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 Thursday, 24 April 2014
Max Roach, Pioneer of Modern Jazz, 1924-2007 Print E-mail
Written by Andrea Canter, Contributing Editor   
Friday, 17 August 2007

You can’t write the same book twice. Though I’ve been in historic musical situations, I can’t go back and do that again…There are so many wonderful things going on and I want to be a part of all of it, capture the sound of what's in the air. I want to be a part of every new day.'' Max Roach (New York Times, 1990)

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Max Roach
One of the last of the original bop inventors and musical father to several more generations of jazz drummers, Max Roach passed away on August 16th at age 83. He had been in failing health for several years, but his creative artistry never waned. Noted Quincy Jones, “Thank God he left a piece of his soul on his recordings so that we'll always have a part of him with us." Though not the first bop drummer (Kenny Clarke earns that distinction), Roach was widely acknowledged as the most influential and at times the most controversial. His musical imagination, like his flying hands, never stood still from his earliest days in gospel bands to experiments with the drum ensemble M’Boom to his late career interests in hip hop and rap.

Maxwell Lemuel Roach was born in Newland, NC, and moved with his family to the Bedfrd-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn at age four. His mother sang gospel and young Max became involved in music through the choirs of his Baptist Church. A discarded piano from a previous tenant was his first instrument, which he learned to play at church and also by playing along with the piano rolls of Jelly Roll Morton and Albert Ammons. Max also played bugle in parade orchestras before finding a snare drum when he was 10. He received his first drum set from his father a few years later, played in church gospel bands, and was soon drumming professionally.

Maxwell Lemuel Roach was born in Newland, NC, and moved with his family to the Bedfrd-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn at age four. His mother sang gospel and young Max became involved in music through the choirs of his Baptist Church. A discarded piano from a previous tenant was his first instrument, which he learned to play at church and also by playing along with the piano rolls of Jelly Roll Morton and Albert Ammons. Max also played bugle in parade orchestras before finding a snare drum when he was 10. He received his first drum set from his father a few years later, played in church gospel bands, and was soon drumming professionally.

Taking the train from Brooklyn to Harlem, he had many opportunities to hear the music at the Apollo Theater and Savoy Ballroom. Even before high school graduation, he worked briefly with Duke Ellington’s orchestra at the Paramount Theater and with Charlie Parker at Monroe’s Uptown House in Harlem, playing in after-hours jams that spurred the development of bebop. With Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and more, by the mid-40s Roach was a constant presence on the 52nd Street scene, and was soon playing in bands with Thelonious Monk, Coleman Hawkins and Bud Powell and appearing on the earliest bop recording sessions. In the late 40s, Max participated in the sessions with Miles Davis that became the Birth of the Cool. In addition to his many hours of gigging, he also studied composition at the Manhattan School of Music, deciding against a major in percussion after being told by a teacher that his technique was “incorrect.” Recalled Roach, “The way he wanted me to play would have been fine if I’d been after a career in a symphony orchestra,” he said, “but it wouldn’t have worked on 52nd Street.”

Roach became a leader in his own right in the mid 50s, forming a short-lived but famed quintet with young trumpet genius Clifford Brown. Their stripped down version of bop became the first “hard bop” sound of the era, a collaboration cut tragically short by Brown’s death in a car accident in 1956. Depressed by Brown’s death, Roach continued working for a while with Sonny Rollins and then returning to a more prolific period of largely piano-less ensembles with such hornmen as Eric Dolphy, Stanley Turrentine, George Coleman, Donald Byrd, Kenny Dorham and Booker Little. Meanwhile Roach had founded Debut Records with Charles Mingus in 1952, which recorded the famed Jazz at Massey Hall (aka “the greatest concert ever”) featuring Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Mingus and Roach, and the groundbreaking bass-and-drum free improvisation, Percussion Discussion. In the mid-50s, he also toured and recorded extensively with the great vocalist Dinah Washington.

By the late 50s, Max Roach was becoming as much a political figure as a musical icon. With the ever-controversial Mingus, Max organized a so-called “rebel festival” in Newport in 1960 to protest the Newport Jazz Festival’s treatment of performers. Roach also collaborated with lyricist Oscar Brown Jr. on the We Insist! Freedom Now Suite, a set of variations on the theme of black people’s struggle for equality in the United States and Africa. With vocals by Abbey Lincoln (Max’s frequent partner and second wife), the project had mixed reviews with many critics praising its ambition while others criticized it as overly polemical. Although the recording industry blacklisted Roach for much of the 60s, in a Downbeat interview he said, “We American jazz musicians of African descent have proved beyond all doubt that we’re master musicians of our instruments. Now what we have to do is employ our skill to tell the dramatic story of our people and what we’ve been through.” There were some legendary recordings in the 60s, however, with the release of Drums Unlimited in 1966, featuring drum solos that proved the instrument could by itself support musical themes as well as rhythms, and the 1962 trio masterpiece, Money Jungle, with Ellington and Mingus.

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Max Roach by Ozier Muhammed NY Times

Innovative projects continued to be the theme of Max Roach’s career. In the 70s Max founded the percussion orchestra "M'Boom" and by the 80s was presenting a series of solo percussion concerts as well as heading a series of duet recordings featuring avant garde musicians Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, Archie Shepp, Abdullah Ibrahim and Connie Crothers, as well as mixed media collaborations Martin Luther King and video artist Kit Fitzgerald. He also recorded a classic duet with his life-long friend and associate Dizzy Gillespie and another with Mal Waldron. During this period, Roach also composed scores (winning the OBIE for Shepard Sets) and created his Double Quartet—merging his own jazz quartet with the Uptown String Quartet that featured his daughter, violinist Maxine Roach. Other projects included dance scores, concertos for orchestra, work with gospel choirs, and later performances with artist/rapper Fab Five Freddy and the New York Break Dancers. Even as his music went off in so many directions into the 90s, Roach keep in touch with his bop roots, recording a classic duo with long-time friend Clark Terry (Friendship).

Over his long career, Roach received many honors, including the Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters, France’s highest cultural honor (1989); the French "Grand Prix du Disque" (twice); election to the Hall of Fame of the International Percussive Arts Society; the Samuel Rosenbaum Award from the National Guild of Community Schools of the Arts; the famed MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” (the first jazz artist to receive this award, in 1988); an OBIE Award for the score to Sam Shepard’s “Shepard’s Sets”; honorary doctorates from the New England Conservatory of Music, University of Maryland, Eastman School of Music, and Manhattan School of Music, Columbia University, Wesleyan University and the University of Bologna; election to the Downbeat Hall of Fame; Harvard Jazz Master; Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Award for Artistic Excellence (2002); election to the Grammy Hall of Fame (1995); NEA Jazz Master (1984).

 

Max Roach will be remembered for his fast hands and polyrhythms. By layering different beats and varying the meter, he took jazz far beyond standard 4/4 time to the dislocated beats that became bop signatures. Further, his use of cymbals for melodic lines, and tom-toms and bass drums for accents, brought the drummer out front, no longer content as a timekeeper but now a significant solo voice with a role as prominent as the horns.

In 1952, his A History of Jazz in America, Barry Ulanov wrote, “Max is a rhythmic thinker. His solos are not like swing drummers,’ not dependent upon sheer noise and intensity to make their point.'' Decades later in The New York Times, Wynton Marsalis noted that “All great instrumentalists have a superior quality of sound, and his (Roach’s) is one of the marvels of contemporary music. ... The roundness and nobility of sound on the drums and the clarity and precision of the cymbals distinguishes Max Roach as a peerless master.” And finally, noting Max’s passing, fellow octogenarian drummer Roy Haynes told  Bloomberg.com, "He brought class and he brought great musicianship. He was the first drummer to make his drum solos very melodic. He approached drums the way a horn player or a pianist would.''

Max Roach is survived by his five children, sons, Daryl and Raoul, and daughters, Maxine, Ayl and Dara. Services were set for August 24th, 11 am at Riverside Church in New York City.

Nobody else ever had the nerve to come out on stage with a cymbal under his arm and say, 'This is art.'” –Gary Giddens (LA Times, 1991)

 

 



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