Max Roach

Go to fullsize image Maxwell Lemuel Roach born Jan 10, 1924 in New Land, NC.

In a profession star-crossed by early deaths Max Roach at this writing is a shining survivor. He and Kenny Clarke
instigated a revolution in jazz drumming that persists to this day. Instead of the swing approach of spelling out the pulse with the bass drum, Roach shifted the emphasis to the ride cymbal. The result was a lighter, far more flexible texture, giving drummers more freedom to explore the possibilities of their drum kits and drop random "bombs" on the snare drum, while allowing bop virtuosos on the front lines to play at faster speeds. To this base, Roach added sterling qualities of his own — a ferocious drive, the ability to play a solo with a definite storyline, mixing up pitches and timbres, the deft use of silence, the dexterity to use the brushes as brilliantly as the sticks. He would use cymbals as gongs and play mesmerizing solos on the tom-toms, creating atmosphere as well as keeping the groove pushing forward.

Roach didn't stop there, unlike other jazz pioneers who changed the world when they were young yet became set in their ways as they grew older. He has always had the curiosity & the willingness to grow as a musician, moving beyond bop into new compositional structures, unusual instrument lineups, unusual time signatures, atonality, music for Broadway musicals, television, film and the symphony hall, working with a rapper well ahead of the jazz, hip-hop merger.

He became a fervent supporter of civil rights a& racial equality. That hurt his career at various junctures.

In his militant period in 1961, he disrupted a Miles Davis/il Evans
concert in Carnegie Hall by marching to the edge of the stage holding a "Freedom Now" placard protesting the Africa Relief Foundation. When Miles' autobiography came out in 1989, Roach decried the book's inaccuracies, going so far as to suggest that Miles was getting senile, despite the bumpy patches, their friendship nevertheless lasted until Miles' death. Roach has also received a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant; as an articulate lecturer on jazz. He has taught at the Lenox School of Jazz & has been a professor of music at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Roach's mother was a gospel singer, that early immersion in the church had a lasting effect on his musical direction. He started playing the drums at age 10 & undertook formal musical studies at the Manhattan School of Music.

By the time he was 18, Roach was immersed in proto-bop jam sessions at Minton's Playhouse & Monroe's Uptown House, where he was the house drummer with Charlie Parker &Dizzy Gilespie
, listening Kenny Clarke & absorbing his influence. He made his recorded debut in 1943 with the progressive-minded coleman Hawkins on the Apollo label, & played with Benny Carter orchestra in California & Gillespie quintet, as well as with Duke Ellington in 1944.

By 1945, Roach was red-hot in jazz circles. He joined Parker's group that year for the first of a series of sporadic periods 1945, 1947-49, 1951-53. He participated in many of bop's seminal recordings, including Parker's incendiary "Ko-Ko" of 1945 and Miles' Birth of the Cool recordings of 1949-50, although he would not lead his own studio session until 1953. Then, Roach would not be forced into a narrow box, for he played with R&B/jazz star Louis Jordan & Dixieland's Henry "Red" Allen. With Charles Mingus, Roach co-founded Debut Records in 1952. He was on the road too often to do much minding of the store. Max Roach later said that Debut gave his career a springboard — & indeed, Debut released his 1st session as a leader, as well as the memorable Massey Hall concert in which Roach played with Parker, Gillespie, Mingus & Bud Powell.

In 1954, not long after recording with Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse All-Stars, Roach formed a quintet in LA to take out on the road at the suggestion of Gene Norman. This group included one Clifford Brown
, who had been recommended to Roach by Dizzy several years before. The Brown-Roach Quintet made a stack of essential recordings for EmArcy that virtually defined the hard bop of the '50s, & though Brown's death in a 1956 auto accident absolutely devastated Roach, he kept the quintet together with Kenny Dorham & Sonny Rollins as the lead horns. For the remainder of the '50s, he would continue to use major talents like Booker Little, Han Mobley, George Coleman in his small groups, dropping the piano.

Affected by the burgeoning civil rights movement & his relationship with activist singer Abbey Lincoln,
to whom he would be married from 1962 to 1970, Roach recorded the We Insist: Freedom Now Suite, a 7-part collaboration with Oscar Brown Jr., in 1960,. He'd continue to write works that used solo & choral voices.

Throughout the 1960s, Roach was a committed political crusader. That, along with the general slump of interest in jazz, reduced his musical visibility. He continued to record sporadically for Impulse! &Atlantic.

In 1970, Roach took another flyer & formed M'Boom, a 10-piece percussion ensemble that borrowed languages & timbres from classical contemporary music & still performs. Interested in the avant-garde, Roach recorded with the likes of Anthony Braxton, Cecil Taylor, ArchieShepp in the late 1970s, though the results were mostly issued on erratically distributed foreign labels.

In the 1980s, he began to experiment with a double quartet with Odean Pope, Cecil Bridgewater and Tyrone Brow — his regular jazz quartet combined with the partly improvising Uptown String Quartet, which includes his daughter Maxine on viola.

The late '80s & '90s found Roach unveiling special projects like a double-CD duo concert with a sadly faded Dizzy Gillespie,
the much more successful To the Max, which combined several of Roach's assorted groups & idioms, & a huge, uneven concerto for drum soloist an& symphony orchestra, "Festival Journey." Roach has been outside the consciousness of most jazz historians since the 1960s, as he refuses to be bound secured into some tight little niche of history — & that makes him a rare, unclassifiable, treasurable breed of cat.

He died at age 83.




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