The tributes to Max Roach, who died August 16 at 83, are unlike any I’ve ever seen for a jazz musician—perhaps because of the era in which he died. Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Ella Fitzgerald passed in the ‘90s and were piled with praises and homages and memorials, but that was before satellite radio, digital cable, the blogosphere, or any other part of the Internet. Reading online obituaries and bloggers’ discussions of Roach, and hearing Columbia University’s WKCR broadcasting seven nonstop days of his music on the web (“The Max Roach Memorial Broadcast”) amounts to saturation coverage; I feel I’m finally seeing a departed jazz giant receiving the attention he’s due.
And yet, with the exception of WKCR (which has historian Phil Schaap on staff), I’m still not sure anybody gets Max Roach’s impact. I suggest that he’s as pivotal a figure as Miles, and like him, a musician who shaped the major developments of his time.
Great drummers, though they’re acknowledged as great, tend in jazz to be treated as second-tier greats. Who are the musicians you immediately think of? Armstrong, Ellington, Parker, Gillespie, Monk, Powell, Mingus, Miles, Coltrane…right? All, really, composers and melody makers. Perhaps you think of Art Blakey, whose reputation is more as a bandleader, or Gene Krupa, a pop star (albeit a brilliant one). In a music that insists that rhythm is its crucial element, drummers are lauded as an afterthought.
Max Roach, though—my God, where does one begin to discuss his place in the jazz pantheon?
Everyone agrees on his accomplishment as a founding father of bebop, that fundamental reimagination of jazz. It was Kenny Clarke who created its rhythmic matrix, moving time to the ride cymbal and stamping personality on the bass, snare, and hi-hat. But it was Roach who perfected it. He was the virtuoso that Clarke wasn’t. Indeed, he may have had the greatest technical mastery of the drums in jazz history. At his hand, the drums became almost melodic instruments themselves. Roach not only expressed personality, he played counterpoint—both to the main melody and the rhythm section—all without ever losing the time. As Peter Keepnews put it in his New York Times obituary for Roach, “He saw himself not just as a supporting player but as a full-fledged member of the front line.”
Is it any wonder that Charlie Parker, a great talent scout, hired Roach for his own band? On “Ko Ko,” the record that broke Parker to the jazz public, the only full-length solo besides Bird’s is Roach’s. That solo is almost as eye-opening as the sax one—the whirl of frenetic cacophony is actually a musical variation on the riffy head Parker had written in place of “Cherokee,” played at blinding speed and utilizing seemingly every sound a trap set can make. Once you really hear it, you’ll never listen to “Ko Ko” in the same way again. It becomes a double revolution, a new way of conceiving percussion just as it’s a new way of phrasing melodies.
By then, though, Roach had already had an education that most musicians of his generation could only dream of. Born in North Carolina and raised in Brooklyn, at 16 he sat in for Sonny Greer one night with the Duke Ellington Orchestra at the Paramount Theater. Two years later he was going up to Minton’s, Harlem’s proto-bop workshop, playing with Parker and Gillespie and dueling with Clarke. He made his recording debut in 1943 with the great Coleman Hawkins, and soon had fulltime employment in Benny Carter’s orchestra. In other words, Roach’s journeyman years were spent with the most modern (and ultramodern) players of the era.
That training kept him on the cutting edge for the remainder of his career. Having played with Miles Davis in the first Charlie Parker Quintet, he then joined Miles in the ensembles that defined a new genre with the 1949 Birth of the Cool sessions. When bop transitioned into the rootsier, groovier hard bop a few years later, Roach was again on the front lines, co-leading his great quintet with Clifford Brown. In the same era, he was also at the vanguard of jazz’s intimate involvement in civil rights: He and Charles Mingus started an independent record label, Debut Records, whose stated purpose was to provide jazz musicians with an outlet that didn’t enforce the compromises of the major labels—a place where they didn’t have to be the “Uncle Toms” of the music industry.
Clifford Brown’s 1956 death was a crippling blow, and Roach drifted for a few years, but remained a steadfast experimenter. He worked with George Russell and Booker Little, recorded with the Boston Percussion Ensemble, formed a band with tubaist Ray Draper, tried his hand at the new “pianoless” lineup, and began to play with waltzes and other odd meters that were then rare in jazz.
When the ‘60s avant-garde came about, he was initially unprepared (when he first heard Ornette Coleman’s quartet at the Five Spot in 1959, the soft-spoken but outspoken Roach invaded the bandstand and punched Coleman in the mouth), but quickly assimilated the new sounds—or at least their implications.
His 1960 protest album We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite prominently featured Abbey Lincoln screaming against Roach’s (her husband) raucous, irregular playing. It remains a touchstone, and evidence that once again Roach was in on the evolution very near the beginning—but its radicalism, and Roach’s newfound militancy (he and Mingus had organized the Newport Anti-Festival in 1960, protesting white exploitation of black music, and the following year interrupted a Miles Davis/Gil Evans concert by taking the stage with a “Freedom Now” sign), got Roach blacklisted for the early 1960s.
When he came back into prominence in the mid-sixties, Roach still had firmly avant-garde ideas. In 1965 he released another groundbreaking recording, Drums Unlimited, in which drums were the primary instrument playing the themes and solos. Three years after that, Roach’s quintet featured Stanley Cowell on electric piano and Jymie Merritt on electric bass (check the album Members, Don’t Git Weary), at precisely the same time that fusionmeister Miles was beginning to experiment with plugging in.
In the ‘70s, when forward-thinking jazz retreated from the clubs, Roach formed M’Boom, a percussion orchestra that could only have fit into a loft even if it could have gotten club booking, and did duets with fellow loft-dwellers Archie Shepp, Anthony Braxton, and Cecil Taylor, all the while retaining a quartet with trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater. The ‘80s saw him continuing all of these projects, but also writing music for Sam Shepard plays, fusing his own ensemble with the Uptown String Quartet, and, keeping with the “retro” spirit of the age, engaging in a high-profile bebop reunion with Dizzy Gillespie. Roach even anticipated, by nearly a decade, efforts at fusing jazz and hip-hop: he played a concert with rapper Fab Five Freddy in 1983.
He was still exploring in the ‘90s and ‘00s—playing solo concerts, touring with a large vocal chorus, performing with the New Orchestra of Boston and a brass quintet, and teaming with trumpeter Clark Terry—all while maintaining M’Boom, and his quartet and double quartet with strings—until being diagnosed in 2002 with hydrocephalus and withdrawing from the jazz world.
All of this while glossing over Roach’s work on any number of seminal projects and recordings: teaching on the faculty at the University of Massachusetts; The Amazing Bud Powell; the legendary concert at Massey Hall; Thelonius Monk’s Brilliant Corners; Herbie Nichols’ Blue Note sessions; Sonny Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus; and the truly awesome Money Jungle trio with Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus, among countless others. Max Roach was far more than the most important jazz drummer since World War II—although he was certainly that—he was a microcosm of jazz in the second half of the 20th century. It’s hard to understand why he’s not been treated as such…
Well, maybe not so hard. It’s because he was the drummer.
Keepnews’ NYT obit closes by quoting Roach, “I always resented the role of a drummer as nothing more than a subservient figure.” He took pride in elevating the drummer’s status; he worked harder to do so, and did more in the process for the very notion of drumming, than anyone before or since. Alas, he was still treated as second-class jazz genius; while Miles was held in awe for having been a key player at the music’s every evolutionary turning point, Roach was merely a “legendary percussionist” when he’d done the exact same thing.
It’s truly heartbreaking that it’s taken Roach’s death after a nearly seven-decade career for so many to begin to see the breadth of his accomplishment. Yet somehow it’s also hopeful. Perhaps in death, Roach has finally achieved his nearest and dearest desire, shedding new light on the rich role that the drummer plays in jazz. It might be the drummer’s, and the jazz world’s, gain. I just wish we didn’t have this tremendous accompanying loss alongside it.