The Jazz Scientist

Driving through the ramshackle streets of South Jamaica, one comes upon the three-story house on 110th Avenue and knows: This must be the place. No other dwelling in the neighborhood looks like a single-family Gaudí palace, a folk-art Watts Tower, covered with oddly angled mosaics, slivers of mirror, curvilinear panels of cemented stones.

“Funny how that got started,” recalls Milford Graves, the 60-year-old jazz drummer, herbalist, acupuncturist, martial artist, teacher, savant, and shaman known to most as Professor Graves, an honorific due him as much for his formidable street cred as for his position at Bennington College, where he has taught music courses for the past 28 years.

“I replaced the storm window,” he says. “But it looked dull. I put a border around it. That got me into a groove. It became a year’s project. I was possessed by the house. Someone like me, I’ve got a lot of possessions.”

Professor Graves’s variegated states of possession are on display down here in the low-ceilinged basement of the home that belonged to his grandmother before Milford moved here with his wife of 42 years, Lois, and their five children, in 1970.

“Welcome to my little hole,” says the Professor, tugging at his graying Ho Chi Minh beard, a playful if ever-wary look in his eye, as he leads you into his lair, which, in the Joseph Cornell tradition of Queens basements, bears little semblance to standard-issue knotty pine. Professor Graves’s basement is more of an African-American Tesla-scape of eccentricity, or genius, or both – the laboratory of a (way) outer-borough Essene, a below-the-radar New York City renaissance man.

Down here are Milford’s many drums – his Indian tablas, Cuban batas, Senegalese jimbes, full set of Indian temple bells (which he often plays with his forehead), and psychedelically painted trap outfit once utilized by Tony Williams. Initially a teenage Tito Puente-worshiping timbales player, Graves switched to a trap set after seeing Elvin Jones with Coltrane at the Copa Club on Merrick Boulevard. A few years later, he was playing with “out” stalwarts like Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor and backing up Amiri Baraka’s Harlem poetry readings. Despite the idiosyncrasy of his approach (Graves once made a record with tracks titled “Nothing 11-10,” “Nothing 19,” and “Nothing”), in 1965 New Yorker critic 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.”

But even if, as far as Milford is concerned, everything begins with the drum, it doesn’t end there. This is apparent after a scan of the voluminous Graves library – titles like African Fractals, Introduction to Surface Electromyography, Physiological Effects of Noise, and Multivariate Statistical Analysis. The Professor’s apothecary adds to the alchemical aura. Herbal remedies, many grown in Graves’s garden, packed in plastic bags, hang from ceiling beams. Here are stashes of cáscara sagrada (a purgative), tinctures of codonopsis (for kidney problems), and a hundred others, all labeled in the Professor’s slashing handwriting. Also present are Milford’s acupuncture dummies, including a giant ear and a skeleton with meridial pathways marked by colored stickers.

“I’ve always been like this,” the Professor says in his exuberant hip-bop verbiage. “We’d be playing, and someone got cut. I’d put a leaf on it, mix up potions of Tabasco sauce and tree bark. I didn’t know what I was doing, but it never hurt nobody, man! I developed a whole other way of thinking about allopathy, and Western culture in general … I got my first acupuncture needles down in Chinatown. I had to experiment. But black folks don’t like needles. Kids were running from me. So I stuck myself. I was my own dummy.” A few years later, as a recognized practitioner, he made trips to the Orient, where Chinese and Japanese masters admired his technique.

Until fairly recently, Professor Graves also kept many punching bags in his basement. Milford, a former Police Athletic League boxing champ who took three buses from South Jamaica’s notorious “40 Projects” so he could run on the Boys High track teams of the early fifties (he sat next to Connie Hawkins in homeroom), teaches his own eclectic fighting style called yara, which is Yoruban for “nimbleness.” A perpetual-motion form that borrows from aikido and African dance, yara is, according to Milford, “an elevated street thing, physical jazz” based on “anatomy, because we’re not into any of that posturing. We hit hard, and do it fast, man.”

Yara sparring sessions, hours long and full-contact, are legend in South Jamaica. “People come in here thinking they’re bad,” says Wendell Orr, a yara student now working in the international-security field. “But once they see bodies flying around, they rethink what they thought.” And everyone agrees that the most dangerous yara practitioner is the form’s inventor, and guru, Professor Graves. Expressing “no toleration for those who are more mouth than practicalities,” Milford knows every pressure point and still throws a very wicked double left hook.

“Me and Shaq O’Neal?” queries the 180-pound Professor, dead serious. “Anytime. You hurt him where he’s not used to being hurt. Then teach him to heal himself, get him in tune with his natural frequencies.”

This is the essence of Graves’s basement project, which he calls “biological music, a synthesis of the physical and mental, a mind-body deal,” for which he won a Guggenheim grant in 2000. “We want to explore the true body rhythms,” Graves says, “people’s vibrations, frequencies. Because people vibrate, and they vibrate differently. There’s a true personal music. Once you get with it – it can make you feel a lot better.”

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

It is an inquiry that began in an epiphany 30 years ago, in the medical section of the original Barnes & Noble on 18th Street. “I found this LP, Normal and Abnormal Heart Beats,” Graves says. “It was a record for cardiologists. It blew my mind. Everyone says the heart is the drum and the drum is the heart, but here were the secret rhythms, man … I started woodshedding the concept.”

Seeking “to merge the bush guy with the computer guy,” Milford used his Guggenheim grant to bulk up his hardware. He mastered the Labview system, a program used to measure earthquake tremors and Formula One race-car shudder. Attired in his usual homemade baggy pants, Graves attended several tutorials in suburban Holiday Inns with name-tag-wearing engineers.

“Guys like that, they’re not usually in my set, man. But I’m comfortable around hard science,” Milford remarks.

After a long winter during which his wife wondered when he would “get out of the hole and do some work around the house,” the Professor was ready to “lay on the heavy-duty aesthetic.” His heart research can help anyone, but mostly he works on musicians, “so they hear how they sound naturally, let them compare that with what they’re playing.”

Milford’s buddy, reedman Joe Rigby, has arrived at the basement. Also present is Tony Larokko, saxophonist and computer whiz, and downtown guitarist Bruce Eisenbeil. The group is working up a composition based on the collective rhythms of their hearts.

“Let’s tune you guys up,” the professor says, bidding Joe Rigby to open up his shirt and lie down on a gurney-massage table. As Rigby – a distinguished, generous cat who’s played with Ted Curson, bluesman Johnny Copeland, and currently teaches music at I.S. 204 in Long Island City – stretches out, Graves festoons him with EKG leads.

“Thank Lord Guggenheim! You’re grooving now, Joe, somewhere in B flat,” Milford pronounces, tuning fork in hand, pressing an electronic stethoscope to Rigby’s chest. Eisenbeil, Larokko, and Graves himself go through the process. A moment later, the musicians are sitting on fold-out chairs, watching color-coded readouts of their respective EKGs projected onto a five-foot-high screen. Graves mixes the four heart rhythms into a single thumping meter.

“Beats the hell out of the Sci-Fi Channel,” Rigby says.

After an exhortatory monologue on how he plans to augment the “prima materia” of the heartbeat with the “ancient mathematics” of the Golden Ratio – a printout of a magic number worked out to sixteen decimal places appears on the wall – and an aside concerning the “head deficiencies” of former New York Knick Glen Rice, Milford begins to play. Working with a snare drum and a couple of cymbals, he mimics the ensemble’s heartbeat rhythm.

“We start here, then go out,” he says.

The group improvises off the beat. The sound, a rising swirl about which no neighbor has ever complained, is fantastic. So-called “free jazz” doesn’t usually translate on disc, but down here, in Milford Graves’s “little hole,” surrounded by the acupuncture ears, jars of tinctures and remedies, and blinking computer terminals – the effect is soul-shaking, a pulsing musical Rorshach. Milford, well-timed Raconteur of the Spirit, keeps the heartbeat stoking.

Watching Milford, one is reminded of what Whitney Balliett said about him 35 years ago: “He 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. Mostly, Graves plays by himself; his recent recordings, for John Zorn’s Tzadik label, have been solo-drumming sessions. This apartness has always been the rap on Milford Graves: that, for all his “synthesis,” he really is too much of a lone wolf – in the collaborative ethic of jazz, he doesn’t play well with others.

“Milford is a great drummer,” says one player, “but there’s a lot of him, personally, musically. It makes it hard.”

“I hear people say that,” Graves replies. “That I go too much for myself. But I don’t believe it. This music is about experimenting, moving on. I equip myself with information, seek new things. I ask myself, do I really want to stay where everyone else is comfortable? Do I want to hold myself back like that?

“I used to wonder, was I this oddball, here in this basement, fooling myself?” Graves says. “Or was I actually something special? That’s not easy, because you want to stay humble. Where I’ve come to is: If I get an idea, I don’t question myself too much. I just go ahead and do it.”

The music poured on, twenty minutes without stop. Afterward, the Professor critiques the effort, reprising sections in his eerily beautiful Leon Thomas-Jimmie Rodgers griot yodel. “It was like a hurricane, harsh and rolling – good,” he said. “But we need a lifeline. A melody coming through. The hope of rescue, someone on the cell phone saying, Don’t worry, we’re coming to help you.”

A few minutes later, after he burned CDs of the heartbeats for Joe Rigby and the rest, Milford and I went outside to his garden. It is the first time I’d seen the Professor out of his basement, in natural light. Queens is more fertile than most people figure, Graves said, bending to inspect the verbena and sage.

“Sometimes you have to eat like an animal,” the Professor said, on his hands and knees. “I tell my students: The energy comes through the roots, the stem. You cut it, you’re truncating power. Sometimes, you have to get down on the ground, open your mouth, and start chomping, hard.”

The Jazz Scientist