Perfect Sound Forever

Professor Milford Graves

Interview by Jason Gross
(Originally published 1998)

If somehow we forgot about the fact that he helped lead a musical revolution in jazz in the '60's (where he led his own ensembles and worked with Albert Ayler, Paul Bley, Don Pullen and many others), Professor Milford Graves still would be greatly admired for his steady, long-time dedication to the field of music therapy. A tenured teacher at Bennington College for over a quarter of a century, he has also done extenstive work as an acupunturist, herbalist and leader of the non-profit organization the International Center for Medicinal an Scientific Research. His latest release, Grand Unification on Tzadik, serves as something of an audio document of some of his work in this field.

PSF: What was your initial interest in this field even before you began any studies?

I came up with it. My tradition always dealt with music and healing but it wasn't done in the academic sense. It was all part of tradition, dealing with a lot of traditional drumming as related to the various African cultures. It's always been an inclusion.

PSF: How did that come together to form the basis of your work?

It's basically from people making comments. People would say how they felt after I performed. Then I developed a greater consciousness of how to make some kind of methodology. When I'd play in various dancehalls in my community (Jamaica, Queens), people would attend concerts and they would have various kinds of ills. They would say that they felt entirely different after the performance, whether I was doing it with an ensemble or as a soloist. I related to peoples' physiological as well as their psychological discomfort.

So I related what people told me to what I studied in the Western scientific arena- basic music therapy and its psychological and physiological effects as done within the scientific arena in this country. As I was further investigating, I found that it was in direct line with my own personal experiences. So I would update things and make things fit into what I was doing. Then I would do my own scientific investigation, such as using the physiograph, which has been used by other people in the music therapy field.

PSF: What is that exactly?

It's a piece of medical equipment that measures heart rate, respirations, skin response, blood pressure. At Bennington College, we would have people connected to the machine and I would perform various musics and observe the results. I would also take samples of blood and urine and see if I notice any kind of change, before and after.

PSF: What have you found out with different ailments and responses in your work and research?

Some of the things are very standard, like the dynamics of loud and soft. Sudden explosive loud sounds would cause a very strong skin galvanic response- it would be very stresssful on the system.

At the college, we had people who had cardiac irregularities or arrhythmias. They were diagonised as non-organic arrhythmias- people couldn't really get any help with using medication or trying to change their lifestyles. So I would co-ordinate some music that would be considering 'free jazz,' entirely spontaneous and improvised. Some of it was done live but some of it was pre-recorded. We would play these things and we found that with one particular person, his heart rhythm started to synchronize with what we had performed on the tape. Then we played live and we steadied the rhythm into a regular heart rhythm and his own heartbeat stopped being arrhythmic and then it co-ordinated with us. That was very interesting. Some people don't believe this but I have all the documents about it- electrocardiograms and a tape with one track having our pre-recorded music and on the other track we actually had this person's heart rhythm and you could see how it synch's right in.

PSF: You said that part of your work was derived from Western studies in music therapy. Where do you think this is lacking and where do you think they should be concentrating their studies?

I think what has to be done is very similar to the concept of acupuncture energetics. It's very similar to homeopathatic medicine where you have to pay more attention to the individual.

PSF: You mean a more holistic approach?

Definitely. It calls for a greater sensitivity on the part of the music therapist. That's not just knowing 'music'- you have to have a greater understanding of medical sciences and disease in general. What it calls for is that the music has to be developed with a greater sense of flexibility. Maybe things are changing but as far as some of the literature is concerned that I've seen, when you concentrate only on a certain type of music, that defeats the purpose.

PSF: What do you have in mind?

If you look in a lot of medical therapy books, they have a tendancy to lean specifically and ONLY towards Western classical music. With jazz, a lot of people would say that it has a lot of negative things to say and that it's actually very dangerous to use. (laughs) Especially drums and saxophones. I think those kinds of things have to change if the 'conventional' sense of Western medical therapy is going to make any kind of improvement.

PSF: What if you were dealing with a patient that didn't feel comfortable with jazz?

What I would do is try something else. First of all, I do consider myself a musician. You have to look at some of the things that were done in 'free jazz' ('free' because of the great amount of expression that's dealt with in that music), dealing with music in general and not limiting yourself.

PSF: Do you also involve patients in the process of creating music?

Oh yes. You have to type out the person and see what they're about. You could do it the standard ways and see how people listen to music and what kind of music they like and don't like. You could use standard forms but I think the best way is through pulsology, as it's done in traditional Unani techniques of pulse reading. You got to find everybody's rhythm and that's done through palpating the artery or you could take a stethoscope and listen to their rhythm over a particular period of time. You can't just put the stethascope on for a few seconds, you have to stay there if it takes five minutes. You put the person in a comfortable position and you have to see what their basic rhythm is about.

PSF: Most doctors will listen for fifteen seconds, times it by four and then have the pulse rate.

That's no good- you can't do that. Once you get versed in pulse reading, then you can see the value. It's important to listen because you hear the actual TONE of the heart beats. Once you know the actual frequency of the individual beat, the actual vibration and tone quality of each beat, you can figure out what is the particular internal melody of that person. Once you create that melodic line that's internal in the person, you can figure out what the inner rhythm is about. They may think they're like something on the outside but once you get the actual rhythm (I base a lot of it off cardiac rhythm, that's the basic pulsation of how the blood is moving through the body), that's how I internalize rhythm. There's been certain studies on the actual frequency of the first heart sound, the S1, that have been done on people with myocardial infarctions and people in prison that were about to be electrocuted. They took the heart frequency just before that, so there were some very interesting things taking place.

PSF: If a patient gets involved in your therapy program and finds that it's helping them, how do you follow-up with them?

I've been dealing with this over a long period of time, especially with people that are close to me such as students and people that are apprenticing. Something's been in the works and it's about to manifest on a much greater level, public-wise. People will get cassette recordings done by musicians and also they would be participating, especially from a vocal point. These people would, instead of taking medications, put this tape on at various times. They will have their own personal cassette recordings to listen to. It would be all individualized. All of the equipment for this will be available soon, maybe the next few months. It'll be done under the organziation that I'm the director of- the Center for Medicinal and Scientific Studies.

PSF: Where are you getting support for this?

Private donations.

PSF: Does the medical community seem supportive of this?

Yes. I do have a doctor in Boston, who's an ex-student, who got funding. They're doing it on the children where they're going to be using sound in the Emergency Room. This is a lot of vocal work.

PSF: Do you think the medical community needs to understand this work more?

Definitely so.

PSF: With the concerts that you do, do you think about how the music is going to be projected towards the audience, as opposed to dealing with individuals as patients?

I always tell musicians, whenever you perform for a large body of people, you must hear the real grand fundamental tone that comes from the people. You have to arrive there and go into a nice little area where you plant yourself and you try to hear that big sound, that harmony that everybody's making- the way they're talking, the laughter. I get the fundamental tone of all of that. Once you get that tone, all the things are going to fall into place because all of the people are just the harmonics.

PSF: What do you with that information then?

What I do is I try to internalize that sound, and say 'what does that feel like to me.' If I feel it's a positive sound, then I say 'this thing could take me someplace else.' I can give them a much greater whatever-they-need if I do this or I do that. If I feel hurt from there, what I do is change that around. The thing is this- somebody would say 'everybody's not going to respond to this.' But if you can get a large segment of people in there just to be thinking very positive, then the person next to them is going to feel that! You try to get harmony in there. People always want to be in a surrounding where they feel people are positive. If you people are smiling, feeling great comfort, not intimidated, they can relax and feel no stress. So everybody helps each other out.

But you as an artist... What I'm talking about is an artist has to be really together. Spirit-wise, body-wise, mind-wise. You have to be in the best condiiton that you can be in. Or else you're no good to anybody. It's like a medical doctor telling you 'I can take care of your cold' and he's sneezing and coughing all over the place.

PSF: But what about someone like Charlie Parker? He definitely wasn't together a lot of the time that he did his recordings.

I just came back from Miami- I was at the public schools down there, trying to introduce the people to jazz. I said 'once I evolved myself to a certain kind of level, Charlie Parker was not the answer.' That's a bold statement to make around a lot of people who love Charlie Parker. I've had this problem before. Musicians say 'wow, Parker was a great musician.' I say 'I didn't say anything about his musicianship.' He was a great horn player. But what he was expressing was something else. Parker was expressing something a lot of times off the influence of drugs. He wasn't getting to that part of ourselves that was going to take us on a level that was going to get us to open up without having to rely on pain and depressants and everything else.

What I feel through Charlie Parker's music is a need from somebody who wants to get out of what they're into. That's a way to evolve 'I've got this horn in my mouth and I'm doing what I want to do.' Also, with Billie Holiday. Once you internalize yourself, it's because people today see the standards presented for us on TV. Kids go out and do some really ridiculous things. If we look at people around us, they're accepting things because they think that's the normal thing to do. So I want to say to these people 'wake up!' So, no I don't want to do what Charlie Parker did. He's not taking me to that level that I know I'm supposed to go. Just talking with the guys, I could say 'yeah Charlie sounds nice.' But you got to understand where Charlie Parker was coming from. He had a beautiful tone for what he wanted to express. But we want to go beyond that, to the next step.

In the late sixties, I was playing up in Harlem. There was an elderly woman there who used to be very close with Charlie Parker. She was in the audience and my group was playing so-called 'free form jazz.' We REALLY got very free! This woman calls us over and said 'the music that Charlie Parker used to describe what he wanted to play, you guys just played it! From his description, that's what he was talking about!' That really hit me. I knew he really wanted to do something like that. But I will accept what Charlie Parker did because that was his EXPERIENCE.

PSF: You were talking before about how you try to project certain feelings to an audience when you play. What have you seen from their reactions with this?

People come over to me after. They don't just tell me 'wow, you're a great musician.' Which is great- because I know that they didn't get it if they tell me that. But when they tell me 'I came in here and I was all uptight and I didn't even feel like coming to this concert, now I'm so glad I came here. You made me feel the way I'm supposed to feel.' They'd be smiling. You could see them open up and sparkle. That's great.

In Florida, one of the women there where I lectured at the schools said 'your particular lectures were the best.' She looked at these high school kids that she knew and she said 'you got them smiling when they never smiled.' All the kids were laughing and they were doing stuff that they didn't even know they could do. It brought out that kind of greater imagination.

The ultimate thing that I'm trying to do, and a lot of people don't like the music because it deals with vibrations and it's got the stimulators, is more people thinking in a more creative way for a kind of greater imagination. Then you have a greater amount of people trying to solve all these problems that we have on the planet. I'm not trying to clone people. When I hear that I've gotten people to be more serious about what they're doing, that means that I've helped them tap their own creativity and their own spirit and give them some kind of hope. When people tell me that, then I know that's what's supposed to be done. Everybody has something that can make that whole total thing happen. The thing that can make us as a whole people- everybody's got a part of the whole.

See the other Music Therapy articles