Drummer Max Roach, (Jan 1, 1924 – Aug. 16, 2007), personified the jazz-beyond-jazz ethos: mastering the complex, nuanced art that preceded him, plunging in to create new work based on his own ideas, never abandoning that path. He was a man of social engagement as well as aesthetic convictions.
Roach was one of the first — Kenny Clarke the famous other — who developed American rhythm’s complications well beyond swing. Like the best drummers of the 1930s big bands — Jonathon Jo Jones — he used the inherent power of his instrument, the traps kit, with finesse, calibrating the percussion battery for all its orchestral potential. He highlighted the drums’ tuned, pitched qualities, too. Then he used all those things to make his own statement. What Roach did different from those before him was to bring the drums to the fore of small group music, with parts organized but freely expressive, equal to those of horns and pianos. And what horns players, pianists there were — !
After forging knotty bebop with Parker, Gillespie, Monk, Miles, et al, Roach refined it as Clifford Brown’s partner in one of the greatest early ’50s combos (featuring Sonny Rollins!) — this was a band at the time comparable to I don’t know who today, but some ultra-admirable sophisticates. Ever after Brown’s tragically early death, Roach continued to stretch beyond whatever he’d already accomplished.
In the late ’50s Roach was outspoken in his demands of civil rights, producing such albums as We Insist: The Freedom Now Suite, featuring tempestuous vocalizing by Abbey Lincoln, then his wife. He actively protested the marginalization of black jazz musicians by network television and mainstream culture, once storming the Dick Cavett show with Rahsaan Roland Kirk. In the 1980s he established jazz’s first all-percussion ensemble, M’Boom; explored remote, abstract yet overtly physical music with dramatic individualists including Archie Shepp, Anthony Braxton and Cecil Taylor (read what Roach says about Taylor, excerpted from my upcoming book) and collaborated on contemporary “classical” projects (while believing jazz is America’s contemporary “classical” music — meanin,g it’s enduring art). Over the years he performed solo and at various times engaged in drum battles with titans including Elvin Jones and Art Blakey (doing similar things, entirely different), and Buddy Rich. In the ’90s he collaborated with Asian-American improvisers. What didn’t he do?
Here’s another nice clip: The The Max Roach quartet, from the mid ’70s: almost ten minutes, with trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater, saxophonist Billy Harper and Reggie Workman — all three of whom, by the way, have gone on to become leading educators at the New School Jazz and Contemporary music program.
Roach was a teacher alright — any drummer can learn from his examples — but also a research scientist. Like the very greatest jazz drummers (hail to thee, Roy Haynes!) he investigated and penetrated some of the secrets of time (the final frontier?). Doing so, he added to the vigorous pulse of his era, creating and sustaining a vital beat. Max Roach has died — long live Max Roach.
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