Milford Graves: A Mind-Body Deal

Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, United States
25 Sep 2020 - 24 Jan 2021

Yara in the Dojo, 1992, photo courtesy of the artist.

Yara in the Dojo, 1992, photo courtesy of the artist.

This exhibition, presented by Ars Nova Workshop, gathers the many-layered and multi-faceted work of Milford Graves, exploring the practices and predilections of this extraordinary “jazz mind.” Mention Milford’s name to anyone who follows progressive jazz and they know him from landmark record­ings such as Albert Ayler’s Love Cry, Sonny Sharrock’s Black Woman, his groundbreaking work as a leader, including the Milford Graves Percussion Ensemble, and his performances with the likes of Lou Reed, Min Tanaka, and John Zorn. He has been a revelatory force in music since the mid-1960s, liberating the role of the drummer from “timekeeper” to instrumental improviser and giving rise to the Free Jazz movement. But even his musical practice cannot contain the energies of his creativity and intellect.

As a young drummer, Milford performed at John Coltrane’s funeral and led successful Latin music combos, drawing on his Afro-Caribbean roots. When he was barely old enough to vote, his life had taken off in a half-dozen different directions that led to revolutions in music, activism, medicine, botany, and even martial arts. He led the charge in bringing the drums out from the back of the bandstand, to a position equal with the “melodic” instruments. An anchor in the New York Art Quartet with Amiri Baraka, he was also active in the collective-bargaining movement of the Jazz Composers Guild. At the same time, he began his training as a cardiac technician with zeal; he invented a martial art form called Yara based on the movements of the Praying Mantis, boxing, West African ritual dance, and Lindy Hop; and he had an abiding interest in botany and herbology, inherited from his grandmother. By the time he began his nearly 40-year career at Bennington College, as a professor of music and holistic medicine, his fecund intellect had begun to explore radical connections between rhythm and the universe: in music, in movement, in healing, in the subatomic, in the activity of the heart and other organs.

His home in Jamaica, Queens, now overflows with the many accoutrements and outgrowths of his creative inquiries: a backyard garden, a dojo, and a basement filled with his drums and other musical instruments, herbs from his garden, his artwork from prints to paintings to sculpture, and a full laboratory of heart monitoring equipment. Among his many other achievements and awards, Milford has patented stem cell regeneration technology that utilizes frequency response, he teaches gardening and herbology to his neighbors as a way to promote health, and he continues to study rhythmic treatments for the heart. His home is quite literally built from this rich life and mind, and A Mind-Body Deal is an attempt to open the doors of his habitat to the spark of curiosity in our own minds, so we too may learn to weave our mind-bodies with the rhythms of the world around us.

The exhibition includes a collection of Graves’ hand-painted album covers and posters, idiosyncratic drum sets, multimedia sculptures, photographs, and costumes, with elements from his home, scientific studies, recording ephemera, and archival recordings, as well as space for performance.

Milford Graves: A Mind-Body Deal is organized by Mark Christman, Artistic Director, Ars Nova Workshop, with Anthony Elms, Daniel and Brett Sundheim Chief Curator, ICA. Curatorial support provided by Jake Meginsky. Accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue to be published by Inventory Press in 2021.




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