San Francisco Chronicle

San Francisco, California

Mel Graves - jazz bassist, composer, teacher

Jesse Hamlin, Chronicle Staff Writer Thursday, November 13, 2008

Mel Graves, a gifted bassist, composer and teacher equally at home in the jazz and classical worlds, died Saturday at his Petaluma home of pancreatic cancer. He had turned 62 two days earlier.

Mel Graves Mr. Graves was a fluent improviser known for his work with Mose Allison, Denny Zeitlin, Dewey Redman and other top jazz players, and a prolific composer and arranger who wrote for the Kronos Quartet and other new music ensembles. He had hoped to attend Sunday's musical tribute to him at Sonoma State University, where he was a professor of music and created the Jazz Studies program.

An overflow crowd turned out to honor Mr. Graves, who nurtured many young musicians. Among the performers was Zeitlin, who got a call in 1968 from a young bassist who told the pianist he loved his recordings and had moved to San Francisco hoping to play with him. Zeitlin invited Mr. Graves over to jam.

"Instantly, I sensed that here was a player of tremendous talent, musicality, energy and fearlessness," said Zeitlin, who formed a trio with Mr. Graves and drummer George Marsh that stayed together for a decade. It was an improvising band that stretched from jazz and rock to funk, electronic and avant-garde music. The trio continued to play together intermittently over the years while Mr. Graves concentrated on teaching and composing.

"It's a tragedy his life was cut short. He had a lot more to say musically," Zeitlin said.

Allison worked with Mr. Graves on and off for 35 years. "He was a great player who supported me well and played terrific solos," said the famed pianist, singer and songwriter. "He was one of the few guys I knew who could play the bow on jazz solos and swing. I loved him."

Mr. Graves was born in Parkersburg, W. Va., and grew up in Ohio. At 15, he was playing gigs around Grover City, Ohio, with his high school band director, who had to get a dispensation allowing the minor to play in joints where booze was sold. It was while attending Ohio State University that Mr. Graves heard Zeitlin's music and decided to move West. He got a bachelor's degree in composition at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and then a master's degree in composition at UC San Diego.

Mr. Graves, who played with the San Diego Symphony, also taught at UC Santa Cruz and Reed College in Portland, Ore., before coming to Sonoma State. He played with notable jazz artists like saxophonist Joe Henderson and guitarist John Abercrombie, and received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts to write works for Chamber Music Northwest and the New England Woodwind Quintet.

In 1987, the San Francisco Jazz Festival commissioned Mr. Graves to write "Three Impressions," a piece dedicated to John Coltrane that featured Kronos and such jazz improvisers as Henderson, Zeitlin and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson.

Mr. Graves was "an intense guy with high standards," said San Francisco Jazz Festival Director Randall Kline, who studied bass with him. "He was demanding about what he wanted from his students and for his music, which was great."

Graves' wife, Susan Adams Graves, hosted Sunday's tribute to her husband, which turned out to be his memorial.

"How can we top that?" said Susan Graves, who had asked her husband what he was most proud of. "He said it was his teaching. He was able to pass onto his students the real thing, the real way to play jazz."

In addition to his wife, Mr. Graves is survived by a son, Loren of Davis; and two brothers, Ron and Harold Graves of Ohio.

The family suggests memorial donations to be made to the Mel Graves Jazz Scholarship Fund, Music Department, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, CA 94928.