Denis Charles, who has died from pneumonia aged 64, was an outstanding percussionist whose rhythmic intelligence was matched only by his embrace of history and generosity of spirit. Noted for his ability to approximate a melody line on the drums, he tuned his instruments impeccably, providing customised colouration in any setting. Born in St Croix in America's Virgin Islands, he grew up swimming and fishing for his breakfast each day and listening to his banjo-playing father's stories by candlelight. At 7, he was playing bongoes with a local band, until a fatal road accident involving the musicians caused his father to ground him.

 In 1945 he and his younger brother moved to New York to join their mother, Helen Samuels. Charles found Harlemites hostile to 'countryfied' youths and the rough urban environment came as a shock. But there were compensations: Charlie Parker was playing at the nearby Apollo, and elder brother Wes, on hand to take him dancing at afternoon sessions starring jazz greats Fats Navarro, Stan Getz and JJ Johnson.

 Roy Haynes, who could phrase like a horn, was his first drummer hero, but when he heard Art Blakey he was captured forever: 'Art took my spirit'. Blakey's hard-hitting drive informed his playing, but a particular deftness and dancing quality stemmed from his early grounding in the banjo and ukelele music of his childhood and the calypso and mambo bands which gave him early employment in Harlem. In 1954 he met fledgling innovator Cecil Taylor, backing a rock'n'roll showband saxophonist. Taylor appreciated his responsiveness to his unusual piano chords, and admired the way Charles tuned his drums. They appeared in Jack Gelber's play The Connection and recorded together, most notably Taylor's 1958 date, Looking Ahead! Work with clarinettist Jimmy Giuffre and soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy followed then, for a hedonistic period, music took a back seat.

 Although Blakey remained his hero and friend, it was Ed Blackwell, the New Orleans master of polyrhythms, who was his mentor. He would pull Charles from bed, reminding him of the Chinese adage that if you neglect your art for one day, it will neglect you for two. On Canal Street they bought tough rubber sheeting to make practice-pads; for the rest of his life his pad was seldom more than an armslength away. There was nearly always a pair of sticks in his hand, and he'd often punctuate conversation with a brisk paradiddle or flam.

 As his fortunes fluctuated, his wardrobe ranged from the three-piece mohair suits of a Harlem heyday to what the thriftshop provided. But his Caribbean childhood never left him. While he pursued bebop and 'hipness', younger brother Frank ('Huss') was playing conga drums with calypso bands; another cousin also played congas, and it was from them that he relearned the music he'd forgotten in Harlem. In 1960 he and Huss returned to St Croix in time to catch the end of an era when the quadrille was still danced. While his father played banjo to scraped guiro (gourd) and triangle rhythms and another man blew, jug style, down an exhaust-pipe, he experienced music's life-renewing power when elderly women took to the dance-floor. Back in New York he sought out Sonny Rollins, who also had Caribbean antecedents. Before long the brothers were coaching the saxophonist in Crucian rhythms, but the resulting album was disappointing.

 Charles continued to play intermittently. He worked with saxophonist Archie Shepp and trumpeter Don Cherry, but in 1971 when we met, was still an underground hero. Ten years later, Melanie MacLennan, a medical student, helped him back on his feet, then suddenly he was everywhere, jamming in Thompkins Square Park and appearing at the new cafes and clubs that sprung up following the gentrification of the city's lower east side. As jazz popularity increased, he travelled to Europe, including several hilarious visits to London. His compadres included violinist Billy Bang and bassist Didier Levallet, saxophonists Frank Lowe, David Murray and Charles Ryler, and he appeared on many recordings.

 Despite his avant garde associations, Charles had never forgotten the sounds and images of the Christmas and New Year Masquerade in St Croix with their bamboula drum dances and the Mother Hubbards, a hundred-strong contingent of parading women dressed entirely in white. In his head he rearranged these tunes until they emerged as jazz. He taught pieces to musicians such as saxophonist Dewey Redman, then in 1988 visited his father to learn more folklore and history. When he recorded a CD of Crucian material, he named it Queen Mary after the canefield worker who led an 1878 insurrection against the Danish-ruled island's de facto slavery; featuring sanctified saxophonist Booker T. Williams, the music burns like the fires she started.

 Charles always understood that he lived surrounded by heroes. That he was one himself was often overlooked, for he was a modest person who preferred life as a facilitator to being the star of the show. Not for nothing was he known as 'Jazz': he had managed to subsume the self and 'become' his instrument. Ten years ago he met Gabriella Sonam with whom he had Arkah, his only living child; although separated, they remained close friends. While blossoming musically, a final tour with bassist Wilber Morris exhausted him. He died in his sleep while baby-sitting his daughter.

 Always honest about his failings, Charles was one of the most generous people I've known. He talked to everyone, making no distinction between black or white, journalists, young musicians or street-people -- and spoke as he played, his conversation reverberating with musicality. He supported and encouraged a whole generation of musicians and at his wake, dozens came forward to say so.

Val Wilmer

Denis 'Jazz' Charles, percussionist, born Frederiksted, St. Croix, Virgin Islands, 4 Dec 1933, died New York, 26 March 1998.

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