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Milford Graves doc screens at I/O Fest in Williamstown Saturday: “You have everything you need to make your masterwork as you are"

Milford Graves.
Andy Newcombe
Milford Graves.

A documentary about pioneering American percussionist and educator Milford Graves is screening at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts Saturday.

To hear the fully produced piece, including samples of Milford Graves' music referred to in the text below, hit the play button above.

The film, released in 2018, is being screened as a part of the annual Williams College I/O Fest that celebrates experimental music.

“The film is called ‘Milford Graves Full Mantis,’ and it's a portrait of legendary and iconoclastic free jazz drummer and kind of renaissance person Milford Graves, who was also my teacher for two decades," director Jake Meginsky told WAMC. “He was a drummer who, in the mid and early 60s, demanded that the drums go from the back of the stage to the front, and talked about and practiced and performed the drums as an instrument with its own tonality, its own melody. And kind of took it out of its timekeeping role, kind of freed it from its timekeeping role. Every drummer who came after him kind of owes him that, that work of centralizing drumming inside an ensemble and highlighting its kind of unique contributions to music.”

Graves had a voracious creative appetite, and his efforts were not limited to music.

“He was also a scientist and a healer," explained Meginsky. "He invented his own martial art. He was a family man. All these things kind of were in relationship. So, he started recording heartbeats in the mid-60s and using that material as a foundation for thinking about time thinking about rhythm. And as technology progressed, he obtained digital stethoscopes and made one of the largest collections of human heartbeat recordings that exists. And his big lesson that anyone who studied with him was kind of throw away the metronome and listen to your own heart. So, another gift he gave was the idea that rhythm and music are alive in everyone's body, inside their biology, and that kind of listening to yourself is a key to creative expression.”

Meginsky, who hails from Springfield, is himself a percussionist. He was drawn to study with Graves after encountering his music in the mid-90s.

“I was buying Coltrane records and listening to Elvin Jones, and I was buying Ornette Coleman records and listening to Ed Blackwell, and Miles Davis records and listening to Tony Williams and kind of trying to figure out how the how their drumming worked and practice that myself," he said. "And eventually, the person working said, hey, you should check this out. It’s two drummers, Milford Graves’ 'Percussion Ensemble,' there's no other instruments. It was the first all-drumming jazz thing I'd ever heard. It was all improvised. When I put it on to practice with it, it was the kind of a revelation in a way because the music and the drumming was so complex and so fast and angular and asymmetrical and time bending that there wasn't really a way to copy anything, but there was an invitation in the spirit of the music to kind of become a third drummer inside that ensemble and play along with your own creativity.”

After seeing him perform at UMass in 2002, Meginsky learned that Graves was teaching at Bennington College. Meginsky got a job at the college just to take his class. After introducing himself to Graves – who was known as The Professor or Prof to his students – Meginsky was invited to join. From there, he became Graves’ assistant before eventually earning his master’s degree and teaching alongside him. “Full Mantis” grew out of Meginsky’s efforts to document Graves’ teachings, and ultimately became his directorial debut.

Graves died at 79 in 2021.

“I'm still like many other people who are close to him grieving his departure," said Meginsky. "So sometimes, seeing clips or even going in hard drives- I've been making new shorts for a release that's going to be on Criterion Channel. So, I've been in the hard drives that a lot of the documentary footage that’s in ‘Full Mantis’ comes from and kind of sitting with him after he passed. And sometimes, you know, like the way grief works, there's times where it just feels intensely sad, and other times where just the kind of joy that I experienced inside that relationship and the connection and bond that that was there feels life affirming. And I think any chance I get to talk about him and share him feels good. And when I see the footage, I miss him.”

Meginsky is excited to screen the film at the student-driven I/O Fest in Williamstown.

“There are many lessons in the film that I hope that younger students resonate with," the director told WAMC. "I think one of them is that, you know, your five senses – your sight, your taste, your hearing, your touch, your smell – that these are the ways to engage creatively with the world and that we all have access to perceiving the world this way, perceiving the world in a creative way. I think that when you're younger and you kind of encounter the genius works of the world, it can feel like you have to work, work, work until you can kind of make a make a creative statement of your own. And I think what Prof kind of shows is that you're kind of perfect as you are to create and to make things, and there's always there's always room to grow and improve and be stimulated and inspired by new experiences and new lessons, but that you have everything you need to make your masterwork as you are.”

“Milford Graves Full Mantis” – co-directed by Pittsfield native and percussionist Neil Young – screens at the Clark Art Institute at 4:30 p.m. Saturday.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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