Milford Graves: Free From Time

Percussionist, acupuncturist, herbalist, martial artist, healer, and professor Milford Graves has passed away from congestive heart failure at 79.

I knew Milford Graves as a professor, percussionist, acupuncturist, healer, and storyteller when our paths crossed at Bennington College in the ’80s. Milford performed a number of times on campus and these performances were not to be missed as they introduced me to a power that music possesses, a healing power, that I’d never experienced before or since.

In 2000, Milford received a Guggenheim Fellowship to further his studies of heartbeats, music, and healing

Some time into my first Milford solo performance at Bennington, I noticed a tingling sensation in my ankles. Subtle at first, the sensation grew more powerful as his performance progressed. As time went on, the tingling turned into warmth that traveled up my legs, eventually reaching my head. When the performance ended, I felt a profound sense of peacefulness and relaxation.

I shared this story with my philosophy professor who shared that he had experienced something similar from a Milford performance. We planned to sit next to each for the next concert to share notes in real time. That day came, Paul and I sat next to each other, and Milford’s performance began. After some time, I don’t recall how much time, I felt that tingling sensation begin, this time just below my naval. I placed my index finger on that spot and when I turned to show Paul, his finger was on the same spot. (!) As the concert progressed, a similar series of events followed, with that tingling turning into heat and spreading. While not as intense as the first time, it was nonetheless profound. As we walked back to our respective homes, Paul and I didn’t talk much but every once in a while we’d look at each, shake our heads, and smile.

Milford developed his own form of martial art which he called Yara based on “the movements of the Praying Mantis, African ritual dance, and the Lindy Hop”

During these same Bennington years, a girlfriend was suffering from severe back pain and she was headed, after a number of consultations with specialists, toward surgery. She was understandably reluctant as the risks seemed to nearly outweigh the potential rewards, so she looked for alternatives. We ended up going to see Milford after which she embarked on acupuncture treatments over the course of a year, administered by him. During the summer break, Milford taught me some massage techniques coupled with deep heat treatments using ingredients I’d gathered from an herbalist in Chinatown by handing him a note written by Milford (in Chinese). After a year of treatment, her back pain was reduced to the point where it was no longer an issue.

I recommend diving into Milford Graves discography wherever you like. Some of my favorite records that feature Milford include the Lowell Davidson Trio, Sonny Sharrock’s Black Woman, and Albert Ayler’s Love Cry.

After Bennington, I went to see Milford perform a number of times over the years, always looking for that fix, always looking for some release. One of my favorite post-Bennington concerts featured Milford with John Zorn and Bill Laswell — Zorn referred to Graves as “basically a 20th-century shaman” a sentiment I share.

When I learned of Milford’s passing last night, I experienced a deep sense of loss and realized that somewhere inside I held out hope that I’d see Milford again and he’d work his healing magic.

For anyone interested in learning more about Milford, and there’s so much more to Milford, I recommend watching Full Mantis, a film by Jake Meginsky and Neil Young, now airing on Amazon Prime.