Milford Graves, a pioneering jazz drummer most commonly associated with the free jazz movement, has passed away at age 79.
NPR journalist Lars Gotrich confirmed that Graves passed away of congestive heart failure on February 12.
Graves had been battling amyloid cardiomyopathy — also known as stiff heart syndrome — since 2018, when he was diagnosed and given six months to live.
Born in Queens on August 20, 1941, Graves began learning percussion instruments from a young age, most notably the congas.
In the 1960s, he was a founding member of the New York Art Quartet, an influential free jazz ensemble that also featured saxophonist John Tchicai, trombonist Roswell Rudd and bassist Lewis Worrell.
Over a career spanning more than half a century, Graves performed with many other ensembles, including the Milford Graves Percussion Ensemble and the Milford Graves Latino Quintet. The latter featured pianist Chick Corea, who also passed away this week.
Graves studied Indian, Asian and African music extensively and was known to incorporate elements of all three into his drum solos.
His interest in international cultures led him to invent Yara, a martial art form. Conceived in the early 1970s, Yara was inspired by African ritual dance, the praying mantis and the Lindy Hop dance style.
Graves became a noted academic during the 1970s and taught at Bennington College’s Black Music Division for 39 years. He was a Professor Emeritus at the institution prior to his death.
As an academic, Graves engaged in extensive research into the human heart, and its relationship with the heading powers of music.
“It turns out, I was studying the heart to prepare for treating myself,” Graves told The New York Times in 2020.
“[Amyloid cardiomyopathy] is a rare disease with very little research on it,” he said of his condition.
“The experts say there’s nothing to be done, so I have to look inward for answers.”
Milford Graves Full Mantis, a documentary chronicling Graves’ life and times, was released to critical acclaim in 2018.
Members of the jazz community have begun to pay tribute to the late drummer on social media.
Milford Graves could have lived to be 500 and still be gone to soon. Wow. genius. To good for this world.
— Ryley walker (@ryleywalker) February 12, 2021
I took this picture of Milford Graves from the stage at BAM on Dec 5, 2019, as he gazed upon transfixing archival footage of his younger self in action. A beautiful man, and a beautiful night that I will remember forever. RIP ♥️ pic.twitter.com/nj8V1bJjYv
— Ashley Clark (@_Ash_Clark) February 12, 2021
Milford Graves (1941-2021) — dancing drummer, technologist of magic, very sweet man, conjurer of avant-grade jazz, attentive herbalist, sculptor of strange shapes, martial artist, percussive polymath — joins the astral plane pic.twitter.com/SWlfft8wdp
— yasmina (@jasminprix) February 13, 2021