With the death of Max Roach, we have lost the last of the first generation of bebop innovators from the circle of players who cohered around the core of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk in New York in 1941-45. Roach started playing in jam sessions with Parker in Harlem in 1942, joined Gillespie's band in 1944, and was the drummer on Parker's first recording session as a leader (November 26, 1945 for Savoy), taking a solo on "KoKo," Parker's brilliant and challenging extrapolation from the standard "Cherokee." Even if Roach had never done a session as a leader, his '40s-'50s work in the bands of Gillespie, Parker, Monk, Bud Powell, Miles Davis (including the Birth of the Cool sessions), Dexter Gordon, Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins (Saxophone Colossus and Freedom Suite), and many more would ensure his reputation.
Roach wasn't the inventor of bebop drumming -- that would be Kenny Clarke -- but it was Roach's ultra-precise, more complex polyrhythmic development of the style that would be most influential on several succeeding generations of drummers (not only in jazz). But Roach was more than "just" a drummer -- he was a visionary whose originality and imagination found expression in many directions. With Charles Mingus, he co-founded the Debut label, one of the first artist-run indie labels. In 1953, Roach made his first album as a leader. With trumpeter Clifford Brown, from 1954 until Brown's death (along with that of the band's pianist, Richie Powell -- Bud's kid brother) in a 1956 car crash, Roach co-led one of the finest quintets of the 1950s. Roach regrouped after that tragedy with the 1956 classic Max Roach + 4.
Then, at the dawn of the 1960s, Roach was ahead of the curve in musico-political protest with his We Insist! Freedom Now Suite (lyrics by Oscar Brown, Jr., vocals by Max's wife Abbey Lincoln), and Percussion Bitter Sweet (with an all-star band including Eric Dolphy, Booker Little, Clifford Jordan, Mal Waldron, and others). Over the years that followed, he further expanded his music's reach by incorporating, at different times, gospel choirs (Lift Every Voice and Sing) and string quartets (especially fine on Easy Winners and Bright Moments, formed a spectacular all-percussion ensemble named M'Boom, played duets with such unexpected avant-garde collaborators as Anthony Braxton (Birth and Rebirth) and Cecil Taylor (Historic Concerts), and led one of the most underrated quartets of the 1980s (with trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater, tenor saxophonist Odean Pope, and bassist Tyrone Brown -- especially compelling on Scott Free, and also heard in combination with the string quartet on the above-mentioned albums). Only illness finally slowed him down.
I met Roach when I worked for Black Saint and Soul Note Records (which issued ten of his albums over a span of nearly two decades) in the 1990s. But my opinion means little. I'd rather bring in some experts: a few of the finest drummers in New York.
Chico Hamilton is a legendary master himself, and I'm not just saying that: The Kennedy Center has named him a "Living Jazz Legend." He recalls, "Max Roach was the first East Coast musician I met when I came to New York in 1947 with Lena Horne. We became friends and were friends ever since. The bass player in Lena's band, Charlie Drayton, he and Max grew up together, and he introduced us. What really started the East Coast versus West Coast thing in jazz was that when Basin Street [a New York club] opened, we played opposite each other, me with my group and him with Clifford, Richie Powell, that band."
"He was a beautiful dude, what he created in regards to his way of approaching the instrument was phenomenal. No one has really approached that as far as I'm concerned. He left his mark."
Besides two albums as a leader, Marc Edwards has recorded in the bands of Cecil Taylor, David S. Ware, and Charles Gayle. He says, "Max Roach forever changed my concepts about drumming when I heard the Atlantic recording Drums Unlimited, especially 'The Drum Also Waltzes.' I listened to this piece over and over trying to get a sense of how he did it. I finally got some of it but I wasn't very good maintaining the three four time signature, meaning the figure he played using the bass drum on one and the high hat on two while improvising. When I later studied with Alan Dawson, Alan helped to deepen what I had already learned from Max Roach. I never studied with Max, only listened to what he did on record albums and picking up whatever I could from the live shows."
"What I admired about Max was his open-mindedness towards music and its infinite genres. He is one of the few musicians from the Bebop era that worked with Cecil Taylor. That alone speaks volumes about the man. Some of the musicians from that era can't stand the so-called Free Jazz and/or Avant-garde. Max was very special. His drumming uplifted all the musicians he worked with. This can be heard on his many recordings, whether he was the leader or not."
Roach's legacy bears fruit in many musical fields. Aaron Alexander, who works in both jazz (the trio Babkas, the Satoko Fujii Orchestra) and avant-klezmer contexts (including Hasidic New Wave and Frank London's Klezmer Brass Allstars), says, "I don't know what exactly to say about Max. It is difficult to overestimate his influence on me. Ever since I was a young high school drummer he was a HUGE influence on my playing. And even now, 27 years after I first was exposed to his playing, I'm still rediscovering his music, learning his solos, teaching my students about him. Max was the guy who brought melody to the drums, and made it okay to play as an equal member of the band in jazz music, and every music that followed. I have recently been playing his solos for young klezmer drummers, encouraging them to learn klezmer melodies on the drums"
There are many ways to honor the memory of Max Roach. Attend his memorial service (info below). If you're in New York, go to the 15th Annual Charlie Parker Jazz Festival this weekend (which includes Abbey Lincoln and Chico Hamilton both days). Listen to any of the albums cited above, or to the 155-hour memorial broadcast running through Wednesday on WKCR (89.9 FM). Or simply listen to something different from your norm. And, finally, consider that some great talents of 1940s bebop are still with us. Pianists Hank Jones and Sir Charles Thompson, baritone saxophonist Cecil Payne, and drummer Roy Haynes come to mind. If you have the chance to hear them, don't miss it. - Steve Holtje
Services for Max Roach will be held on Friday, August 24th, 2007 at 11 AM at Riverside Church (490 Riverside Drive, NY NY). Viewing will begin at 9 AM at Riverside Church. The internment will be private.
Purchase his music thru iTunes Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based critic, poet, and composer who freelances as a developmental editor. Among his credits is co-editing MusicHound Jazz: The Essential Album Guide.