to the max

Max Roach died yesterday at 83, silently in his sleep. But from his teens until his death he was gloriously unsilent as a drummer, composer, bandleader, organizer, activist and fearless creative soul. Roach was one of those few who helped define what bebop sounds like but who transcended that and every other category.

It was hardly coincidence that Roach was at the drums for seminal or especially revealing recordings such as the late-1940s work by Charlie Parker and Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk's "Brilliant Corners," and Duke Ellington's "Money Jungle." As the drummer for Sonny Rollins's 1958 "Freedom Suite" and as conceptualist-composer-drummer for "We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite," Roach displayed a conscience and relevance one wishes jazz could muster in these troubled times. And Roach's acts of empowerment in collaboration with Charles Mingus -- founding Debut Records, launching an alternative jazz festival in 1960 to protest the Newport jazz Festival's policies -- stand as inspirational markers for similar acts of independence by artists today, from John Zorn to Maria Schneider.

I never heard Roach play with Parker or Rollins or Monk or Ellington, or with Clifford Brown, with whom he led one of jazz's great quintets. But I heard him play in duet with Cecil Taylor, and I'll never forget it. And I heard him play with his innovative Double Quartet and with his percussion ensemble M'Boom. And I heard him play all by himself, on a lone high-hat cymbal.

Here's what Abbey Lincoln told me about Max Roach:

"Max knew that I was a musician before I even knew it. He'd sit all day at the piano and by the evening, there'd be a song. I'd just listen and watch, and that told me all I needed to know. He introduced me to philosophical lyrics, and he introduced us all to a lot of things."

Here's what my nephew, also named Max and also a drummer, told me a year ago, when he was 13:

"He takes the beat and changes it up a little at a time. And he takes these crazy solos that somehow make sense."

Here's what Peter Keepnews wrote in today's New York Times obituary, and what Ben Ratliff added in his arts-section piece.

August 17, 2007 11:07 AM |


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