A good drummer is regularly cited as the heartbeat of a healthy jazz band. Without the heart’s steady rhythm, an ensemble would be nothing but fragmented pieces of a crestfallen whole. The heartbeat melds melodic layers in the music whether it is the sheer fury of cracked trumpets, the shrill lyricism of a devastated vocalist, or bass lines that sound like a bird in flight.
At the turn of his 65th birthday on Aug. 20, Milford Graves is studying music in a far-reaching field: how it can be therapy for a healing heart. The research Graves conducts in his Queens basement is significant to the analysis of musical performance. Graves studies pulsology, Unani techniques of pulse reading and holistic music therapy to elevate his constantly evolving music.
Graves is a percussionist who has been the free-form backbone, the energetic anchor of the avant-garde, the rising undercurrent of unedited, unrelenting jazz since the 1960s. He and other drummers such as Andrew Cyrille and Rashied Ali avoided the drummer’s conventional role as a timekeeper; instead, they took it to experimental levels where meter was no longer the basis. Along the way, he played with Albert Ayler, the New York Art Quartet, Paul Bley, Don Pullen, Giuseppi Logan, Hugh Masekela, Sonny Sharrock, saxophonist John Zorn, Bill Dixon and poet Amiri Baraka.
Graves is a chameleon drummer, often morphing his personality and voice to fit his instrument of choice. He is well-versed in the fine art of the conga and the tabla, the small Indian raga drum where individual finger sequences produce different tonal properties. His drumming has always dealt with music and healing as a part of tradition, as it is in various African cultures.
Today, Graves links a lifetime of drum work to innovative research on abnormal heartbeats and music. He is a tenured professor at Bennington College in Vermont and head of the nonprofit International Center for Medicinal and Scientific Research and has done extensive work on holistic healing.
The premise of his research is simple. Graves attempts to demonstrate a correlation between internal music structure and how our body’s circulatory system functions. A healthy heart will have a shuffle-like rhythm, two paired beats over a 1-2-3 pattern. If the heartbeat is wrong, the pulse is off. The sound is a malignant, lurching beat. The flow is uncooperative and disruptive.
Stiff heartbeats are what Graves constructs into an operating table for manipulating sound. He uses a physiograph, a piece of medical equipment that measures heart rate, respirations, skin response and blood pressure, to observe how participants respond after he performs various music.
Participants often display standard responses. Sudden explosive sounds cause strong galvanic stress on the body’s system. “Free jazz,” or spontaneous, improvised music, intensely affects patients.
In one experiment, involving a patient with non-organic arrhythmia, or cardiac irregularities that are unresponsive to medication or lifestyle change, the man’s heart rhythm synchronized with the free jazz performed on the tape. Once the music was steadied into a regular heartbeat rhythm, the patient’s heart also aligned to a stable beat.
A computer allows Graves to speed up or slow down the sound toward or away from a normal heartbeat. He then feeds his finished sound product through a participant’s ears or through acupuncture needles. The result that emerges from these experiments are feelings of expectant delight and absolute disbelief, the same way audiences feel after hearing the spirited, fundamental tone that Milford Graves projects as a soloist. One feels entirely different – as if physically or psychologically in flux or in limbo.
The collective harmonics allow Graves’ live performances to fall into place, giving a sample of the greater imagination of this avant-garde percussionist.