Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 12, 2018

Milford Graves: Full Mantis

Filed under: Film,Jazz — louisproyect @ 5:52 pm

At the Left Forum in June, I had the great fortune to attend a panel discussion on the the Free Jazz movement of the 60s and 70s that included people like Archie Shepp, Pharaoh Sanders and Joe McPhee, one of the panelists. For me, this was the high point of the weekend since the “new thing” jazz of the 60s and 70s was close to my heart. As I told the speakers, when I entered Bard as a 16-year old in 1961, I was disaffected from the materialism and conformity of American society but could not figure out how to challenge it. In my freshman year, I heard Pharaoh Sanders in performance with other members of the Paul Bley band that blew my mind as they put it.

I have had the even greater fortune to have just seen “Milford Graves: Full Mantis” that opens tomorrow at the Metrograph in New York. In March 2017, I reviewed a documentary titled “I Called Him Morgan” that I described as the best film ever made about a jazz musician, in that instance trumpeter Lee Morgan who died tragically much too young after his girlfriend gunned him down in Slug’s in a fit of jealousy. He had rebounded from years of addiction, largely through her support, and was enjoying a revival. His loss was a crushing blow to the art of jazz.

I can now say that “Milford Graves: Full Mantis” is just as great a film but one that is filled with joy. Although they were contemporaries, Lee Morgan belonged to the hard bop school that preceded the Free Jazz movement percussionist Milford Graves pioneered. If heroin addiction was an epidemic during the bebop era that lasted roughly between WWII and the mid-60s, the Free Jazz movement was much more about finding transcendence through Black nationalism and spirituality, with Milford Graves a prime example.

You realize that you are about to meet an extraordinary figure as the film begins with the camera panning over Graves’s bookcase in his house in Queens. Coming into the foreground are Friedrich Engel’s “Dialectics of Nature” and Hermann von Helmholtz’s “On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music”. Most of my readers will undoubtedly know who Engels was but Helmholtz loomed large in Graves’s evolution as a musician and a medical researcher. Wikipedia describes him as a researcher who sought to provide a theoretical basis for human physiology:

In physiology and psychology, he is known for his mathematics of the eye, theories of vision, ideas on the visual perception of space, color vision research, and on the sensation of tone, perception of sound, and empiricism in the physiology of perception.

In physics, he is known for his theories on the conservation of energy, work in electrodynamics, chemical thermodynamics, and on a mechanical foundation of thermodynamics.

In terms of the “mechanical foundation of thermodynamics”, you can obviously understand why Graves would keep a copy of “The Dialectics of Nature” alongside Helmholtz. Key to Graves’s approach to our world is the interconnectedness of all living things. In his backyard garden, he makes the case that plants are not passive organisms. Photosynthesis is a process that has much in common with our own biological cycle. Drawing close to a plant, he states that its leaves waving in the wind create low-frequency sounds that can be heard with the right equipment.

For Graves, equipment is not just the drum kit that he performs on throughout the film. In his exploration of the sonic aspects of the human body, he has built up an elaborate array of electronic measuring devices including an electronic stethoscope. Browsing in the medical shelves at Barnes and Noble many years ago, he stumbled across an LP titled “Normal and Abnormal Heart Beats” that led him on a journey to discover the affinity between heartbeats and drum rhythms. Even more remarkable, he discovered a kind of harmony in heartbeats based on their oscilloscope variations. These explorations led to a Guggenheim grant in 2000.

The best way to describe Milford Graves is as a Leonardo Da Vinci of our time. In all of my encounters with larger than life figures over a sixty year period, I have not seen anybody with as restless a mind and as gifted artistically as Graves. A case can be made that he is the most influential musician of the Free Jazz movement with his full-time professorship at Bennington College from 1973 until becoming Emeritus in 2011 as a sign of his stature.

“Milford Graves: Full Mantis” consists almost entirely of filmed performances of Graves and interviews at his home in Queens. At the age of 76, his intellect and his philosophical acumen strike me as the benefits of living a life in which your talents are matched to your ambitions. If we didn’t live in such a warped society, most people would be able to enjoy the kind of life that Graves has led if only on a more modest scale. The other reaction one might have to this film is a deepening sense of the injustice in this world where a Black skin precludes developing the kind of career that he has enjoyed. Probably the worst thing about capitalism is that it robs us from benefiting from the other Leonardo Da Vinci’s that the Black, Latino and working class world might have produced.

Finally, tribute has to be paid to director Jake Meginsky who has made a film that rises to the Olympian stature of its subject. For aspiring documentary film makers, this film bears repeated viewings since it shows how sensitive camera work and fully engaged interviewing techniques can produce great art. Meginsky is a drummer himself who was an aficionado of Milford Graves and later became a technician assistant to Graves at Bennington. This is the first film he has ever made and has the inside track for my NYFCO ballot as best debut as director of 2018.

 

 

1 Comment »

  1. Terrific film but awful and misleading trailer. Don’t be influenced by the latter.

    Comment by Elliot Podwill — July 12, 2018 @ 6:43 pm


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