Legendary Jazz Drummer Dies at 83

News & Notes pays tribute to pioneering jazz drummer Max Roach, one of the fathers of the bebop jazz style. Roach's biographer, Amiri Baraka, discusses the drummer's career as a musician and an unflinching civil rights activist.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

One of the architects of modern jazz has passed away. Drummer Max Roach helped develop the revolutionary style of music known as bebop. Like Charlie Parker with the saxophone and Dizzy Gillespie with the trumpet, Max Roach is credited with influencing generations of drummers.

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Mr. AMIRI BARAKA (Music Historian; Max Roach's Biographer): I can't think of a drummer of any stature that wasn't influenced by Max Roach.

CHIDEYA: Amiri Baraka is a music historian and Roach biographer.

Mr. BARAKA: Max made the drums a solo instrument truly. You know, that wasn't just part of the rhythm section or the ensemble, that it had, you know, an independent and a musical voice.

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Mr. BARAKA: Max was a very profound and intelligent brother. You know, he wasn't just beating the drums, like he'd say, you don't beat the drums you'd play them. And so you know, he was the proponent of playing the drums, of using the drums as a musical voice.

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CHIDEYA: Maxwell Roach was born in Newland, North Carolina, in 1924. His parents moved to Brooklyn when he was a child. He started his drumming career playing gospel music in the churches where his mother sang.

At age 17, Roach got a call for one of the biggest gigs a musician could get. Duke Ellington's drummer had suddenly fallen ill. Max would take his place.

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Mr. BARAKA: Duke had heard of Max Roach at 17 and he called him, say, you know, I want you to sit in for Sonny Greer. He didn't know what to do. You know, because Duke can't (unintelligible) about the music.

So just before the music started, Duke pointed at him, at Max, and then pointed at his eye, and then pointed at Max. You know, in order words, keep your eye on me. And that was it. And that was his debut.

CHIDEYA: And what a debut it was. Roach became known as one of the greatest percussionists of his time. He rewrote the rules on swing drumming by picking up the pace. And his hands were famous for their agility and autonomy. One would keep frantic, dizzying time on cymbals, while the other accented notes with a snare and toms.

He was the beat of a jazz new movement called bebop.

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CHIDEYA: As he grew more popular, Roach used his celebrity to promote the black freedom struggle. His timing was impeccable. As the bebop era wound down, the civil rights era was just heating up.

In the early '60s, Max Roach married singer and dramatist Abbey Lincoln. Together, they created some of the searing protest music on record.

Again, Amiri Baraka.

Mr. BARAKA: Well, what Max did was bring the music squarely into the struggle. You know, like his records like "We Insist," drive a man, where he talked about, you know, the slavery life, you know. And the music that he and Abbey Lincoln made in the '60s is magnificent and wholly relevant to black liberation movements. You know, like "Tears for Johannesburg," where, you know, Abbey really starts screaming. She's not just singing, she starts screaming like somebody, you know. And then this side we're she calls out all the different tribes that she knew in Africa. You know, Ashanti, Urhobo(ph), Igbo, you know. He was always in the forefront of musicians dealing with the black liberation movement, civil rights movement, always. He was the most outspoken. He was the most activist. So I mean, it's not that we - it's not only that we've lost a very great musician, a very great musician, but we've lost a major figure in the whole rights struggle.

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CHIDEYA: Max Roach was 83 years old.

That's NEWS & NOTES.

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CHIDEYA: To join the conversation online or sign up for our newsletter, visit our blog at nprnewsandviews.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African American Public Radio Consortium.

I'm Farai Chideya. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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