Sep 25, 2020–Jan 24, 2021

Milford Graves: A Mind-Body Deal

Milford Graves Full Mantis (film still), 2018. Courtesy of Jake Meginsky.

This exhibition, presented by Ars Nova Workshop, gathers the many-layered and multi-faceted work of Milford Graves, exploring the practices and predilections of this extraordinary “jazz mind.” Mention Milford’s name to anyone who follows progressive jazz and they know him from landmark record­ings such as Albert Ayler’s Love Cry, Sonny Sharrock’s Black Woman, his groundbreaking work as a leader, including the Milford Graves Percussion Ensemble, and his performances with the likes of Lou Reed, Min Tanaka, and John Zorn. He has been a revelatory force in music since the mid-1960s, liberating the role of the drummer from “timekeeper” to instrumental improviser and giving rise to the Free Jazz movement. But even his musical practice cannot contain the energies of his creativity and intellect.

As a young drummer, Milford performed at John Coltrane’s funeral and led successful Latin music combos, drawing on his Afro-Caribbean roots. When he was barely old enough to vote, his life had taken off in a half-dozen different directions that led to revolutions in music, activism, medicine, botany, and even martial arts. He led the charge in bringing the drums out from the back of the bandstand, to a position equal with the “melodic” instruments. An anchor in the New York Art Quartet with Amiri Baraka, he was also active in the collective-bargaining movement of the Jazz Composers Guild. At the same time, he began his training as a cardiac technician with zeal; he invented a martial art form called Yara based on the movements of the Praying Mantis, boxing, West African ritual dance, and Lindy Hop; and he had an abiding interest in botany and herbology, inherited from his grandmother. By the time he began his nearly 40-year career at Bennington College, as a professor of music and holistic medicine, his fecund intellect had begun to explore radical connections between rhythm and the universe: in music, in movement, in healing, in the subatomic, in the activity of the heart and other organs.


Milford Graves, Collage of Healing Herbs and Bodily Systems, 1994, mixed media collage. Courtesy of the artist.


His home in Jamaica, Queens, now overflows with the many accoutrements and outgrowths of his creative inquiries: a backyard garden, a dojo, and a basement filled with his drums and other musical instruments, herbs from his garden, his artwork from prints to paintings to sculpture, and a full laboratory of heart monitoring equipment. Among his many other achievements and awards, Milford has patented stem cell regeneration technology that utilizes frequency response, he teaches gardening and herbology to his neighbors as a way to promote health, and he continues to study rhythmic treatments for the heart. His home is quite literally built from this rich life and mind, and A Mind-Body Deal is an attempt to open the doors of his habitat to the spark of curiosity in our own minds, so we too may learn to weave our mind-bodies with the rhythms of the world around us.


Yara in the Dojo, 1992, photo courtesy of the artist.


The exhibition includes a collection of Graves’ hand-painted album covers and posters, idiosyncratic drum sets, multimedia sculptures, photographs, and costumes, with elements from his home, scientific studies, recording ephemera, and archival recordings, as well as space for performance.

View the gallery notes from Milford Graves: A Mind-Body Deal here.

Virtual Tour

Mondays with Milford

Bi-weekly screenings of rare digital footage from Milford Graves’s archives were shown throughout the run of the exhibition, along with additional video selections and dialogues that contextualized Graves’s practice. The themes and dates for each digital release are listed below.

Screenings began at 6PM EST and remained online until the next program begins. All programs were conducted virtually.

September 28 – Introduction Part 1: Speaking in Tongues

October 12 – Introduction Part 2: Festac ’77

October 26 – Research and Investigation: Heart Music

November 9 – In Performance Part 1: Collaborative Projects

November 23 – In Performance Part 2: Solo Work

December 7 – Encounters in Japan: Min Tanaka

December 21 – The Botanist: Graves in the Garden

January 4 – The Griot: Performative Lectures

January 18 – Yara Martial Arts Movements: Healing Arts


Milford Graves: A Mind-Body Deal is organized by Mark Christman, Artistic Director, Ars Nova Workshop, with Anthony Elms, Daniel and Brett Sundheim Chief Curator, ICA. Curatorial support provided by Jake Meginsky. Accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue to be published by Inventory Press in 2021.


Major support for Milford Graves: A Mind-Body Deal has been provided by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, with additional support from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and the Joseph Robert Foundation. Additional support has been provided by Nancy & Leonard Amoroso, Cecile & Christopher D’Amelio, Carol & John Finley, Amanda & Andrew Megibow, Norma & Larry Reichlin, and by Caroline & Daniel Werther.




Installation Views
Featured Artworks
Mon, Oct 26, 2020, 6PM
Mondays with Milford: Heart Music
Sun, Nov 22, 2020, 3PM–4:30PM
Milford Graves & Jason Moran: In Conversation
Thu, Dec 3, 2020, 7PM–8PM
Milford Graves: A Music-Coloring Deal
Mon, Dec 21, 2020, 6PM
Mondays with Milford: The Botanist
Mon, Dec 21, 2020, 6:30PM–7:30PM
In Conversation: Jake Meginsky & Ashley Clark
Sun, Jan 10, 2021, 3PM–4PM
Coffee & Conversation: Milford’s Garden
Thu, Jan 21, 2021, 6:30PM–8PM
In Conversation: Rhea Combs + Greg Tate
Sun, Jan 24, 2021, 6:30PM
In Performance: Jason Moran