Long before Milford Graves invited Jake Meginsky into his home in Queens to make “Milford Graves Full Mantis,” he regularly hosted people of different backgrounds and persuasions to spend time together to see what might happen.
“It could be all musicians,” said the legendary jazz percussionist. “It could be scientists and artists. It could be laypeople from the community. I know and like these people individually and what they’re about and at times, these two people that I individually know and like, [but] they don’t like each other, so I invite these people to these kinds of meetings and then when it’s over, it’s unbelievable. They’re shaking hands and it’s because I bring them into a situation where they’re not intimidated by anything.”
A similar feeling washes over you as you watch Meginsky’s portrait of Graves that’s as unconventional and thoughtful as the man. It is the product of nearly 15 years of following Graves, as Meginsky went from serving as the musician’s assistant at Bennington College where Graves would teach Intro to Percussion classes to becoming his biographer. Yet rather than capture a life, Meginsky it gives the sensation of being alive as a free association piece that throws off the same sparks of connection and discovery as when Graves pounds the drums, surveying a career that spans five decades but feels entirely present by never leaving the physical space of his home where things are constantly growing and evolving, whether it’s in the garden he keeps in the back or the sounds he toys with in his basement computer lab.
The reverberations are as inspiring and resounding in the moment as they’ve been throughout time, demonstrated by choice moments from public performances throughout the years that Meginsky splices in to show how Graves has been at the vanguard of jazz, ever willing to go where the mood takes him and pushing the form forward in the process. As it turns out, that attitude serves Graves as well on stage and off and offering up the pleasure of his company for an hour-and-a-half, “Milford Graves Full Mantis” opens up all kinds of possibilities as you spend time with someone whose creativity is limitless. Arriving in theaters after premiering earlier this year in Rotterdam and SXSW, Meginsky and Graves spoke about making a film together and creating an immersive cinematic experience.
Jake Meginsky: I’ve been Professor Graves’ student for over 15 years, so the process of making the film was very much intertwined with my time as a student — both the lessons I received as a student of music and other parts of the professor’s practice. As far as recording the professor, I started doing that after I started working with him in his studio. At first, [it was] often just to reflect on some of the teachings myself just to understand them better and then soon after that, I would do filming sometimes to help out a project that the Professor would be working on. We were always talking about audio and visual and we needed some media [to support it]. The film’s taken different shapes at different times, but it was probably about six or seven years ago when the professor started sharing some of the archival that I had never seen before. In particular, the footage of Milford playing in Japan with Min Tanaka in the school for children with autism, we watched that as an uncut 20 minute reel on Super 8, projected in the basement [of his house]. The cinema element of that was so strong and it told such a powerful story about what the potential of music is that I started to feel really compelled to make sure this could be turned into a feature that could be seen in the cinema.
Professor Graves, when Jake pitches a full-fledged feature, are you immediately onboard?
Milford Graves: I was way more than onboard. [laughs] A few years ago, I perused through a book that a student of the musician Anthony Braxton did on him and I thought that would be great if I could find one of my ex-students who knows something about me. I never thought of something in [the area] of making a film, so when this came along, it was more than I expected. Putting this into a visual aspect was something that rejuvenated me — I feel young again. When you go to these screenings and you see yourself on this large screen and you see all the people in there and how they react to it, I’m sitting back and I’m saying, “This is unbelievable.” At this age, I’m like a kid again.
Milford Graves: I’m going to let Jake answer that because I told, Jake, “You’re the boss. I don’t want to put nothing in there. I wanted the element of surprise.” Sometimes you don’t want to put your own input in because you expect things. Then you say, “Oh, I shouldn’t have done that, so I told Jake, “Whatever you do, I trust” because I know it’s going to be right because of my relationship with him over all these years.
Jake Meginsky: That element of trust was something that I valued more than anything else. It was also extremely intimidating to be figuring out how to contextualizing the work of such a dynamic person who had such a profound influence on my own life. The way the structure of the film emerged, it really had to do with exploring the lessons I received that really had the most profound influence on my life as a musician, as a parent, or in my profession as a teacher that was starting and since the process was about being a student, it also depended on what the professor seemed to want to share with me most. I don’t think there’s necessarily a tension, per se, between those two things, but I think those two things are dancing with each other in the film.
Milford Graves: I just wanted to give Jake in the most honest way what makes me tick and what are some of the things that inspired me. Because the question that’s asked by a lot of students who come to me [is that] they’ve been through the whole educational process and they say, “I still haven’t found myself.” So they’re looking for some secrets I have to give them and I say to them, “Honestly, I don’t know if they’re secrets. Honestly, the only thing I have is hard work.” And if I like something, I like it. I don’t try to ask myself why, [at least] in the beginning. I have to have some emotion for it or some passion for the things that I like and then I’ll see how they connect later on. It may take me two years to say oh, okay now I see the relationship between the two. That’s my soul. There’s no particular order to anything, but we can intellectualize all we want, and the main question is, “Do you like it? Does it feel good?” That’s all we need to know. Don’t worry about the rest.
This film seems to benefit greatly from being contained physically to Milford’s home and his person – there aren’t others interviewed, but that gives a greater sense of how big the reach of his ideas and music is as you experience it. Did placing those limits help?
Jake Meginsky: Yes, the house, the garden, the laboratory and the dojo – these are the sites where the work happens and this is somebody who doesn’t take any time off of working and making. The first time I went to the house in South Jamaica, Queens, you open the gate and enter the garden and the whole world disappears. You enter a place where the garden is a place to get nourishment and food. It’s also a place for inspiration. It’s in dialogue with music. It’s creating sounds. These are lessons in themselves. You could say the same thing about the dojo as the martial arts element. These are things that function in different ways inside the professor’s cosmology, so I think that they needed to be focused on that way in the film.
What’s it been like traveling with the film?
Milford Graves: Jake is the traveler. I’m Pops, I sit back and wait to hear the news from the kids. [laughs] So I say, “Jake, you’ve got it, man. I’m going to sit back and wait to hear from him the good news and I’m going to read about it.”
Jake Meginsky: Oh man, how do you follow that? [laughs] Well, it’s been amazing and this being my first film, it’s a dream to see the film in cinemas with audiences connecting to the professor and connecting to his philosophy through this medium, which I really feel has the potential to bring people together. The whole time making the film, it was thinking about that feeling of being in the cinema with other people and it’s been such a thrill to see people who had no prior exposure to improvised music or drumming or jazz come to the film and connect with with it]. And the Professor came out to Rotterdam for the world premiere of the film and it was amazing.
I had a woman come up to me when we screened at SXSW, she had never listened to jazz and she came out of the film crying and said she was reminded of a teacher that she had and it helped her think about how important that person was that passed away. So it’s been phenomenal to see the power of cinema [because] the thing I love about cinema is that it’s using so many of our senses at the same time. That’s a big part of the lesson in the film and a way that the film was structured – the five-part harmony of the five senses. Each section of the film is meant to bring in different parts of the sensorial experience. Sometimes the auditory experience takes precedent. Other times, it’s the visual. [That] opening shot with the two marimbas and the slow pan away, shot by a brilliant cinematographer Neil Young, you can see paper towels flapping in the wind. You hear the sound of the drumming. You see the slow cooker, so you have the taste in there [and the convergence of the senses and there’s] that idea that cinema can touch you in a sensorial way and transfer energy the same way that music can, but to people all around the world with lots of different entry points. [So sharing that] has been beautiful. It’s all been a blessing and something I feel really lucky to be part of.