Director Jake Meginsky’s film Full Mantis about drummer, martial artist, teacher, gardener, and scientist Milford Graves begins with a quote, arranged like a short poem:
Look at the room downstairs
Look at the garden outside
Don’t try to analyze it
Just take it in
Full Mantis contains no outside interviews, no expert testimony, no timelines or résumé-gathering for people curious about the legendary musician’s life and work. After the opening quote we’re presented with a nearly three-minute, slow zoom-out focused on a mirror framed by two marimbas in Graves’ downstairs studio. Meditative music from his recordings plays on the soundtrack. In the context of other music biopics, Full Mantis is radical and uncompromising. Within its own frame, the film makes perfect sense; it’s patient, informative, and deeply moving. As Graves himself advises us at the beginning, “Don’t try to analyze it, just take it in.”
If we follow this advice, we’re met with a virtual parade of Graves’ obsessions and passions, presented clearly and without comment. First and foremost, of course, are the drums and his playing. For a student of the instrument, it would be difficult to see and hear his powerful, complex rhythmic expressions and not be inspired. There’s plenty of raucous and impassioned performance footage here to silence any doubters of his instrumental prowess. But alongside this archival material we’re also introduced to Graves’ love of gardening, his engagement in martial arts, his obsession with the rhythm of the heart, and his dedication to family and well-being.
The film is impressionistic and often mysterious, but as a portrait of a powerful and profound artist, it’s hugely effective. Though the patient presentation of the material could initially cause viewers who are accustomed to modern quick-cut documentaries some anxiety, all is eventually revealed, and this writer walked out of a screening of the film feeling inspired to explore the drums and music in a different way, with a more open and receptive mind.
Graves was an innovator on the trap set during the early years of free jazz. He played with pianists Paul Bley and Don Pullen, saxophonist Albert Ayler, and many other of the genre’s most important figures. He discovered early on that he had trouble providing for his family by exclusively playing gigs, so he explored other ways to make a living. He started teaching at Bennington College and was on the faculty there for nearly forty years, teaching a number of luminaries on the instrument, including percussionist Susie Ibarra and Full Mantis director Jake Meginsky.
When MD met with Graves at New York City’s Metrograph theater to discuss the film, he was moving slowly. At a screening later he announced, “I’ve been healing so many people over the years, I gotta heal myself now!” Graves was a calm and open presence; expansive, funny, engaged, and fully present.
MD: What would you suggest to a drummer interested in traveling a more holistic and musical path?
Milford: I think the first questions I would ask a musician are, “Why do you play music,” “What’s the purpose of music,” and “What kind of commitment do you have?” Usually when I ask someone [those questions], they have to think for a second. You may not realize it, but when people come to hear you perform, they’re really saying, “Turn me on.” What I try to do is experience either directly or indirectly what people from other cultures do.
You’re really studying people. And this is my thing about conservatories right now—they don’t teach about people. People get tight when they say, “Well, you know the audience wasn’t hip; they didn’t know what was happening.” You can see some rock drummers, and the way they’re hitting the drums, or their strokes—they’re not really playing music on their drums—it’s like banging. But the thing is that most people, they may take the banging over someone who’s really getting so-called great aesthetics off the instrument. But the person who’s getting all these great aesthetics, they’re so cool that they don’t put emotion into it. But if somebody’s banging, the people love that! [The audiences] are looking for something wild, something with some enthusiasm.
I had a great experience at the Big Ears festival this year with [pianist] Jason Moran. People were wondering, “Is that going to work?” I talked to Jason [before the set], and he’s cool. But [during the concert] Jason all of a sudden stands up off the stool, takes his shirt off, and says, “I’m hot, man!” And I looked at him, and Jason got back down and took some sort of rattle or something and started bouncing it all off the strings on that piano, and [now] he wasn’t that cool guy playing Monk for nobody, man! Jason got so emotional. And people noticed that! And I’m saying, “No, he got possessed, man.” All that coolness went out the window. If I have any part of it, he’s not going to be cool on me. You can still look conservative…but you’re gonna get more animated, and then people feel that. When you get animated, people say, “They’re feeling it!”
MD: What are some elements of a holistic drummer or musician?
Milford: It comes back to some really basic things for me. Taking care of yourself health-wise—that can mean medicine or shelter, or home building; a family. You’re not just a musician who’s going to study an instrument and then you go on stage and say, “Look at me, look at my technique, listen to my composition.” No, it’s more than that. If [the audience] can’t feel the content of your composition, then they’re not going to get it.
MD: The film captures a lot of your passions beyond the drums.
Milford: It’s more than being a multidisciplined person, a polymath, or a Renaissance person for me. It’s about experiencing what you have to go through to do the mathematics, or chemistry, or something like martial arts. For me martial arts is having a controlled discussion or debate among two human beings. It’s the immune system; we have externalized our immune system.
A garden is not just to be some hip person—“Oh, I do gardening, man”—gardening just makes sure that at least at certain times of year I will get some food that I know is organically grown. I want to get some good greens in my body! It’s a way of saying, “This is real out here.” We must treat ourselves in a certain kind of positive way.
To me, that’s the new musician. If I had to redesign a conservatory, you would get exposed. So if you went to any part of the planet, if you know a little bit about that culture, just as a performer you’re going to be able to groove with these people—you’re going to feel what they’re about. Most people in most places I play out in the world, they come up to me and say, “I feel you! I feel you!” It’s not about what my limbs are doing, all of these time signatures—it’s nothing about that. “We gotta go back and feel this again!”
MD: Those complex elements are there, too, but the music transcends those things clearly. It’s not like subdivisions for the sake of complexity.
Milford: It’s not about being simple or complex, it’s just about being true. Being true to the degree that you don’t take yourself as somebody special and people owe you something. It’s not, “You must listen to me because I went through this ritual, and I’m smart and I know this and I know that. If you don’t understand what I’m doing then you’re not right.” What the hell is that all about? What does it mean?
MD: You’re obviously revered as a great teacher, and many of your students have raved about your methods. A lot of Modern Drummer readers are teachers. I wonder if there was a way you could touch on your philosophy of teaching?
Milford: This is where we have to bring culture in now. We’ve got to bring ethnicity in, and we have to bring a timeline in. I was always a little ambitious kid. My parents were basically from the South—Virginia and South Carolina. At the time my parents came up, this country did not present opportunities for African Americans. My parents didn’t come up with any kind of academic background, but I was a kid that wanted to know more about the so-called academics. I wanted to be an aeronautical engineer without knowing what an aeronautical engineer was! I just knew that I wanted to build airplanes. So I finally convinced my parents to buy me a model airplane kit. I got the model airplane kit—it was disturbing because I could not understand the instructions. I was on my own. And I was in a neighborhood where they didn’t send the best teachers. So I said, If I ever got a chance to help people out, I’m not going to allow them to go through what I went through. So I started to teach myself. I went to the library.
I’m going to teach in a way that is beyond a paycheck.There’s got to be a simple way of teaching. I thought, there are two things I have to do. First, I have to simplify how you teach something. I have to break it down to the most simplified form. I want to decode something that’s in a language that makes it just for the few, and really break it down.
The second thing I have to do is to make sure that I’m not physically intimidating these guys. I don’t want to play a superiority role: “I’m the teacher, and you’re the students.” We are all equal. I have a little more experience maybe than you, so I’m going to impart this experience to you.
If I can do anything to help out and improve this society, put my two cents in, that’s what it’s about. If you’re a teacher, that’s a responsibility we have.
Jake Meginsky, Full Mantis’s director and one of Milford Graves’ long-term students, elaborates on the professor’s teaching style.
One of the first great lessons I had was essentially the professor telling me to put the metronome away. He recorded my heartbeat, put it through his system, made some tracks of just the heartbeat, and said, “Just use this to practice.” As a student you recognize right away that he’s someone who’s seeing you as untapped potential, and the potential comes from an emergence of your own voice.
Studying music, this is one of the big mysteries for people—how do you get a voice? You can do rudiments, and you can impress your family and your friends with speed, but you know in the back of your head there are certain people who have a voice and there are certain people who don’t. And I think the beautiful thing is that the professor demystifies this for all his students. Having a voice comes from getting really in tune with who you are and what you are about, and digging deeper and deeper until you start to produce things that turn you on.
I came to him as a drummer looking to become a better drummer, but I think the kind of teaching that the professor does…he’s changing the way you think rather than the way you play. And the way you play then comes from the fact that you’re thinking differently. So it’s really about changing paradigms in a very gentle and caring and loving way—but they’re drastic and seismic paradigm shifts nonetheless. Once you’re thinking differently, you’re playing differently, you’re expressing differently.
I know in my own journey as someone who makes music, this started to happen for me. I started to make things that I realized, There’s no one else who’s made anything like this. I think when you approach making music that way, the technique [results from] the drive to make something by starting to ask for what it needs. Rather than this other paradigm, which is that you need to master everything first, and when you’re done with everything then you can see if you can make a personal statement or not. I think that’s the secret that the professor allows the student into: that if you find a way into yourself deeply, you’re going to go on a journey where everything you need is going to become available to you. And when it’s not, you sit back, and you observe yourself and you observe nature, and you find a way back to that process.