insights take on great profundity. He's anti- bottom heads on drums, anti- overly fussy charts written by non-drumming bandleaders, anti- equal temperament. Anything that impedes flow is suspect.
And there's invaluable history here, both personal history and that of a time and place. Milford Graves (and many Graves devotees will know this, either from call it art, another invaluable Graves-related document, or elsewhere) is, at base, a Latin-jazz musician, a player of the timbales who focused on that instrument and its surrounding idiom to the point that, as he relates here, trap-set masters such as Art Blakey and Elvin Jones meant relatively little to him during his formative years in the early ’60s. His idols were percussionists such as Willie Bobo and Graves's friend and contemporary Bill Fitch, his bandleading models artists such as Cal Tjader. Graves led a Latin-jazz group featuring a young Chick Corea, apparently a fearsome player even at that time. He didn't touch a set of trap drums till ’63, the year before he began working with the New York Art Quartet in the idiom he's best known for, so-called free jazz.
You watch this, and you realize that a musician like this—an artist like this, a person like this—is truly beyond category. "Free jazz" seems so small compared to the worldview expressed here. Graves tells of foraging for herbs, absorbing nature, studying and practicing acupuncture, learning martial arts, playing in Africa and Japan. He's a gatherer and an aggregator, a mystic and a skeptic, a teacher and a student, pouring out notions for you to take or leave. What does it mean to really study music? How far can academia take you? (Bear in mind that Graves taught at Bennington for close to four decades, so he clearly believes in higher education, but he approaches it from a personalized, humane, experience-driven standpoint.) What is an artist's responsibility to an audience? Should you prepare a show, or take the temperature of the room and build a performance based on the environment you find yourself in? Why, fundamentally, do you do what you?
We speak of personalities and presences as animated. If you've ever seen Milford Graves perform, you know he is that, both when playing and when speaking. But just as importantly, he is animating. You leave his presence (even virtual presence) with wider eyes, a broader gaze, a renewed awareness for all that there is out there—the scope not just of music, but of knowledge, betterment, fulfillment, understanding. There's no boundary on this kind of inspiration—it seeps into every corner of your life.
I'm currently immersed in the autodidactic study of double-kick drumming. I've recently signed on as the live drummer for a metal-oriented band I really love called Psalm Zero. I've spent 20 years as a single-kick drummer, and proudly so, but idiomatically, this music demands double kick, and so I've set out on that path. It's tough going, but rewarding—and, more importantly, fun.
And learning should be, if you have the right teacher. Milford Graves is a—not the, because there could never be just one—right teacher. In his view, you learn out of love, not out of careerism or competition or any other base reason. You make a life out of it. You cultivate confidence and humility in turn. You form strong opinions and you make them known, but you make it clear that you only speak for yourself; you never wield dogma like a billy club.
Most importantly, you share. There's a bit near the end of the third part of the talk where Graves speaks about pedagogy, and about how he made a point to actually play with every one of his students. He even goes so far as to say that a teacher who doesn't do the thing they teach alongside their students is quite literally not teaching. Teaching is giving. It's spending time. It's encouraging and helping and inspiring—literally breathing into those one instructs. It's coming to terms with the fact that while books, systems and schools of thought are great, people are greater.
No wonder you leave a Graves performance feeling so renewed, so uplifted. It's because every one is a deliberate act of inspiration. "You don't get it in front of a blackboard, man," he says at around 25:00 in part two, repeating the line several times for emphasis. Nor do you get it—nourishment, knowledge, experience, aural or otherwise—with earbuds squashed in your ears, or when mashing buttons on your iPhone, or sitting at a desk staring at a screen. You get it by being there, either by paying physical witness (I treasure my collection of Milford Graves recordings, but they're nothing compared to the thrill of seeing him live; that's true in the case of almost every great artist, but with him it's, like, mega-true; you have to feel those soundwaves on your skin) or, if you want to do the thing yourself, by putting your body somewhere, temporarily shutting out the world and getting to know it—it being your own private, physical reality and the skill/art you want to make manifest. It doesn't have to be drumming; it could be anything. But is has to be real, not virtual—experienced, not read about. Not in front of a blackboard, indeed.
More Milford Graves on YouTube:
*Steve Coleman interviews Milford Graves at the School for Improvisational Music (2013)
*"Milford Graves and the Japanese"—concert film and documentary, from a Japanese festival organized by dancer Min Tanaka (1987)
*Milford Graves and William Parker, live at Jazzores (2010) [Graves discusses this performance during the master class]
*Milford Graves Quartet (1973) [Some sharp commentary on this vid, and Graves's work in general, via Weasel Walter]
*Milford Graves at the Vision Festival Lifetime Achievement event, via Don Mount (2013)
-NY HeArt Ensemble
*"Speaking in Tongues"—Milford Graves documentary featuring David Murray, Stanley Crouch and others (1982)
*"A Tribute to Milford Graves"—highlights from event held at Bennington College (2012)
*Milford Graves and Japanese percussionist Toshi Tsuchitori—performance and interview (1993)