Max Roach was the hottest drummer in New York by the time he was 20. By the end of his life, he was one of the giants of jazz, a composer, bandleader, activist, teacher. Max Roach died this morning in hospice care in New York after a long illness. He was 83 years old.

NPR's Neda Ulaby reports.

NEDA ULABY: Before Max Roach, the drum functioned basically as a timepiece. Roach made it sing solos.

Mr. MAX ROACH (Jazz Musician, Activist and Teacher): I felt that the instrument itself could be just as vital an instrument as any of the other instruments. And by a virtue of the fact that you deal with that instrument with all four limbs, you do have four voices that you deal with when you think like that.

(Soundbite of drums)

ULABY: In 1989, Max Roach described the drum kit to NPR as an American invention that combines cymbals from the Middle East, tom-toms from Africa and snares from Europe. His bandmate, Cecil Bridgewater, said Roach's genius was in putting those parts together.

Mr. CECIL BRIDGEWATER (Max Roach's Bandmate): Max doesn't play fundamental drumbeats behind you just to keep the time going. He's not just concerned with that. He's making musical statements at all times.

(Soundbite of music)

ULABY: Max Roach was born in a North Carolina town founded by freed slaves. And he grew up in a rough Brooklyn neighborhood. His mom gave him drums to keep him off the street. But it was on Manhattan's 52nd Street that Roach started experimenting with harmony and melody alongside Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk and Charlie Parker.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ROACH: We would work from 9 until 9 the next morning in two different clubs. We would then spend the day looking for places. We go to Dizzy's house, and spend the rest of the day working out arrangements.

ULABY: Before his death in 1993, Dizzy Gillespie told independent producer Ben Shapiro that Max Roach was a remarkable innovator.

Mr. DIZZY GILLESPIE (Jazz Musician): He had terrific ideas in the beginning. And he developed them as we went along. He had the lick for the shtick.

(Soundbite of music)

ULABY: Roach founded a seminal quintet in 1953 with trumpeter Clifford Brown. But after just three years, Brown was killed in a late-night car accident. He was only 25. Shocked and grieving, Max Roach buried himself in music and the blossoming civil rights movement. In 1960, he recorded an album called "We Insist - The Freedom Now Suite," that featured, among others, singer Abbey Lincoln. It was Roach's answer to the turmoil of the time.

Mr. ROACH: One of the images I would use was, say, supposing you were walking through the forest and you saw a naked body hanging on a tree, had been lynched and tied and feathered. Well, I want to take the reaction to that - horror -and create a piece out of that.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ROACH: Third section is called "Peace." And it's not peace that something has happened. It's the peace that you get to after you have prepared to do something, and you do it, and you're exhausted. So it's the peacefulness that comes from doing everything that you can.

(Soundbite of song "Peace")

ULABY: Max Roach continued to speak out for social justice. And he helped launch the field of jazz studies. His magnet for talent led him into lifelong collaborations with dancers, playwrights, filmmakers and musicians of practically every genre and every country.

Mr. ROACH: I'm organizing sounds now, an indiscriminate world of sound that still has to be organized, that you could look at and hear and say, hey, something has, something happened.

ULABY: What seemed to happen whenever Max Roach was around was fearlessness on the bandstand, in the classroom, and on the streets.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

SIEGEL: There's more music by Max Roach and links to video of the drummer in action at

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor

Support comes from