Interview: NYC percussion legend Milford Graves

Dominik Huber

Milford Graves helped usher in the ‘60s free-jazz revolution through his groundbreaking work with Albert Ayler, the New York Art Quartet and others. But there’s nothing obscure or chaotic about what this 73-year-old plays. Graves is a scientist of sound, a master of manipulating vibration in space. Performing on a custom handpainted set – with all bottom drumheads removed, to allow for maximum resonance – Graves turns the instrument into an international percussion chorus, blending nimble ride-cymbal patterns adapted from his formative years playing Latin-jazz timbales with scurrying tom-tom work informed by Indian tabla studies and the proud, booming thump of African polyrhythms. This is percussion at its wisest and most elemental, an enlightened communion with wood, metal and skin.

A teacher at Bennington College from 1973 to 2011, Graves has assumed the role of unpretentious sage. When not performing worldwide with A-list improvisers such as John Zorn and Peter Brötzmann, he welcomes a steady stream of visitors to his home in Jamaica, Queens, including renowned musicians such as jazz saxist-composer Steve Coleman and vanguard avant-rock drummer Greg Fox (Liturgy, Zs). Graves is pro-heartbeat and anti-metronome, so much so that he measures and analyzes students’ EKGs as part of their training. He’s an herbalist and martial artist, a healer and a storyteller. He’s also one of the warmest, most approachable men you’ll meet. I recently visited Graves at his house, descending into his basement studio for a three-hour chat.

We started out discussing Space / Time • Redemption, Graves’s new duo release with bassist Bill Laswell, a frequent live collaborator in recent years, on the Finnish label TUM Records. Since the mid-to-late ‘60s, when Graves recorded with Ayler, Paul Bley, Sonny Sharrock, Miriam Makeba and many others, he has issued relatively few albums. And while his discography includes duo sessions with saxists John Zorn and David Murray, Space / Time • Redemption is unlike any other Milford Graves recording. Thanks to Laswell’s atmospheric approach, it has a luminous, inviting feel – more ambient meditation than free-jazz tussle. It’s one of the year’s most immersive albums.

Here are excerpts from our conversation.

Yoko Yamabe

It’s pretty uncommon for a drummer and a bassist to be playing as a duo. What is it like playing as a rhythm section without, say, a horn out front on Space / Time • Redemption?

I guess it’s according to what kind of tradition you’re coming from. Different cultures, they feature different instruments. So-called Western culture, they changed the hierarchy of instrumentation, so if you deal with Indian music, you don’t see the horn out in front as much as you see strings out there, with maybe tabla. I’m thinking of Chatur Lal and Ravi Shankar, the duo they had with tabla and sitar. And as you go to different parts of West Africa, they have horns, but you may not see it as prominently as you see drums. So when I approached [this collaboration with Laswell], I never thought of it that I needed a horn out in front. [laughs] Some people may think they have to make adjustments, if that’s what they came from, a so-called Western concept, where drums are in the background. Let me ask you a question: What instrument do you play?


Okay, you play drums. So, drummers in – I’m going to say the USA; Europe is probably worse, but you always have to take a back seat. Drummers are supposed to be the least educated, and that’s just the reverse of me. And so, when I initially approached this music, I couldn’t even understand the concept of being in the background, supporting people with blocks of time. I couldn’t conceive of nothing like that. And it was always amazing to me that I would be called this avant-garde guy, or playing free. I never even thought about that; I just played.

So when I got to jazz, it was 1964, and I was very conspicuous because of the way I was playing, playing in a little bit more liberated, participating way. So participating, in a sense, and so liberated that [during] the performance I did with Albert Ayler at Slugs – we did five nights there, three sets a night in 1967 – we finished one set, and I remember a person coming up to me, and he addressed me as Mr. Ayler. [laughs] I said, “I’m not Mr. Ayler. That’s Albert Ayler on tenor sax.” He said, “Oh, the way you were playing, I thought you were the leader of the group!” So that tells you how liberated it was. I didn’t look like no guy that would be a sideman drummer back then.

Albert Ayler - Universal Indians

So they started bringing it to my attention, and I said, okay, I guess one of my missions is to try to not speak only for myself, but for drummers, you know what I mean? You just can’t stay in the background; that’s not the nature of the instrument. Most drummers are so reduced. And one of the most disrespectful things the drummer can encounter is when they put the drums either in the right or left side corner of the stage, or if they put you there, they’ve got people in front of you. That’s ridiculous! Why would you do something like that? You don’t count? All [the audience] got to do is hear a little time going on?

I think the other thing that was happening with this particular situation with Bill and myself is that our understanding exceeds a single concept of how to play music. So that way, you can have more to say on the instrument, than if you’re just playing one particular style of music. If you get a jazz bass player and a so-called jazz drummer, it may sound empty. Especially if you’ve got a bass player who doesn’t know how to stretch – all he’s gonna do is walking bass and a few little extra things, it may not go anyplace, so you’ve got to have a person that’s got some good digits. They know how to move around on the strings a little bit. And then, they’ve got to have a concept that exceeds beyond traditional jazz.

So I think it worked, man. But then a lot of times, even when we [played] with Zorn, he’d tell Bill and myself, “You two guys play good together.” So it was something that other people caught on to. Because I hear what Bill is influenced by – Northern African stuff, Ethiopian… So another drummer may not play with him a certain way, who’s not familiar with North African drum systems. And that may not allow him to open up. That’s why you can pull something off with that instrumentation. Like I said, if you use regular guys, just playing jazz or something like that, or rock or whatever, and if they don’t have a knowledge of other types of music, it may not work as good.

So bass and drums? No problem. As long as the bass player’s right, as long as he can stretch.

There’s no sense in playing for yourself, saying, “Look what I know; look what I can do.”

Did you two talk about those influences before you played?

No, Bill had enough time to figure me out in those gigs we were doing [with John Zorn], where it could go. See, a lot of times when I’m playing with different people, there’s a lot of things I want to do. And I’ll try to get into it, but then I don’t get any response from the other musician. And then I stop; I pull right out. I try to make something happen and then I’ll say, “Oh, I’m entering territory that this person is not familiar with.” [laughs] And they’re going to do whatever they’ve been working on for so many years. And there’s no sense in playing like this, to just be up there playing for yourself and saying, “Look what I know; look what I can do.” So when I heard Bill, I heard some things and said, “Hmm, I think this could work. I know what’s got to be done now.” So it’s like a reinforcement of each other; we’re able to bring things out.

You’ve spent most of your career playing acoustic music. Is there a certain challenge that presents itself when working with, say, an electric bass?

It doesn’t, because I ask them to turn it down. [laughs]

Yeah, I was at that New York show you played with Bill at the Stone last year, and it seemed like there was a little bit of a volume war going on.

Yeah, I told him to turn it down there. Because I could even it up too; all you’ve got to do is bring your own equipment in and blast up. But usually people are cooperative, man. The loudest person I ever played with was Sonny Sharrock. I said, “Oh, my gracious!” He turned them amps, man – we were outdoors, and he turned these amps up, and I couldn’t believe the power. I mean, the loudness, man. So loud, man. And the amps were right by me. I was trying to hear myself, and I really couldn’t. But I just played and attacked everything.

And then I’m listening to what guys are doing, man. There’s certain subtleties that you could produce on the instrument. Bring them up, man, but don’t play something that’s… Why amplify that [other] stuff? You don’t even need an amplifier for some of that stuff they’re doing. Bring out them subtleties – that’s what you want to amplify! And there’s certain techniques I want to do that if you play loudly, it loses it, man.

They say Dizzy Gillespie looked up at the balcony, because he couldn’t see us, and said, [loudly] “Who’s on drums?”

On the topic of big sounds, Albert Ayler must have been a powerful force onstage.

When I did that gig with Albert in 1967 at Slugs, we had three sets, five nights. The first set, the first night – it could have been the second set – Don Pullen [the late pianist and frequent Graves collaborator] came, and he said, “You ain’t going to be able to play like that for five nights, man.” I said, “Don, you watch!” I said, “I’m going to play like this for five nights.” After the second night, three sets, I felt it. It was a good thing I had a friend that lived right around the corner from Slug’s. He was there every night, all night. There was no dressing room there, so on the breaks, I had to go over to his house and get on his couch, and I would just lay back and rest. And I’d get up, come around the block, and I’m back on the set.

Albert tells the story, but he gets it a little confused… He was talking about, “I passed out.” I didn’t pass out. The intensity that we played at, non-amplification, was very powerful. It’s easy to do this if you have a little concert – one set, two sets – but to do three sets, five nights in the club… Albert didn’t try it, but I did. And after that, I was off for close to two weeks. I burnt myself out, man. I said, “No, this is insane.”

And what made it worse was, Slug’s was the hangout place. So all the musicians were coming in there. So at this time, I’m the guy that people are talking about; my name was kind of out there. Everybody was saying, “You gotta go check him out.” So I’m aware of this. People talk about you in the magazines; everybody’s coming up to you. The cats was all coming down, man: Philly Joe [Jones], Roy Haynes. [I was] this young guy, this little kid. I didn’t want to let nobody down. So I’m playing like “Wow,” man. And then I said, “No, I can’t do this – not this way.” If I’m just going to play a backbeat or a regular-old way, I can do that. But it ain’t going to work [in a more intense, interactive situation], man.

What do you remember about playing with Ayler at Coltrane’s funeral?

I remember that Albert was kind of spooked about Coltrane in that casket up front, and he was playing very tender. He almost got kind of quiet. I remember [drummer] Andrew Cyrille giving me a compliment, because he was there. Montego Joe [a percussionist whom Graves had recorded with] – when I went outside the church, he was in the street and he looked and gave me [a gesture of approval]. And somebody else told me that my drums sounded like thunder in the church. And Dizzy Gillespie, they say he looked up at the balcony, because he couldn’t see us, and said, [loudly] “Who’s on drums?” I was just bold, man – I was just playing.

Lou Reed said, “It’s great for a change playing with a drummer that’s got some rhythm.”

You played with Lou Reed a couple times. Did you feel like you were eventually able to find common ground playing with him?

Yeah, Lou was cool, man. I think he liked me, because at [the downtown-NYC club] Le Poisson Rouge, that was the first time I met him, and he looked over to me and said, “It’s great for a change playing with a drummer that’s got some rhythm.” [laughs] That’s all he said. And I know what that’s about, because other musicians want to be fed too! The worst thing is to be up there playing with some guy that’s just boring. That’s not doing anything. Playing the same old clichéd licks. I tell guys, “That sounds like something you’ve been working on for the last five months. You’ve got it down, man, and no matter what’s going on, you’re playing that run. Nothing to do with what’s going on at this moment in the music.”

Did you have much familiarity with Lou’s work before that?

No, man. They told me he was with the old Velvets. I said, “Well, who’s the Velvets?” Totally out of it, man. And we’re in that similar age group, but I didn’t know about that. I listened to doo-wop, but that was a group I missed.

So you were listening to a lot of pop music growing up?

At an early age, I was primarily listening to Latin music, Afro-Cuban. That turned me on. I did it because of the drums. If the drums weren’t speaking in the music, it didn’t capture my attention. And that’s mainly because I started touching drums at two years old, man, so that was my whole thing.

I first started off in my house with an old field drum, an old marching drum, a bass drum and maybe a little snare or something. No set. And I remember I just let the field drum rest right on the floor, and I just played, man, whatever I thought was happening. I just started getting familiar with Latin, I would say I had to be nine or ten years old.

And you grew up right around here, in Jamaica, Queens?

Right in this area.

And there was a lot of Latin music going on in the neighborhood?

Nope. The only Latin music I heard that was going on in the neighborhood came from radio. An old Philco radio. Dick “Ricardo” Sugar’s show. I never missed a show. He played all the Latin; that’s how I got familiar with a lot of the Latin guys. Plus, my friend at 11 years old was from Cuba, so I started getting a little more familiar with the Cuban set.

But I learned conga when I was about nine or ten, because one of my distant cousins played conga. They had a mambo band. So I started learning some of the basic hand patterns. And I would always organize drum groups; we would have bongos, conga. And because I started off with sticks, when I heard timbales, I was like, “Wow, I want to play timbales.”

Guys are saying I don’t come from bebop; I come from the ancestors of what the hell [those] guys were doing.

It’s interesting because you have this Latin jazz background – I know you had a group with Chick Corea that played in that style – but a lot of the drummers who were coming up at the same time as you, someone like Andrew Cyrille, were coming out of bebop. Did you play bop, or what you could call straight-ahead jazz?

I’ll tell you something. I don’t think people realize something, man. If people didn’t play Caribbean music or West African music, or the diaspora of African music that spread all throughout South and Central America and into the early Southern states, they would have no idea of the connection between so-called bebop drumming and African drumming. If you didn’t play that, you wouldn’t know.

One time I was at a concert, and I said, “Let’s check this group out from Africa.” Quite a few years back. And this guy was up there playing, and I was looking at him. And he was using sticks. And I asked my friend, who was an accomplished bebop drummer, “Do you recognize that rhythm?” I said, what you have to imagine is that guy using those sticks not just on the skin of the drum, but with his right hand on the cymbal and his left hand on the snare. And I was singing it out. I said, “All he’s doing is [sings conventional ching ching-ka-ching swing rhythm].”

All that stuff [the bebop] guys are doing, I will show you something in those traditional patterns where all that comes from. All of Max Roach’s stuff, Kenny Clarke. So guys are saying I don’t come from bebop; I come from the ancestors of what the hell [those] guys were doing.

And [those] guys have taken the tonal thing out of what they’re doing, once they start playing that snare drum. I tell [my students], you’re going to either love me you’re gonna hate me, man, or you’re gonna be confused. I tell them to throw the metronome and the snare drum away. “Huh?!?” I say, “When are you going to be a musician, man? When are you going to speak on the instrument?” I mean, it’s a shame. They have taken that drum and resorted it to a timekeeper, a military timekeeper.

The New York Art Quartet - Mohawk

People say, “He can’t play a snare.” I say, “Have you listened to my early recordings? With the New York Art Quartet? Paul Bley?” And when I did play snare drum, you know what people would say? “Man, he plays snare drum another kind of way.” I can do that stuff! I said, “You play them tight, closed ratamacues; I play open ones!” It’s all there, man.

It’s funny listening to you say all this, because I do play a lot of that louder stuff – rock and heavy metal. I agree with a lot of what you say, but in that music, the drums play such a different role.

Right, right.

Are there drummers who play in a more timekeeping type of role that you saw that you really loved?

I can appreciate what people do right now, but it’s not doing anything for me. I’ve got to have stuff that’s going to keep feeding me to open up more. But if you talk to all the guys I grew up with, all of them would say I was the oddball. They would say, “He was always out the box, man.” I always came up with different ideas. I wasn’t the guy that said I wanted to do this; it was just me. So when I started to get into a highly creative bag, man, I look back and say, “It’s not working. We’ve got to elevate ourselves to another level.” And I think music is an integral part of that.

But going back, I listened mostly to guys who were playing a lot of hand drums. Those were the guys… Those jazz drummers, I didn’t get much [from]. But if you ask me about guys who I heard and if I like what they were doing, I’d say, “I like what they’re doing up to a certain point. Now, I’d like to see you go someplace else with that.”

I liked Roy Haynes’s bounce on there. And I liked Elvin Jones because Elvin was just a loose kind of a guy. Elvin had that looseness. And I said, “That’s good!” But all those guys, I think they could exceed beyond that. I thought Tony Williams had a nice bounce, but he never got a chance to really get into what he could do.

I turned down a gig with Miles twice.

Did you know Tony Williams?

I’ll tell you what, [bassist] Juini Booth, when he told me this, it confirmed what I thought. [He and Tony] played together. I played this concert, and Juini was there. He came up, and he said, “Man, Tony loved you.” And I said, “I can understand that, man.” Because in 1962, I think it was, I went to Birdland to hear [Tony] with Miles. Bill Fitch, him and Tony were friends from up in Boston, and he took me to see Tony. I said, “Yeah, I want to hear him.” Because I’d been reading about him in Down Beat, man. He was maybe 17 or 18. And I was reading, and he was describing what he wanted to do. And I remember going to hear him, and I didn’t say anything to Bill, but I thought, “He’s good, man, but I expected more.” Because I was reading what he was saying. And I noticed certain things that he didn’t have developed, and when Bill said, “He wants to play congas and get into the music,” I said, “Uh-huh, that’s what it was.” I never got a chance to ask him, but I would’ve asked him, “How much samba do you listen to?”

Because when he was with Miles, he had a nice groove. No two ways about that. But from what he [said he] wanted to do, and from his reaction toward me in 1964 at the October Revolution [in Jazz; a landmark avant-garde concert series produced by the Jazz Composers Guild in New York]…

He was there?

He was there. Almost every drummer you can think of was there. So I saw Tony sitting in the back, and I finished, and he came up to me and his mouth was just wide open. I know I got to him, because I was doing what Tony was talking about. I’d have told Tony, “You got it, man. You a drummer. You got the bounce. But you’ve got to open up your concept. You’ve got to do some other stuff if you want to do that. You’re hearing it, but you’ve got to get some practice in doing it. You ain’t gonna do that with Miles!”

You don’t think Tony Williams was able to open up with some of that stuff he did on Blue Note, with Sam Rivers or Eric Dolphy? It seems like he was able to stretch out in those settings.

Yeah, but I’m positive Tony wanted to stretch more. Plus, he died too young. You don’t know what Tony would be doing.

I was about two years older than Tony. But he knew there was another crew of us that wasn’t playing like Philly, Max and all those guys, man. That were stretching with another kind of energy. And I think he wanted to get a taste. The signs was there. But at the same time, hey – business. Tony was getting gigs. And this is on record: Yes, I did turn down a gig with Miles twice. Did you know that?

I didn’t! When was that?

The first time was around 1967, and then it could’ve been maybe two years later.

He wanted you to play in the electric band?

Nope, it could’ve maybe been before [Jack] DeJohnette. I was living in Brooklyn, and I got a call from right in his house, man, and it was one of his friends. She brought one of my LPs over, the one with Don [Pullen].

Milford Graves feat. Don Pullen - PG IV


Yeah, she brought that over there, and she wanted Miles to hear it. But I didn’t want to deal with it. That’s the difference with me. I knew it was going to be a problem.

Just not to be able to be yourself?

Yeah. The money and the fame didn’t mean anything. I wanted to play a certain way, man. That was the time Don and I had the duo. That was a different kind of time. I was thinking about culture. I wasn’t thinking about that.

Miles asked his friend to ask me, [imitates Miles] “Is he a revolutionary? Will he play time?” I said, “No, no, no.” Then about a year later, someone called me and said, “Miles is looking for you – he wants you in the band!” I didn’t want to deal with it.

There are no recordings with you and [pianist] Cecil Taylor – did you two work together?

We did one gig together – 1967. A lot of 1967s in there! It was in Bucks County, PA, man. It was [trumpeter] Mike Mantler, [saxophonist] Jimmy Lyons, [multi-instrumentalist] Ken McIntyre. I don’t remember the bass player. And Cecil, and somebody else, I just don’t remember, but it was seven pieces. And I remember Cecil telling everybody to leave the stage but just him and myself. And he recorded that on a reel-to-reel, so if he hasn’t lost that, he has that. And I remember him telling me afterward, “You should hear this tape.” Because he said he’d never heard anything like that before.

I played with Sun Ra once, and that was it. I had a lot of these one-time things. This was up in the Black Arts Theater. The big band was up there; it was 1966. That was when there were a lot of problems going on up there, and the Black Arts made the news. People in the neighborhood weren’t going to come to the Black Arts. We played that night and there were probably three people. Sun Ra wanted me in the band, but at that time, I just couldn’t do it. Economics. At that time, I had my family too. I had four children, and I couldn’t commit to that kind of communal thing that he had. I had my own place and my own family. I said, “Man, it’s great playing, but I’ve got to be able to pay rent and make some money and feed these kids.”

I didn’t understand that kind of a lifestyle – being a street dude, getting high and all that. That wasn’t my set, man.

That was what really led you into teaching, right?

Yeah, that’s 1973, man. I said, “Well, I’m just going to teach.” I was seeing that I was very particular about who I was going to play with, what kind of gigs. If I was a single guy, man, hanging down in the East Village, like a lot of those guys… That kind of turned me off. I didn’t understand that kind of a lifestyle – being a street dude, getting high and all that. That wasn’t my set, man. I didn’t come up like that. So I said, if this is the scene, I don’t want no part of it. This ain’t about no music; this is about something else. Music is only one part of it. You think you’re going to play music and that’s it, but with all the other stuff going on, it was too funky. You’ve got to get yourself together, man.

I think it’s still like that today for a lot of people. I see a lot of musicians, and I don’t think their lifestyle is together. Because you can hear it. I can hear it. For me, this is training like an athlete and woodshedding like a scientist and going into spiritual meditation, man. Be straight and right. Because when I come out to the people, I always say to [musicians], “People come out to hear you, man. We have an obligation. What do you think – people come to see you act like fools or act all distorted?” If people come to a restaurant, they want to be fed! And if you want your restaurant to survive, you’ve got to be doing stuff right. So when people come to hear music, they want their eardrums to oscillate. You’re feeding them in another kind of way. You should be giving them the most nutritious things you can. I tell people, “Be right. Don’t come there half-raggedy.”

And I said, I must be doing something, because these are young folks who want to jump to attention. I get rock drummers in here. I get more rock drummers than anything else.

Sonny Sharrock - Portrait of Linda in Three Colors, All Black

You mentioned Sonny Sharrock in passing. Can you talk a little more about how you started working with him and came to play on Black Woman?

I started working with Sonny Sharrock in the ‘60s. Pharoah Sanders was going to do a performance at the Spirit House, Amiri Baraka’s place in Newark. They would have little concerts there. Pharoah wanted me to play with him there. And Sonny Sharrock was there, so it was a trio we had. It must have been ‘67 or ‘68. That’s how I met Sonny Sharrock, and that’s when Sonny asked me to do that recording.

How did you like doing that record?

I thought it was cool. I thought the music was cool. I was doing what I wanted to do, playing whatever I thought was appropriate. From a personal standpoint, it’s not easy when you’re going against convention, and people allow you to do what you do. Somebody said that. I saw it online. They were talking about my whole concept but that some of my colleagues accepted it. And I’m saying, you know what, “This ain’t about giving myself credit, but if you come in there as a radical, unorthodox person and be able to fit into the clique, then you’ve got to look back at yourself and say, ‘Wow, man.’”

Bill Laswell told me something. The recording I did with [multi-instrumentalist] Anthony Braxton and [bassist] William Parker, it was at Laswell’s studio. He said something to me, “The way you play is difficult,” because I would play free but it still has a groove to it. And that’s difficult. And I don’t think about things but people tell me and I say, “Yeah, I guess so!” Because I just do it. I guess that’s because I played a lot of rhythms, man, that were highly repetitive. They were patterns. I always play low-pitched drums, because everybody says to me, “You hold the bottom.” A lot of guys couldn’t hold the bottom.

As a healer, you’ve got to know who you’re dealing with, man. You can’t come in and say, “I like this medicine; this is my favorite medicine.”

This is when you were playing Latin jazz in the early ‘60s?

Yeah. And I would play for some African dance groups, and somebody’s got to play them bottom parts. And I’m so glad I did that, man; that’s helped me out a lot, because it gave me an idea of how to lay that down, so now I can play on top of all that stuff. I can take a rhythm and I can hear it, and I play a lot of ways on top of that one basic rhythm, man. And then you sneak stuff in there. All the in-between stuff, people may miss, but I’ll drop certain things, and you’ll hear that! That’s why some people hear me and hear me and hear me, and after a while, they say, “I’m just noticing that, man.”

Yeah, a lot of times I come see you play and I listen to your ride cymbal and I hear a really strong groove there. One time after a show, Ben Young [author, scholar, DJ and head of Triple Point Records] said to me, “Can you hear the 1?” And I don’t know if I hear the 1, but I do feel the tempo and the propulsion. There is a dancing element.

I tell people if you go out there and just play for yourself, you’re going to be out of sync a lot of times. I go into a place – I’ll feel it out and say, “I’ve got to get this moving tonight.”

It’s interesting because you’ve talked about how you didn’t want to join certain bands because you need to play the way you want to play, but on the other hand, you are conscious of the needs of your audience.

Well, this is what it is. If you practice the healing arts, then one would understand what I’m saying. As a healer, you’ve got to know who you’re dealing with, man. You can’t come in and say, “I like this medicine; this is my favorite medicine.” The person comes in and says, “But wait a minute, that has nothing to do with my situation.”

Most guys, what do they do? They study. They go to the conservatory, and they get their papers. They’re coming out: “I have my Masters; I have my PhD. I’m a composer.” They put all this stuff together, and they think they’re going to jam it down somebody’s throat. It doesn’t work like that. Then you wonder why you’ve got a little tiny audience; nobody wants to deal with this stuff. I say, “You are so into yourself, that you don’t even understand what the hell is going on with people.”

If you’re a musician and you want to go out there and close your eyes and not look at your audience, I say, “You need to look at your audience!” Maybe once in a while, and if they look [bored], you’d better change up, because you ain’t making contact, my man.

And you’ve played all over the world too. I’ve seen some videos of you in Japan.

Yeah, that was hard; I’ve played some hard gigs, man. I played for those Japanese people, and I had some hard gigs. You come and play a gig in New York, and everyone’s hip. But you go out there in Japan in the countryside where people don’t know about that… I went out there, and I was with them old people, man.

[Dancer] Min Tanaka asked me to do that. It was a health day for the elderly in Japan. And they’d come for these examinations. And these people were sitting in tents. So they moved from the tent, they’d walk a few yards and they’d sit on the steps, waiting to go into that school building to be examined. They wanted me to play while they were waiting to be called into the building.

Milford Graves in Japan

That was a job, man. I’m going to tell you why it was a job. At first, I said, “I don’t know if I want to do that.” That was farmland, non-Tokyo. These were old, traditional people. I said, “Man, do I wanna stretch?” But it was cool! They loved it. Oh, I had those folks, man. And Min Tanaka said he was very nervous because he didn’t know how the Japanese people would accept me. I went over big time, man. And those were tests to me. Big-time tests.

I tell people, you want to know what you’re about, you go into these places that aren’t the hip places. Go into the countryside and do a solo. You’re going to find out where the hell you’re from. [Either] just having this courteous applause, or people coming up and embracing you and shaking your hand. I got some great stuff, man, because I was doing some stuff that was normally not supposed to be done.

But there’s a reason for all that, man. I paid attention to things I personally liked. I said, “Well, why is some of this stuff in Vodou or Santeria so powerful, man?” And then, coming up, I was brought up in a Baptist church. We used to go around and peek in the windows of those Father Divine / Daddy Grace churches. And then my friend took me to a Catholic Church. He said, [mock-serious voice] “You guys are too wild at Baptist churches.” I said, “Man, but y’all too cool.” You’re talking about people with organs and saxophones and tambourines. You see people gettin’ up [at Baptist churches], man. I said, “What is with this stuff?” Then you realize there’s a certain connection. So certain rhythms that was motivating me, I said, “I bet this is pretty hip stuff, man.”

I just started taking these things and working on them. How can I take this and put it with that. I’m making the soup pot better; I’m putting a little bit more of this and that. Because I believe in international cooking. Every country got something. And you can make stuff, man. I’ve had a lot of other people say that my stuff is pretty good, what I make. And the key to it is, I just deal with different kinds of spices and foods from different cultures, that’s a mainstay in that culture – that that culture likes. So I take it home and I put it all together, and it comes up with something very unique, man. Very different. So that’s what I do. Just put a little difference, man.

When I go to these places, I don’t care what country I go to – I watch the way people be moving, walking, coming into concert halls. Then you know how to play off of them. That’s observation. As a musician, you’ve got to be observant.

If you’ve got a room filled up before a concert, some people want to hide out. I say, go [into the room] before a concert starts. If everybody’s talking and smiling, you may not hear what the individuals are saying, but look for the drone that’s in the room. [The audience is] creating a harmony. And they can hear that, and that’s pumping them up. So if you can play underneath that drone and lift everything up… Some people don’t want to do that. They come in there and say, [mock-serious voice] “I have this tune, and this is B-flat.” I said, “Maybe the room ain’t in B flat!” Get the fundamental in the room, man.

By Hank Shteamer on June 4, 2015

On a different note