The Vision Thing

At 10am on a recent morning, jazz bassist and composer Mel Graves reclines on his patio, grooming his large black dog and chomping on a cigar as the morning sun splashes down. The sound of Thelonious Monk pours out of the living room of his new Petaluma home, perched on a hill with a breathtaking view of beautiful Victorians, old grain mills and Sonoma Mountain. Once a decaying schoolhouse, the structure has recently been turned into residences, and Graves is clearly taken with his new digs. “It has that New York loft kind of feel,” he beams.

Mel Graves has every reason to celebrate the good life. He is an undeniable local treasure, having promoted and cultivated jazz for over 25 years as a music professor at Sonoma State University who continually breathes new life into the genre. On this day, he’s preparing rehearsals for what he calls a “culmination of my work in jazz composition,” a two-hour jazz suite for a 10-piece ensemble entitled From the Past—Into the New. A year and a half in the making, it premieres Oct. 27 at Healdsburg’s Raven Theater as part of Performance Sonoma.

Graves’ composition is a highlight of Performance Sonoma, an unprecedented 10-week festival with 12 different arts organizations participating in a celebration of theater, music, dance, film, sculpture and multimedia. At the helm is Jennifer Sloan, executive director of the Arts Council of Sonoma County, who says that the festival, an outgrowth of 2005’s Sculpture Sonoma, is “an opportunity to broaden and deepen and diversify—raising the bar, if you will, for the arts at large in Sonoma County.”

Performance Sonoma’s theme, “Crossing Borders,” has inspired different interpretations of geographical, economic, cultural and generational perimeters. Graves, approaching retirement age, is tweaking that most impenetrable border of all: time.

At 60, Graves appears much younger, dressed in a plaid short-sleeve shirt, casual pants and New Balance sneakers. A slim gold chain hangs around his neck, and he speaks in a rich, confident baritone, occasionally punctuating sentences with self-effacing phrases like “What are you gonna do?” while giving the impression of knowing exactly what to do. From the Past—Into the New is his third large jazz project; Graves defines its concept as multilayered.

“It’s not only all the things I’ve experienced in the past musically, and all the things I’m trying to put in to evolve my music,” he explains, “but I also really like the mix of experiences, the mix of ages in the group itself. It’s going to be very exciting.”

Made up of friends, colleagues and both former and current students, the band will have just two rehearsals before the piece’s public unveiling—a testament to the talent that Graves’ clout can assemble, especially since the challenging work contains all sorts of curveballs for its players. “It includes everything historically, from stride piano up to the most modern of freer improvisation, all sorts of odd time-signature things in there,” he says. “Something they’re not going to see on a jazz standard, something different; they’ve got to dig in and do some creation of their own.”

It might be tempting to evaluate a composition that’s titled From the Past—Into the New as an encompassing statement on the cycle of life in an ever-changing world, but Graves dismisses this notion. “It’s not that academic of a piece,” he says, ashing his stogie into the ventilation holes of his barbecue lid. “It’s just music. You know what I mean?”

Graves was born in West Virginia and grew up in Ohio, where even as a first-grader he remembers drawing a line on his classroom atlas from Cleveland to San Francisco. He played clarinet and tuba until his high school teacher handed him a string bass and told him to learn it. The instrument stuck. “Six weeks later,” Graves says, “I was working professionally.”

A the same time, about age 15, jazz entered Graves’ life through his first album purchases: the famous Jazz at Massey Hall LP with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Max Roach and Bud Powell. “The other one was a West Coast thing that had Milt Hinton on it with Al Cohn and Zoot Sims.” By the time he was 18, Graves was working six nights a week.

In 1967, he followed his first-grade inclination and moved out to San Francisco to study composition at the Conservatory of Music. Around the same time, he joined the Jerry Hahn Brotherhood, one of the earliest progenitors of jazz-rock fusion, recording an album for Columbia Records and playing both the Fillmore West and East with bands like Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears. So why isn’t he a household name?

“That’s a long story—crooked manager, scammed for a quarter million dollars—it’s got all the elements,” he says with achuckle. A run of handsomely paying studio work followed, but academia beckoned. “It was one of those vision things, you know,” he says of returning to college. “I’ve always had these things, like the vision to come to San Francisco, or the vision to go back and get my masters, to leave this lucrative thing which was great money-wise but just turned me off musically.”

Since 1982, Graves has been at SSU, watching his students scatter all over the globe. One is Adam Theis, fresh from a string of sold-out shows with his Shotgun Wedding Quintet, who chimes in about his three years studying with Graves. “Mel is one of those folks who is known among students for telling it like it is,” he says. “That took its toll on my ego sometimes, but in the long run made me a much harder worker.” Theis remembers receiving cassettes from Graves chock-full of hand-selected music, an indicator that ultimately jazz is very personal and unique to each individual.

“Mel actually encouraged many musicians,” Theis says, “by not giving a fixed answer to questions like ‘Which note sounds best over this chord?'”

The answer, of course, is whichever note one chooses. From the Past—Into the New has improvised solos, duos and even a massive free blowing segment with 10 instruments playing 12-tone rows in different tempos. There’s humor, of course; at the beginning of the fifth movement, Graves splices together quotes from 30 different blues numbers (“I was thinking it would be good to have a contest,” he laughs, “to see if anybody could name them all”) and elsewhere, drum solos and exotic rhythms crop up.

But probably most amazing of all is that Graves, without a piano at the time of writing, composed the entire two-hour piece from memory, without any instrument to work out the arrangements. “I’m really old-school, for one thing,” he says, noting that he keeps his charts in an old icebox, never writing on the computer. “I like hand-written parts.”

The mind reels at the achievement of writing an entire two-hour, five-movement suite for 10 instruments off the top of one’s head, but Graves shrugs it off.

“I didn’t have a piano,” he says. “What are you gonna do?”