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.”