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.