Philly seems to attract musicians who are “ear players,” and I don’t mean musicians who can’t read musical notation. I mean people who have an innate gift, a way of mindreading the hearts of their musical collaborators. You feel the connection from the first few measures. Pianist, composer, and arranger Aaron Graves is one of these rare individuals.
Trust your ears
Graves, 60, grew up working the tobacco fields of Reidsville, North Carolina, a one-crop, small factory town owned by the American Tobacco Company. But his early life was filled with music due to his father, a pastor who enlisted all his children into playing for his congregation. Graves started playing drums in church at age seven, eventually learning multiple instruments including bass, saxophone, and trumpet.
Graves told me, "Music came naturally, because it was a natural part of my family's journey."
But when he turned 15, Graves wanted more. “I realized I was missing something," he said. "My life was church, farming, and school. I needed to be more well-rounded.” His father disagreed, so he moved out, renting a room from a cousin in town, and playing local gigs.
Luck had it that the Richard Smallwood Singers, a well-known gospel group, came to Reidsville without a bass player and needed someone to fill in to wrap up an album they were recording.
“I finished his record playing bass guitar and then he flew me to Washington, DC, to play with his singers at Union Temple Baptist Church,” he said.
The association proved fruitful and got him into the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in DC to finish his high school years. He blossomed. Afterward, Graves won a talent scholarship to attend Howard University, then transferred to the University of the District of Columbia to study with beloved jazz educator and trombonist Calvin Jones. Later, Graves won a National Endowment of the Arts grant to study with Philadelphia-born pianist and jazz master Kenny Barron.
Graves's popularity with all genres of musicians grew as major stars came calling when he moved to New York City in the 1990s—including the likes of Stanley Turrentine, Oscar Brown Jr., Dakota Staton, Marlena Shaw, Cassandra Wilson, Keter Betts, Kenny Burrell, Frank Foster, Grover Washington Jr., and Vanessa Rubin.
But these were also years when he struggled with addiction until he resolved his issues and came to Philly in 2000.
“I was playing an engagement one night in Atlantic City and was driving back to where I was living in the Poconos at the time," Graves recalls. "I was heading west on the Schuylkill and when I got to Lincoln Drive, there was this beautiful energy that rained down on me. You know what? I heard—'You're gonna come to Philadelphia and Philadelphia is going to be a wonderful experience for you.’ I knew at that moment and I thought, 'Wow!'”
Graves has been busy ever since. Even COVID-19 hasn’t stopped him. Besides playing and livestreaming with guitarist Jimmy Bruno’s band every Thursday afternoon, Graves has been collaborating on an album of the late bassist Jymie Merritt’s music with saxophonists Odean Pope and Bobby Zankel, along with other Philly musicians. The project is a tribute to the band Merritt formed in 1962, The Forerunners, to perform his unique original compositions. When Graves first stepped in, both Merritt and his collaborator, the late pianist Colmore Duncan, were too sick to be consulted much about the project.
“Philly is the beating energy, the beautiful mix of the North and the South in this creative location on the planet,” Graves said.
I’ve never heard it put quite that way, but I’m sure he’s absolutely right.
What, When, Where:
Watch Aaron Graves stream with Jimmy Bruno’s Trio live Bunker Show on YouTube every Thursday afternoon.