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Denis Charles: 1933-1998
Denis Charles
Drums, percussion

Born: December 4, 1933 in St Croix, Virgin Islands
Died: March 26, 1998 in New York City, New York

Rhythm of the Islands

Copyright © 1999 

The Scotsman, 1998

Charles, Dennis Denis Charles was best known as a collaborator with some of the leading figures of the jazz avant-garde in the late 1950s and 1960s. The drummer and percussionist often incorporated the folk music and ebullient rhythms of the annual Mardi Gras-style Masquerades of his native island within a jazz context.

He grew up in St Croix, and acquired an early interest in music from the conga and banjo playing of his father. He took up bongos at the age of seven, and was soon playing with local bands. In 1945, at the age of eleven, he and his brother moved to New York to be with their mother, at a time when bebop had just exploded on the New York jazz scene, and musicians like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were playing regularly on the clubs of 52nd Street alongside the giants of the swing era.

Charles's first-hand acquaintance with their music came in the afternoon matinees at Harlem's famous Apollo Theatre, where he heard musicians like Parker, Fats Navarro and J J Johnson, and acquired new drum heroes in Roy Haynes and Art Blakey. He took up the drum-kit in 1954, but his early playing experiences in the city were concentrated on percussion with the then-fashionable mambo and calypso bands in Harlem.

He met pianist Cecil Taylor in the mid-50s, and played with him on a regular basis from 1955-61, although he later recalled that he owned only a snare drum when he first met Taylor, and had to rely on borrowing his brother's kit for a time to make the gigs.

He responded in sympathetic fashion to the pianist's experimental directions, and was featured on Taylor's debut album, Jazz Advance, in 1956, and on Looking Ahead! two years later, while they worked together on Jack Gelber's celebrated off-Broadway play The Connection in 1961, which featured a live jazz band. Ironically, the play is about heroin addiction, an affliction which Charles carried until the final two years of his life, when he was able to break free of its grip.

The drummer also worked with saxophonist Steve Lacy in 1957 (and on several subsequent occasions) and composer and arranger Gil Evans in 1959. His primary musical mentor, however, was the great New Orleans-born drummer Ed Blackwell, who constantly encouraged and cajoled him into practicing and playing.

He returned to St Croix in 1960, replenishing his feel for its rhythms in the process, and he and his brother, Frank Charles, recorded with Sonny Rollins on his return to New York, in a Carribean-flavoured album released as What's New (1962). He played with Steve Lacy again in 1963-4, and with saxophonist Archie Shepp in 1967, but for much of the ensuing decade and a half, he was not active in music.

He returned to playing in the late 1970s, firstly with Lacy, and then with other avant-garde luminaries like trumpeter Don Cherry, violinist Billy Bang (including the classic Rainbow Gladiator album in 1981, and the duet record Bangception in 1982), and saxophonists Dewey Redman and Rob Brown. In addition to his work with Bang, he also formed part of a group named The Jazz Doctors, with the violinist and saxophonist Frank Lowe.

In 1988, he spent more time on St Croix with his father absorbing the folklore and music of the island, and subsequently recorded his first album under his own name, Queen Mary. The record, which featured saxophonist Booker T. Williams, was released in 1991. He continued to play until shortly before his death.

His playing style was never as loosely reconstructive of the beat as that of fellow avant-gardists like Sunny Murray or Henry Grimes, but the combination of Blakey-inspired drive and energy with the exhuberance of island rhythms proved highly effective even in very abstract contexts.

Denis Charles died from the effects of pneumonia.

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