Ed note: This article originally appeared in Glasstire on March 6, 2018. We’re re-running it today because tomorrow, June 16, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston will screen the movie Milford Graves Full Mantis at 7 pm as part of its Jazz on Film series. Find that info here.
In 2004, Jake Meginsky ended his relationship, quit his job, and showed up at the door of avant-garde percussionist Milford Graves. After a considerable wait, Meginsky was met with a “Come on in, we’ll see what the story is…,” which resulted in an hour-long improvisation session and a fifteen-year friendship.
Among his many talents, Graves is most prominently known for his pioneering of free jazz — altering the vernacular of drumming by freeing the instrument from its traditional timekeeping role. He has performed internationally since 1964, with the likes of Albert Ayler, Paul Bley, Don Pullen, Giuseppi Logan, and Sonny Sharrock. The dynamism of his percussion takes form through rumination on Afro-Latin drumming, polyrhythmic music theory, bioacoustics, the martial arts, herbalism and gardening. His drumming is fierce and electric, often reaching blistering paces, and incorporating mind-bending counting patterns.
Over the last decade and a half, Meginsky has spent time with Graves as a pupil, teacher’s assistant, collaborator and documentarian. What initially began as Meginsky capturing further records for Milford’s archives steadily grew into a full-length feature film. Milford Graves: Full Mantis is a captivating and earnest portrayal of Grave’s legacy, cosmology and continual progression as an artist.
The following is a conversation with composer, performer and now director Jake Meginsky on his new film about ‘The Professor.’ Milford Graves: Full Mantis premieres at SXSW Film Festival in Austin this month, March 13-16.
Greg Ruppe: The world premiere of Milford Graves: Full Mantis happened recently at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. How was the reception?
Jake Meginsky: Rotterdam was awesome. Milford performed after the film premiered and the coolest part was having Milford come in contact with a non-free jazz audience, seeing so many people getting into his person, his philosophy and his legacy. The film dropped at a time when I think many began to realize there aren’t that many people alive that came up through the ’50s and ’60s, through the whole transformation of Jazz. Sunny Murray just passed away, so essentially you have Cecil Taylor and him from that crew of people still working in New York. Rotterdam treated him with such dignity, recognizing they were in the presence of living history. That’s all I wanted from this film, to honor the teacher I learned so much from, and for it to come into the world in a dignified way.
GR: You structured the film in a way that avoids the typical biopic trappings, i.e. relying on the inner circle of friends to deliver anecdotal accounts or overly mythologizing a person. Instead you go straight to the source, letting Graves’s own words and actions tell the story.
JM: It’s an issue with art or music documentaries, or any film that tries to approach the creative process. They often get tied up in trying to position the person in a larger narrative or historical context. I also think there’s something to myth building that’s dehumanizing. Milford took the drum set and transformed it forever; it took conscious effort to portray someone this big without mythologizing. I wanted to set up the film so that you’re not continually trying to figure out ‘when did he play with Albert Ayler, when did he first use a double gong, or what does Henry Rollins think about this’? If you let go of all that, by the time he starts talking about how our tear ducts relate to minor intervals something has happened to you. The theme of the film was built around sensorial experience and engagement with the five senses, letting things in and allowing yourself to be affected.The film opens with a quote from Milford: “Look at the room downstairs, look at the garden outside, don’t try to analyze it, just take it in.” Once the film started taking shape I could see it was as much an instruction to the filmmaker as it was the viewer.
GR: Like Milford’s fundamental frequency exercise? I’ve read that before each performance Milford will study his audience, gauge its energy and tune his performance to that energy. There appears to be a reciprocal, two-fold return happening in this process, where he’s teaching the audience while teaching himself.
JM: We weren’t able to locate this particular lithograph but in the late ’60s he often faced hostility from audiences more familiar with popular music. He realized he had to do something before he played to allow for them to relax a little bit and receive what he was there to do. So he ended up printing a note that went on everyone’s seat that basically stated: ‘What you’re about to hear, you don’t need to analyze, you don’t need to understand what it is, just take it in, it will last for forty-five minutes.’ He found that it completely changed the audience’s response, and opened them up to the transformational potential of the music. He has always been in a dialogue with his entire career as a performer, kind of continuously dancing with his history as a maker — and that’s really who he is; he’s not the kind of person that just visits with you on his couch. He’ll say, “Come downstairs and check out this skeleton,” or “Let me take a recording of your heart.” He’s always fully engaged in some creative process.
GR: Part of the success of the film is due to your ability capture the many facets of Milford’s life philosophy without it coming off as grandiose. He differs from other figures of his generation perhaps because he didn’t seem to adopt the same kinds of cosmic symbolism that the Coltranes or Sun Ra did. Milford’s investigations all point towards a universal ideology, and I think this helps to skirt any kind of containable identity or iconography or ego… .
JM: Or narrative. Like his drumming: it is polyrhythmic — patterns juxtaposed against patterns; he doesn’t like to play any typical roles that society projects onto artists. He has continually resisted labels. In the ’60s he was downbeat record drummer of the year; he could have done more on Impulse Records. But he dedicated his career to the idea of self-reliance. That’s what he named his first DIY label (SRP / Self Reliance Project Records) — he released everything himself. He and Don Pullen hand painted the records and sold them at the Nation of Islam Bazaar in Harlem in 1969. There are many parts of his discography, that came out in the form of a limited run, and now have become rare and hard-to-find art objects, which means he doesn’t have the same accessible recorded history as others who recorded for major labels. What also differentiates him is he has never stopped working, he literally hasn’t taken a week off since he started, he is a ceaseless investigator. You could make a feature-length film about any one thread that crosses through him. It took the 14 to 15 years that I’ve been involved to begin to learn about the core elements of his creative process and how he makes sense of his work, his art and his drumming. Over time, I began to learn some of the things that he wanted to share most. The film naturally gravitated towards his garden, basement, and dojo as a framework.
GR: The garden plays a central role as a filmic device, in threading the archival material and bridging the now Milford with his younger self, but also as a philosophical extension of his approach to work, structure, order.
JM: The garden reinforces his philosophy of self-reliance and his knack for accomplishing the extraordinary simply with what is available to him. His lifetime home is next to the largest housing project in South Jamaica, Queens. You can literally hear the ecosystem humming from Milford’s yard at night. He has planted varieties from everywhere in the world — you open the gate and everything else ceases to exist. Collard greens grow with oregano that intertwine with snap peas; it’s truly a free-jazz garden that is constantly changing. I tried to capture on film the sense of biophilia felt there. I wanted to emphasize not only the intensity of the garden itself but the sound of its periphery; the activity beyond its 40-foot bamboo fence. Similar to fundamental frequency, he constantly stresses the importance of observing nature. When he learned that he couldn’t access the ‘Praying Mantis Kung Fu’ taught by Chinatown masters because of cultural protectiveness, he went straight to the source, found some praying mantises and developed his own version. And that’s where Full Mantis comes from; the idea that no one can stop you from accessing a profound sense of engagement with your own sensorial creativity.
GR: In a way, the garden becomes an extension of his drum kit, experimenting wildly within set parameters, while stripping out extraneous parts. In hearing you describe the dynamic between the garden interior and what lies beyond I’m thinking of the footage from his performance opening for Carmen McRae in Belgium. His drumming is so explosive that Joe Rigby, Arthur Williams, and Hugh Glover fall into the periphery.
JM: They become a part of the audience, while the cameramen are stumbling to find a position. I don’t think anyone in the room was prepared for that level of energy. His garden conforms to its own electrical logic just as his martial art and kit does. Everything he talks about is very tangible, whether it’s actually something you can touch with your hand, or it’s about neutrinos, the sun and the way light vibrates; nothing in his philosophy is overly esoteric. The drums are his laboratory and the garden, like you said, is set up to experiment and learn and eat from.
GR: When did the film start to take shape when did you start to document him and know that you had something?
JM: I started filming him within the first year. I was spending a lot of time in his classes as a TA and I quickly recognized that I had access to a really important piece of world history. But at that point I was documenting primarily for his archives; it had not yet become a film. Little by little cinematic things started happening. When he talks, he connects things really quickly, so it was hard to get a sense of how it all added up to Mildford’s core, to what was driving these investigations. As I was spending more time at his home in South Jamaica, Queens on different projects, he started showing me the archival stuff, Super-8 footage of his collaboration with Min Tanaka and the school for autism in Japan, and practicing his own praying mantis-style Yara. I began to realize the magnitude of what we had and eventually started inviting people who had better access to equipment to document. In 2015, I invited Neil Young to join me and the film quickly began to take shape.
GR: Neil (who is also a percussionist) ultimately became co-director, and the two of you collaborated on the editing process. The flow of the film feels intuitive and rhythmic. How did your knowledge of the instrument play into the editing process and how did it influence the inclusion of selected recordings?
JM: One way to think of Full Mantis is that his drumming is telling its own story. There is almost no overlay in the percussive and talking segments, and we consciously edited to make space for one another. We also thought about polyrhythms and how cinema can lend to a deeper investigation of drumming in the editing process. Within the context of film, you can watch a drummer go full tilt and listen to something completely different, like the sound of a drone, while focusing the camera intently on just hands on a cymbal. You can learn more through the cinematic lens than simply hearing the drumming. In terms of the archival selections, there was no real research done in the process. I knew Percussion Ensemble (with Sonny Morgan, 1965) had to be there as it was so instrumental in my youth. Nearly everything came directly from Milford, except for the Belgian footage, shot the same year Bäbi was released — he specifically requested I hunt that down, stating: “That was the real stuff.” It might sound esoteric but the music chose itself, like in composing; you set a few things into motion and the thing starts asking for what it needs.
GR: At the risk of sounding sentimental, I will say that I sense a film like this could not have been made from an outside-in approach; that it took the intimacy of your relationship to achieve what you have.
JM: Milford actually talked about this during the [Rotterdam] q&a. There were others that previously tried to document his life, but the attempts in his words felt “like someone doing an assignment on me.” And that’s the whole thing; when you have a dynamic person like Milford it really does take time to understand the full picture. Otherwise you’re throwing around verbiage, like polymath this, interdisciplinary that, and my creative mind automatically turns off hearing this kind of talk.
The first time we watched the film together, essentially he said: “That’s me up on the screen man, that’s what I do, that’s what I’m all about,” and that’s all I needed to hear — that whatever filmic version of Milford manifested, was one that he recognized as authentically himself.
‘Milford Graves: Full Mantis’ screens at the 2018 SXSW Film Festival in the screening section ’24 Beats Per Second,’ on March 13-16 in Austin.