Drumming is a matter of doing several different and difficult things at the same time, and Milford Graves, who has died aged 79, extended that agility to just about everything he did in his polymathic life.

To the jazz world, Graves was the percussion trailblazer who had played popular Latin-jazz and accompanied the South African singing star Miriam Makeba in his youth, and then edgy free-improvisation with the New York Art Quartet and with the fiery saxophone original Albert Ayler in the 1960s – famously opening the proceedings with Ayler at John Coltrane’s epic New York funeral in July 1967. Graves’ tumultuous drum sound was often a polyrhythmic tidal wave with no obvious steady pulse, but unmistakably radiating a propulsive energy.

What some might have viewed as his parallel lives, Graves saw as all part of a holistic “rhythm of the self” – including teaching his own martial-art system (called Yara, after a Yoruba word for nimbleness, but idiosyncratically informed by studying praying mantis movements too), researching alternative medicines and the behaviour of the heart in music and dance, and pursuing herbalism and botany through quirky cultivation of the garden of the house he inherited from his grandparents in Queens, New York. In his later years, Graves also explored painting and sculpture, turning the building’s exterior into what New York magazine, in a 2001 feature entitled The Jazz Scientist, described as “a single-family Gaudí palace”.

The jazz migration of drums from a band’s backline to the front was accelerated by Graves’ innovations, and he was as absorbing a performer whether in a group or on his own. Rather than scattering regular accents against a cymbal beat to anchor the pulse, he incessantly moved around the kit in succinct tattoos. He ditched the orthodox drum-kit’s crisply definitive snare-drum in the 1960s, removed the skins from the bottom of the tom-toms to reach the deeper sound he sought from African music’s sonorous drum tones, and adopted more flexible grips and striking-angles for the drumsticks that he had observed in Ghanaian traditional drummers.

The New York Art Quartet saxophonist John Tchicai told the writer Val Wilmer that he had not previously witnessed among rising young New York musicians in the 60s “that same sense of rhythmic cohesion ... or the same sense of intensity or musicality”.

Graves was born and raised in the public-housing projects of South Jamaica, Queens, the son of Marvin Graves, a chauffeur, and Gonive (nee William). He had begun playing on the random percussion oddments he found in the family house by the time he was three. By eight the boy was playing congas, and by his early teens he was leading high school dance-music and Latin bands playing around South Jamaica. Graduating from the Boys’ high school in Brooklyn (1960), Graves then led bands in New York and Boston, with one such – the Milford Graves Latino Quintet – including a young Chick Corea on piano.

But in a Boston jam session with the saxophonist Giuseppi Logan (an enigma of the 60s avant garde who briefly signalled a wild-card originality before dropping off the jazz radar completely), Graves discovered the unfettered jazz methods that would shape his creative life.

In 1964 he accompanied the piano star Paul Bley on the album Barrage, and in the same year was invited to join the newly formed New York Art Quartet. An overnight avant-garde phenomenon, that year Graves played extensively at the four-day October Revolution in Jazz festival in New York. He began recording in an adventurous duo with the rising young pianist Don Pullen in 1966, and with Ayler later that year, and on the guitarist Sonny Sharrock’s debut album Black Woman in 1969. Graves became a part-time teacher at Bennington College, Vermont, in 1973, a role he maintained for 39 years, focusing on musical, social and political issues from an African-American perspective.

Graves played a series of concerts with his fellow percussionists Andrew Cyrille and Rashied Ali in the 70s dubbed Dialogue of the Drums, and took to delivering impromptu shows on the streets in New York’s black neighbourhoods. He toured in Europe and Japan, performed in the 80s with the percussion group Pieces of Time, and in duos with the saxophone virtuoso David Murray and the multi-instrumentalist and composer John Zorn, and appeared annually at the Vision festival of experimental jazz, visual arts and dance on the Lower East Side from its inception in 1996 until 2019.

In the early 70s, intrigued by music’s therapeutic potential, he had begun researching and recording heartbeat rhythms and their possible resonances with what he called “secret rhythms” in music. A Guggenheim Foundation award in 2000 enabled him to pursue his “biological music” theories by building a computer suite in his basement running the LabView data-analytics programme – and using it to turn human heartbeat recordings into forms of electronic music. Graves was exploring these ideas in his last years with Carlo Ventura, a cardiology professor at the University of Bologna, testing research indications that these vibrations could stimulate the differentiation and repair of the human body’s stem cells.

In 2018, Graves’ life and work was documented in the film Milford Graves Full Mantis. That year, too, he was diagnosed with the degenerative condition amyloid cardiomyopathy and given six months to live. Graves resolutely picked up the hand that fate had dealt him. “It’s like some higher power saying, ‘OK, buddy, you wanted to study this, here you go,’” he told the New York Times. “Now the challenge is inside of me.”

Graves is survived by his wife, Lois (nee Harris), daughters, Renita, Kim, Monifa and Lenne, and son, Kevin.