Giving Max Roach, the drummer, some

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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  1. Howard Mandel says

    Might be — are you sure? I’ve just checked Bright Moments: The Life and Legacy of Rahsaan Roland Kirk by my friend John Kruth, and it has the Jazz and Peoples Movement on both Griffin and Cavett and Ed Sullivan, too. But Kruth doesn’t quote anyone saying Roach was there. So this is totally my bad. Sorry, that’s a pitfall of blogging — off the top of the head, “facts” recalled, unchecked, not quite accurate (turning into myth). I’ll try to avoid that. Apologies, and thanks for the correction — which remains in need of further investigation. II’d like to see a clip of any of those stormings.

  2. Bob Blumenthal says

    Howard,
    As I recall it, neither Kirk nor Roach were on the Cavett show. (Freddie Hubbard was, introducing himself as “the world’s greatest jazz trumpeter.”) I believe Kirk was featured on the Sullivan show as a sop to the Jazz and People’s Movement, which occasioned Ed’s classic intro of “Ronson Roland Kirk.”

  3. says

    From DownBeat, October 1, 1970, p. 11:
    “A group of 60 demonstrators, including musicians Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Lee Morgan, Andy Cyrille, and Ron Jefferson, interrupted the Aug. 27 taping of CBS’s Merv Griffin Show with demands for more jazz and black artists on commercial television.”
    In the Dec. 10, 1970 DownBeat, p. 13, Dan Morgenstern wrote a piece about an October 22 Dick Cavett Show that featured a half-hour discussion with the Jazz and Peoples Movement. Appearing on the show were Mrs. Edith Kirk, Cyrille, Cecil Taylor, Freddie Hubbard, and Billy Harper.