MILFORD GRAVES FULL MANTIS. Thursday, Jan. 24, 8 p.m., free, Duke Coffeehouse, Durham;

“Hey Joe, man! Which one is it, man? Which one is it, Joe?” 

I was speechless, sitting in a classroom inside the Bennington College music building, the converted attic of a 1940s gray stone mansion called Jennings Hall. The stuffy, carpeted room was littered with some well-worn congas, djembes, a broken shekere, an aging desktop computer, an upright piano, and an old drum set with the bottom heads removed in the corner. Milford Graves, or “Professor,” as he was known (against the normal first-name basis for the rest of the Bennington faculty), was standing at the doorway, dressed in his uniform of baggy homemade pants, a thick flannel, a fisherman’s vest, and an oversized flat cap.  He was rapidly flickering the light switch on-off, on-off, on-off, playfully yelling his question to me in front of about a dozen of my snarky, perma-stoned classmates.

This was just another evening at Improvisation Ensemble, the only class I took every semester during my three years as an undergraduate student at Bennington. That specific lesson remains a signpost throughout my creative life: Have an opinion. Is it good or bad? On or off? Don’t deny your gut reaction.  I kept it with me through my twenties, as I shakily positioned myself for a career in music, and presently, as I attempt to refine that chaotic seed desire in my late thirties. It was a lesson that was meant to challenge my painfully tepid, compliant, and ultimately illusory “earnest” Midwestern disposition. Since then, all of my creative choices and aesthetic opinions have been haunted by the image of a loud, light-flickering Milford Graves.

During a six-week winter “field work term” in New York City, I had fed my soul and scorching curiosity by hearing people like Cecil Taylor, John Zorn, Charles Gayle, Susie Ibarra, Pauline Oliveros, Bill Frisell, Anthony Braxton, and Wadada Leo Smith at clubs across New York, and various lesser-knowns (though incendiaries in their own right) at the city’s endless reel of mysterious, unofficial loft venues. The light switch incident was a response to a comment I had made about a particular drummer I had heard in that time, of whom Milford had a strong opinion. The drummer had come up in the ongoing weekly conversation/lecture that was the Improvisation Ensemble. I had mildly defended said drummer, in my own Midwestern way, in saying I had “checked him out and thought he was okay.”

This was the statement that had set Milford off into his disorienting charade, launching himself in a split second from his usual midcentury-hipster lean in the institution-issued plastic folding chair, and over to the light switch by the doorway. This particular charade had never been presented before in Improvisation Ensemble, and though it was extremely amusing to me and my classmates, it wasn’t at all shocking. 

Class would usually start with questions from Milford that had no immediate answer, such as, “So, what’s your purpose, man?” In an attempt to illustrate possible answers to the question at hand, every three-hour class would often cycle between a handful of topics: cooking, urban gardening, herbalism, heart arrhythmia, martial arts, growing up in Queens, and of course, music. The longer you studied with Milford, the more you would re-ingest his personal experiences on each subject, as the stories were recycled, returning slightly altered or with a different angle, making each one pertinent to the question at hand. 

After a semester or two, I earned Milford’s interest in my musical development, and I ended up with some quality time playing for him. Most every percussion teacher I studied with in my life has packed lessons with oodles of rhythms, beats, and styles for immediate regurgitation. Milford gave me only a handful of the “greatest hits” of traditional rhythms to practice, and instructions to dive deep into the feel of them. He demonstrated by sitting behind the drum kit and delivering a standard rhythm like it was a malleable, viscous object waiting to be reformed into a million different shapes, each limb pulsing along at its own natural pace.

“Now you try, and stay loose this time,” he would command. “Create a flow around the kit. Pay more attention to how you’re moving, and not what you’re playin’, man.”

That was it. I would play in a way I had always felt, but never quite achieved before. No one had ever given me the green light like Milford in these moments. I was changed forever.

He encouraged me to go deeper with a few as opposed to shallower with more, to unlock the riddles of ancient communications and open it all up, and to listen to my body while I play, in order to create a flow that honors the biological song of my body: the way my lungs fill with air, the way my heart rate pulses in constantly fluctuating tempos. My experimental-music-obsessed brain initially heard the results of these teachings as ways to achieve some sort of artistic abstraction, and soon learned that Milford was only trying to achieve the most biologically sound sonic clarity.

To say Milford Graves is a master percussionist with an idiosyncratic, yet fundamentally accessible voice, is the mere tip of the iceberg.  He has accomplished the same feat in all his other endeavors: his foray into Yoruban-influenced martial arts, herbology, cooking, a study of tonality of the heart that won him a Guggenheim in 2001, and now his human anatomy sculptures. Through all his pursuits, Milford makes everything he touches purely himself, yet simultaneously universal. My experiences with Milford Graves in the student-teacher capacity continue to unfold greater meaning with each passing year: a reminder to strive to act only on one’s own authentic impulses, reasoning, and voice. 

He has a true gift of being able to bring it all down to the human source, down beneath our societal roles, our socio-economic standings, even our cultural and racial identities, beneath learned behaviors and intellectual reasoning. He brings it all the way down to the root, the most basic and pure human level.