The following message was sent to Bennington College Faculty, Staff, and Students on February 15, 2021.
Dear Bennington Community,
It is with sadness that I write to share the news that pioneering jazz musician, theorist, and long time Bennington faculty member Milford Graves has died. With a distinctive percussive style, Graves made an incalculable impact on decades of Bennington students and musicians across genres.
Graves was born and raised in Queens, New York, where he learned African hand drums by playing in local latin-jazz groups. His breakthrough came later, when he started on conventional drums and joined the free jazz collective, the New York Art Quartet. Through performances and recordings, Graves became fast friends with other jazz luminaries of his era and, in 1967, he played at John Coltrane’s funeral. As a tireless autodidact with vast interests, he continued in that time to cultivate his passion for poetry, martial arts, herbalism and more--with a keen eye for the unexpected intersections of each discipline.
“Milford lived in a constant pursuit of perpetual forward motion while challenging mainstream ideas,” said Bennington music faculty member Michael Wimberly. “His innovative approach to drumming pressed the rhythmic vocabulary of free jazz and improvisation in areas yet explored, demonstrating he was a true polymath.”
Graves joined the Black Music Division at Bennington in 1973, where he taught for 39 years and went on to become Professor Emeritus. In 2000, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in music composition and, in 2015, he received the Doris Duke Foundation Impact Award. Other honors included a National Endowment for the Arts grant, the Down Beat International Award, and the Critics Award. Graves was the subject of a critically acclaimed, feature-length documentary in 2018 titled, “Milford Graves Full Mantis,” directed by his former Bennington student, Jake Meginsky ‘09, with Neil Young.
In the last twenty years of his life, Graves was devoted to the exploration of the human heart and the potential for music to heal. In 2018, that fascination became personal when he was diagnosed with amyloid cardiomyopathy or “stiff heart syndrome” and given six months to live. He told the New York Times in 2020, “It’s like some higher power saying, ‘OK, buddy, you wanted to study this, here you go.’ Now the challenge is inside of me.” He died on February 12, at 79, of the disease.
Wimberly recalled, “In recent years, Milford spoke to me about the need to create something new: ‘We’ve got to keep moving this thing forward, we’ve got to keep exploring.’ He was in a constant task of exploration where he discovered that his recorded heart rhythms stimulated stem cells. He was a visionary! Only once every millennium comes a spirit as prophetic as this one. He will be missed, but his legacy will live on.”
Milford Graves brought an inexhaustible curiosity to everything that he did; his broad and varied talents could dazzle. Music at Bennington is forever changed by his influence and we are grateful to have been a part of his extraordinary journey.
As his friend and former colleague Susan Sgorbati said:
“Milford was an extraordinary human being by anyone's standards. He was devoted to his family, friends, fellow musicians, colleagues and his hundreds of students, at Bennington College, in New York City and around the world. No-one could rival him in improvisation on the drums, the cymbals, the gongs, and everything else percussion. Milford was also a healer, a very loving person who wanted to share his gifts with others. He was also a master teacher as well as musician. His legacy of his thousands of students will carry on his legendary career in ways that we cannot even imagine right now.
“Thank you, Professor, for all that you have given us."