Max Roach - Biography

Percussion virtuoso Max Roach would have left an indelible mark on music history solely for revolutionizing the role of the drum kit in small group jazz. A Renaissance man active from the 1940’s bebop era through the turn of the century, Roach continued to shape what he called “black American music” through the synergy of his technical skill, his ear for budding talent, and an expansive view of the power of music in collaboration with other arts. Additionally, he possessed an unswerving commitment to social progress and the struggle against racism. Max Roach was truly one of a kind.


Maxwell Lemuel Roach was born in Newland, North Carolina on January 10, 1924. When he was four years old, his family moved to the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Roach's mother was a gospel singer who took him to church regularly. In the midst of the Great Depression, the Works Project Administration funded artistic programs for youth, and it was in a WPA music class at his church that Roach’s life-long love affair with music began. Although he had started on piano at home, drums quickly became his focus. By the age of ten, he was playing in gospel groups and informal neighborhood bands. Roach and young musician friends like baritone saxophonist Cecil Payne and pianist Randy Weston would go to Harlem to catch shows, often at the Apollo Theatre. On the bandstand, Roach learned quickly by performing stock arrangements from the repertoires of Count Basie and Jimmie Lunceford.

Sometimes he would accompany 18 different acts in one day while playing weekends at Coney Island. He was also jamming in Harlem at Minton’s Uptown House and sitting in on sessions all over town. Yet even with all of his extra-curricular activity, Roach graduated from high school with honors in 1942.


Influenced by swing masters like Sid Catlett and Jo Jones and by Kenny Clarke’s evolving new style at Minton’s, Roach began to develop his own conceptions. His first major association with the modernist faction came when trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and bassist Oscar Pettiford asked him to join their new group at the Onyx Club. Roach made his recording debut in December 1943 with tenor saxophone master Coleman Hawkins on a quintet date for Brunswick. In the spring of 1944, Roach went on the road with an orchestra led by saxophonist Benny Carter. The band recorded for Capitol in Los Angeles and stayed on the West Coast for months.


In the spring of 1945, Roach returned to New York to join the legendary quintet co-led by Gillespie and alto saxophonist Charlie Parker at the Three Deuces. Playing with a whirlwind like Parker changed Roach’s style. He later said that “Bird was really responsible, not just because his style called for a particular kind of drumming, but because he set tempos so fast, it was impossible to play straight.” Roach’s advances in technique, demanded by the fast lines of bebop, are most often described as a melodic approach to the drums. Writer Barry Ulanov hailed Roach as “a rhythmic thinker” and Burt Korall, author of books on jazz drumming, notes his “highly responsive, contrapuntal style.” In November 1945, Roach joined Charlie Parker’s Reboppers with Gillespie, trumpeter Miles Davis, pianist Sadik Hakim, and bassist Curly Russell on a recording session for Savoy. The session yielded the classics “Billie's Bounce,” “Now's the Time,” and “Thriving on a Riff,” along with the prototypical bebop tune "Ko Ko” and its 32-bar drum solo.


Roach freelanced through 1946, seemingly everywhere and with everybody, appearing in clubs and recording with groups led by Hawkins, Dexter Gordon, J.J. Johnson, and Stan Getz. He began working in the Bud Powell Trio, and in 1947 appeared on Powell’s first recording session as a leader. He soon rejoined Parker’s quintet with Davis, pianist Duke Jordan, and bassist Tommy Potter. They recorded extensively for Savoy and Dial, and made frequent road trips in 1947 and 1948. Roach was the drummer for the Miles Davis “Birth of the Cool” nonet that worked at the Royal Roost in 1948, and later recorded with the band on Birth of the Cool (1957 — Capitol). With Parker, Roach made his first trip to Europe to perform at the First International Paris Jazz Festival in May of 1949. On his return to New York, he was back to freelancing and recorded with Davis, J.J. Johnson, Buddy DeFranco, Bud Powell, Sonny Stitt, and others before rejoining Parker in the studios in January of 1951. He somehow found time to attend the Manhattan School of Music, where he earned a bachelors degree in music theory in 1952.


Roach also began to develop his political and social views during this period. In an audacious and nearly unprecedented move, Roach and Charles Mingus, along with Roach’s friend Margo Ferraci and Mingus’ wife Celia, started Debut Records in 1952. The label, as Mal Waldron later described it to Ira Gitler, was Mingus’ “chance to take the business away from the white man. He felt that musicians were not controlling their own product...So he wanted to have control over his music.” Debut had a five-year run, eventually failing due to the usual difficulties that small labels face when trying to get paid and because, according to Roach, “It was too much” at a time when both men were leading their own groups. In its brief history, Debut managed to record the historic Massey Hall concert in May of 1953 that featured the all-star quintet of Parker, Gillespie, Powell, Mingus, and Roach, as well as the initial bandleading efforts of such talents as Paul Bley, Kenny Dorham, Thad Jones, and Roach himself. Roach made his debut as a leader with sessions in April of 1953 leading a septet and a quartet. Both bands featured newcomers Hank Mobley on tenor saxophone and Walter Davis, Jr. on piano. Much of the Debut catalog was issued in a monumental 12-disc boxed set Charles Mingus: The Complete Debut Recordings (1992 Debut) in 19902


In the fall of 1953, Roach traveled to Hermosa Beach, California, replacing Shelly Manne in the Lighthouse All-Stars. Over the next year, Roach put together his new quintet with trumpeter Clifford Brown, saxophonist Harold Land, pianist Richie Powell, and bassist George Morrow. The band began a series of highly acclaimed albums for EmArCy, and quickly become known as one of the finest small hard bop groups on the scene. Land was replaced in 1955 by Sonny Rollins, whose debut with the group was on Clifford Brown and Max Roach at Basin Street (1956 EmArCy). The quintet's success was unfortunately short-lived; a car accident in June of 1956 took the lives of Brown and Powell.


Though depressed, Roach carried on, at first with the trio of Rollins and Morrow, then with a reconfigured quintet known as Max Roach + 4. The group featured Dorham (and later Booker Little) on trumpet and Rollins (and then George Coleman) on tenor. They expanded hard bop to include 3/4 waltz rhythms and modal structures. This sound can be heard on The Complete Mercury Max Roach Plus Four Sessions (2000 Mosaic), compiled on Mosaic Records in 2000. Roach also brought increased dignity to the drum kit, often featuring unaccompanied drum solos on his albums. Roach continued to play as a sideman in this period, recording frequently with Rollins (Saxophone Colossus and Freedom Suite [1956 — Prestige], among others), Monk (Brilliant Corners [1956 Riverside]), Dorham, J.J. Johnson, and others. He was also expanding his own horizons, performing with vocalists like Dinah Washington and Abbey Lincoln, and recording with the Boston Percussion Ensemble for 1958’s Max Roach with the Boston Percussion Ensemble (1958 EmArcy).


The struggle against racism became important to Roach in the late Fifties and his views were on full display in his 1960 album We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite (1960 Candid), which featured lyrics by Oscar Brown, Jr. After it was issued, Roach declared that he would “never again play anything that does not have social significance.” That summer, he joined Mingus in an alternative festival protesting that year’s Newport Jazz Festival. In 1962, he joined Mingus and Duke Ellington on Money Jungle (1962 United Artists). That same year, Roach and Abbey Lincoln were married. They would be frequent collaborators until they divorced in 1970.


Roach, emboldened by his politically oriented projects of the Sixties, was soon collaborating with filmmakers, choreographers, and playwrights while he continued to lead his own band. His work was to some degree marginalized in the United States due to his political opinions, although he did make several well-regarded albums during the decade including Drums Unlimited (1965 Atlantic) and Members, Don’t Git Weary (1968 Atlantic). In the early Seventies, he became one of the first jazz musicians to teach full time at the college level when he gained a professorship at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. In 1971, he recorded Lift Every Voice and Sing (1971 Atlantic), featuring his sextet joined by a gospel choir. In 1972, he founded the ten-man percussion ensemble known as M'Boom, which would go on to record four albums over the next twenty years.


In the mid-Seventies, Roach formed a new quartet with trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater, saxophonist Billy Harper, and bassist Reggie Workman. Harper was replaced by Odean Pope later in the decade. Calvin Hill (and later Tyrone Brown) took over the bass chair. This group became Roach’s main vehicle through the early Nineties. In 1976, Roach also initiated a series of historic duets that would come to include encounters with saxophonists Archie Shepp and Anthony Braxton, pianists Abdullah Ibrahim, Mal Waldron, Connie Crothers, and Cecil Taylor, and even a Parisian concert with Dizzy Gillespie in 1982.


Roach’s commissions and projects continued to multiply. There were theatre projects including an adaptation of A Midsummer's Night Dream and Amiri Baraka’s The Life and Life of Bumpy Johnson, music for dance ensembles including the Alvin Ailey Dance Company and the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, and collaborations with artists as varied as the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, rapper Fab 5 Freddy, and the Abyssinian Baptist Church choir. Roach’s 1991 release To the Max! (1991 Blue Moon) included performances by his quartet, Double Quartet, M’Boom, an orchestra and chorus, plus a pair of solo drum tracks. His last two main projects were the So What Brass Quintet and the Beijing Trio (1999 Asian Improv) with pianist Jon Jang and erhu player Jiebing Chen.


Health concerns forced Roach to curtail his activities into the new millennium. He recorded his final session, Friendship (2002 Columbia), in March 2002 with his old friend, trumpeter Clark Terry. Max Roach passed away on August 16, 2007.


Roach’s extraordinary collection of honors include a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, the French Grand Prix du Disque (twice), membership in the International Percussive Society's Hall of Fame and the Down Beat Magazine Hall of Fame, and eight honorary doctorates. Jazz pianist Connie Crothers summed up her feelings about Max Roach by observing that what she “learned from Max is that music ultimately comes from depth of character, not from technical expertise or ego. We all have to work very hard at it; but once you have done that hard work, music has to come from your character and who you are, from the level of your insight. Max himself personifies that, and always will.”

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