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Milford Graves, Chick Corea, and the Myth That the Good Have to Die Young

by Levi Dayan

[originally posted February 2021]


February was a particularly gruelling time for the jazz community. Nine days into the month, pianist Chick Corea passed away. And just three days later, percussionist Milford Graves passed away (both artists were 79). The link between the two artists, who at one point played together in the band of Roger “Montegoe Joe” Sanders, seems almost like too much of a coincidence. At the same time, though, their trajectories couldn’t be any more different from one another. Corea flirted with the avant-garde early in his career, most notably as a member of the band Circle with the legendary AACM composer and and improvisor Anthony Braxton, but in the public eye his career was largely defined by the slick, commercial fusion he laid down as the leader of the band Return To Forever. Graves, on the other hand, almost was free jazz. The man breathed freedom of expression and creative opportunity into everything he did—and he did many things besides drumming, from gardening and cardiovascular science to martial arts and teaching. The sheer level of beauty and fury he unleashed onto his drums played a singular role in freeing the drummer from the timekeeping role they have often been assigned. And there was so much joy in every moment of it.

These two deaths both hit me like a truck. As you could probably gather, Graves was one of my musical heroes. Reading about his drum-centered studies of the human heartbeat, and watching Full Mantis, the must-watch documentary about his music and philosophy, was a rare thing that legitimately changed my outlook on everything. Seeing Graves in action and then watching him apply that same mentality to studying nature, communicating with others, and doing work with the literal potential to save lives gave me a deeper understanding of just how deep the spiritual importance of music is, to everything. The man brought his music understanding into medical science, something that has always been totally alien to me, and made healing and medicine as beautiful as they sound. Corea was hugely important to me as well; along with Herbie Hancock and Joe Zawinul, he played electric keyboard on Miles Davis’s In A Silent Way, and if you put a gun to my head and forced me to choose a favorite album of all time, that would probably be the one. His trio with Roy Haynes and Miroslav Vitous, as well as his work with the aforementioned Circle, were both also a huge deal to me. His music with Return To Forever is sometimes ragged on by the purists and the jazz snobs as a cheesy artifact of 70s excess, but they ruled, and the snobs know it too. Corea never had as much fire in his playing as Graves did, but he always had that sense of groove, which is similar to fire but different in certain ways. Corea always played with a lightness in his touch that could recall Debussy or Ravel, but that groove always kept things grounded in jazz, and he was one of the few players who could really get into that groove while staying so swift that he made it all look easy.

As devastating as these deaths, and the fact that they happened so close together, were, I still found time to cherish how they lived their lives. When Graves, whose medical research treated heart issues by recording the unhealthy heartbeat and editing it into a different, more healthy rhythm for biofeedback, was first diagnosed with amyloid cardiomyopathy, he was given six months to live. It took nearly three years after his diagnosis for him to pass on. All the while, he was turning his research onto his own body. ““It’s like some higher power saying, ‘OK, buddy, you wanted to study this, here you go,” Graves said in a 2020 New York Times profile. “Now the challenge is inside of me.” That conjunction of spirituality and practicality present in all of Graves’s work was hugely important for me, living through one of those most challenging years of my life.

In the wake of these deaths, I’ve also been reflecting on the myth of the tortured, tragic jazz artist trope. Jazz was one of the first examples of a Black art form catching fire in America, terrifying older white generations who feared that the music was “corrupting the youth.” The excitement jazz generated from white audiences was too big to be suppressed by the outrage, thus kickstarting a cycle of white interest, then racist outrage, then co-option by the white mainstream, and finally acceptance, that has repeated with rock & roll and hip hop. The tortured, tragic artist trope has existed long before Van Gogh even, but it has taken on a different nature when applied to these three genres of music, all Black art forms that have attained popularity in a majority white country that, obviously, has a history of racism. But even with rock & roll’s 27 club and hip-hop’s series of tragedies in the late 90s, jazz stands out. Jazz broke commercial barriers in the 20s and 30s, a time of deadly race riots, lynchings, eugenics, and creative barriers in the 50s and 60s, the era of the civil rights movement and its subsequent backlash; both periods saw resurgences in the Ku Klux Klan. Black artists were making groundbreaking work with unimaginable mental and physical burdens, often without complete control over how their work was perceived or even created, and this kind of pressure naturally coincided with tragedy in many cases. The prevalence of heroin usage amongst jazz musicians has become a trope itself, but it definitely existed and contributed to this tragedy. Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker were among the first, and certainly the most famous examples of tragic figures in jazz, and John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Albert Ayler, and Lee Morgan’s untimely deaths still sting to this day.

But the perception that all jazz musicians were tragic figures who poured nothing but suffering into their art and then died young isn’t just patently false revisionist history, it’s dangerous. Jazz is a genre far, far too complicated to be about any one thing, let alone tragedy. Rather, it’s a collective, communal, creative expression, one that takes in all of its surroundings. It works through not just human emotions—love, confusion, anxiety, anger, joy, and humor in addition to sadness—but also history, culture, and nature. The idea that suffering alone is the essential foundation of jazz is the exact kind of ideology that pushes great artists into tragic situations. Parker, Lady Day, Coltrane, Dolphy, Ayler, Morgan, Mingus, Nina, Miles: none of these artists should have had to go through what they went through, and while it’s impossible to change history, I feel confident in saying music would be all the better for it if these artists had been given the conditions to create without the unnecessary pressure of competition or the bullshit of the outside world. The limitations enforced by this trope were perhaps best expressed by the late comedian, writer and activist Dick Gregory. In an interview with Gregory that resurfaced on my twitter feed, Miles Ahead, a biopic of Miles Davis directed by and starring Don Cheadle that infamously starred Ewan MacGregor as a character that didn’t even exist, comes up. Gregory absolutely decimated the film, saying “Miles Davis was a trendsetter. Nobody dressed like him. That motherfucker had three outfits in the whole movie, all you saw him do is drugs and chasing a white boy with a gun, and you liked that shit?” He added “here’s a motherfucker that went to Juliard, you didn’t see one fucking concert.” The person interviewing him says “I can see why you didn’t like it, but” and Gregory interjects “I knew him. I knew him.

Though every bit as vital and necessary today as it was 60 years ago, jazz doesn’t receive as much attention from the public. But one can see this mentality surrounding art-as-suffering in the way people react to music today, where the artist, while in some ways more connected, is increasingly distant from their audience. The artist is seen as a distant spectacle only thought of in terms of their output, and when their personal woes are publicized the reaction is often that their music is “about to get good again.” With history always determining the present, it’s clear that many people perceive jazz history through a trauma-porn lens. The film Whiplash, an almost entirely white movie that portrays jazz as a soul-sucking endless competition that doesn’t exist beyond the gates of conservatories and institutions, is a perfect example of this.

In looking back at all of the jazz icons we’ve lost in the past few years—Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, McCoy Tyner, and now Graves and Corea—I don’t feel a sense of tragedy, but rather poignancy. Seeing all of the legends who shaped creative music as we know it age and pass away is undoubtedly sad. But it’s also heartening to think of how many of these artists, who made uncompromising music that sometimes alienated, even enraged some of their contemporary listeners, lived to see their music join the canon, lived to see—and sometimes collaborate with—younger generations of creative visionaries, using the freedom they were granted to keep making great forward-thinking art. And there’s still so many jazz heroes who are not only still alive but still working, such as Archie Shepp, Marshall Allen, and Pharoah Sanders, who has his first album in a while coming out pretty soon. One of the things that comforted me upon hearing about these deaths were the stories of how genuinely kind both Graves and Corea seemed to be. Graves’s house was known as a space for younger musicians to play and learn, and I’ve heard many anecdotes about people meeting Corea, feeling starstruck as he talked to them and encouraged them as he would a longtime friend. While the elders of creative music are still here, let’s treat them the same way.

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