Remembering Max Roach, Rhythmic Innovator

(This 75th birthday tribute originally aired in 2001.)

Max Roach, ca. Oct. 1947. i i

Max Roach, ca. Oct. 1947. William P. Gottlieb/Library of Congress via flickr.com hide caption

itoggle caption William P. Gottlieb/Library of Congress via flickr.com
Max Roach, ca. Oct. 1947.

Max Roach, ca. Oct. 1947.

William P. Gottlieb/Library of Congress via flickr.com

Drummer Max Roach died on August 16, 2007 in New York after a long illness. He was 83. A primary architect of the bebop revolution, Roach was one of the most innovative and influential musicians in jazz. He was also a composer, a bandleader, an activist and a teacher. His transcendent musical contributions also ranged from collaborative works for theater and dance, to his groundbreaking percussion-only ensemble, M’Boom.

Roach was born on January 10, 1924 in a poor North Carolina town called New Land. Seeking better opportunities, his parents moved the family to New York City. During the 1930’s, New York was teeming with outstanding bands and musicians, and Roach saw stars like Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington and Jimmie Lunceford on a regular basis. He recalls what powerful role models these great musicians and bandleaders were to the youth of his day. Roach was captivated by the surging rhythms of drummers like Papa Jo Jones, Sid Cattlet and Chick Webb and decided to take up drums in the boy scout marching band.

In high school, Roach was gigging at Coney Island sideshows and after hours joints when a club owner recommended him to Duke Ellington, whose drummer had fallen ill. That night, Roach played at the Paramount Theater with the Duke Ellington orchestra. Soon, legendary saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young also sought his abilities. Roach made his first professional recording backing Hawkins at age nineteen. He recalls these early experiences with such influential musicians as his "classroom."

Roach was attending Manhattan School of Music in the 1940s when he met trumpeter Miles Davis. The two were in awe of virtuoso alto saxophonist, Charlie Parker, who was working with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie to push harmony, melody and rhythm beyond all limits. Roach and Davis also displayed innovative techniques and were soon invited to work with Parker and Gillespie.

Roach Remembered

Hear an appreciation of Max Roach on 'All Things Considered.'

These four, along with pianists Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell formed a core of pioneers who developed the styled called bebop. Gillespie commented that, "Max was the leading delineator of that music. He was one of the originators of the style, like Charlie Parker was the style on the alto saxophone."

Roach on YouTube

See Roach's remarkable technique:

Roach’s style supported experimentation, improvisation and interaction between members of an ensemble. Drummer Kenny Washington said that Roach shifted the emphasis from keeping a simple, steady beat to facilitating a conversation between the drums and cymbals and the other musicians. Roach set the standard for the modern jazz drummer with his melodic approach to rhythm.

In the mid-1950s, Roach led a legendary quintet with trumpeter Clifford Brown before a car accident took Brown’s life at the age of 25.

Later, Roach turned his attention to the Civil Rights Movement and composed his Freedom Now Suite, which chronicled the African-American struggle from slavery to the present. Roach collaborated with poet Oscar Brown, Jr., vocalist Abbey Lincoln and a dance ensemble; they toured the show as far as Tokyo. He continued composing theater and dance, for which he has won an Obie award. Beginning in the 1970s, Roach began teaching at the University of Massachusetts, where he passed on his jazz tradition to students and young musicians while helping them explore new ideas.

Roach remained at the forefront of rhythmic innovation. He established an entire orchestra of jazz percussionists called M’Boom, and composed numerous compositions exclusively for the jazz drum set. Meanwhile, he continued working with his jazz quartet, which included Odean Pope on saxophone, Cecil Bridgewater on trumpet and Calvin Hill on bass. The group often collaborated with his daughter Maxine’s Uptown String Quartet to form the Max Roach Double Quartet.

Roach gave new meaning and respect for the drums. His quest for innovation was unrelenting and he will always be recognized for his contributions to the aritsitc community. From the poverty of the inner city to co-creator of one of the most revolutionary and infuential styles in music, Roach believed that creativity and determination could make opportunities for anyone, no matter how difficult their circumstances. Roach wanted future generations to know, "It can happen, you can beat anything."

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