Jazz bassist, composer and teacher Mel Graves has charted the course of his own career, from beginning to end.
Graves started playing professionally at age 15 in suburban Columbus, Ohio, and migrated to the San Francisco jazz scene in the ?60s. Music has been his life ever since.
Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last summer, Graves has undergone a series of unsuccessful treatments, and he knows his life will end within the next few months.
But he hasn?t given up his music. He has continued composing new works at his Petaluma home, and he?s looking forward to two more major events in his long career.
?My goal is recording my latest piece, which will be my last piece,? Graves said. ?Then there?s a concert coming up. That gives me something to live for. Everything else after that is gravy.?
On Thursday (Nov. 6), his 62nd birthday, his new composition, ?About Knowing,? will be recorded in Sebastopol.
And next Sunday (Nov. 9), an impressive lineup of Graves? former colleagues and students will stage a tribute concert at Sonoma State University, where he taught for 26 years, from 1982 until last spring.
Graves won?t be able to perform, but he?s looking forward to the recording session and the show just the same.
A lot of his favorite people will be onstage at Sonoma State, including pianists Denny Zeitlin and Noam Lemish, longtime drummer and faculty colleague George Marsh, and Graves? young bass proteg? Miles Wick.
?It?s going to be a variety ? some of my music, some of their music and some of whatever happens that night,? Graves said.
Jessica Felix, founder of the Healdsburg Jazz Festival, suggested the tribute and set out to produce the show, but she soon discovered that Graves ? ailing and frail as he is ? had taken over.
?Mel is going out ? just like he always has been ? in charge,? Felix said fondly. ?I think it?s kind of beautiful.?
Zeitlin, who led a jazz trio ? with Graves on bass and Marsh on drums ? from 1968 to 1978, is also impressed with Graves? stoic acceptance of fatal illness. But, like others who have known Graves a long time, Zeitlin is not surprised by his friend?s bravery.
?He was always a fearless bass player, stretching the envelope for himself and for the group,? said Zeitlin. ?This illness is an incredible tragedy, but Mel ? characteristically ? is handling it matter-of-factly and maturely. He?s using the time he has left with great courage.?
Marsh, who has worked with Graves both as a bandmate and a fellow teacher at SSU, describes Graves as a gutsy musician who became an even more daring composer.
?In the ?60s, we were in a ground-breaking group called the Jerry Hahn Brotherhood. Every time we played, we kind of re-composed. Everything would be different every time, even though it might be the same batch of tunes,? Marsh said.
?As far as Mel?s compositions go, he?s gone way beyond that, with all kinds of complex harmonic structures that I don?t understand. It?s really no-holds-barred,? Marsh added. ?It isn?t necessarily regular jazz at all.?
Graves has composed hundreds of works, from jazz tunes to classical pieces for the Kronos Quartet and others, to the newest, more experimental pieces. Two longer compositions stand out: ?Spirit Changes,? first performed at SSU in 1999, and the five-movement ?From the Past to the New,? which had its premiere in Healdsburg in 2006.