In an era when drummers consider it a default performance practice to navigate a global template of rhythmic expression, it is important to remember that Max Roach (1924-2007) is the single most important figure in this development.
Max Roach, by Richard Laird
Just ask the drummers who knew him, as I did a few years back when Downbeat gave me the honor of writing a lengthy obituary. Before Max, all the drummers, even the great ones like Baby Dodds or Gene Krupa or Chick Webb, approached soloing on the drumset from more of a rudimental and snare drum concept, said Billy Hart. Max was the first one to take the rudiments and spread them melodically around the whole drumset bass drum, tom-tom, snare drum, cymbal.
Max was adamant that it was just as important for him to know the form and melody as everybody else, Kenny Washington added. He took independence between two hands and two feet to the next level.
Roach was never content to recreate the past, which he associated with segregation times, and he spent the second half of his career in perpetual forward motion, determinedly bridging stylistic categories. Max may have used 30 signature things, but he used them in so many different ways, Jeff Tain Watts remarked. One piece of vocabulary could function as a solo idea, a melody for a solo drum piece. He d take the same fragment of melodic material and take it out of time, use it like splashing colors on a canvas or whatever, or use it in an avant-garde context, like his duets with Cecil Taylor and Anthony Braxton. That cued me not to be so compartmentalized with certain stuff for soloing and other stuff for something else, but just to use vocabulary your own vocabulary to serve many functions.
Born on Jan. 10, 1924, in Newland, N.C., and raised in Brooklyn, Roach was the first jazz musician to treat the drum set both functionally and as an autonomous instrument of limitless artistic possibility. As a teenager, Roach paid close attention to drummers who could solo Jo Jones, Sid Catlett, Chick Webb, Cozy Cole. Toward the end of his studies at Boys High School, he began riding the subway from Bedford-Stuyvesant to Harlem for late-night sessions at Minton s Playhouse and Monroe s uptown House, where the likes of Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke and Dizzy Gillespie, all Roach s elders by several years, explored alternative approaches to the status quo.
By 1942, they had reharmonized blues forms and Tin Pan Alley tunes, changing keys, elasticizing the beat and setting hellfire tempos that discouraged weaker players from taking the bandstand when serious work was taking place. Before World War II ended, the new sound was sufficiently established to have a name bebop.
Thoroughly conversant in how to push a big band he hit the road with Benny Carter in 1944 and 1945, and filled in for Sonny Greer with Duke Ellington in early 1942 with four-to-the-floor on the bass drum and tricks with the sticks, Roach made his first record in 1943 with Coleman Hawkins, and played on Hawkins ur-bebop 1944 session with Gillespie on which Woody N You debuted. But as Charlie Parker s primary drummer in 1944 and 1945 and from 1947 49, Roach developed a technique that allowed him to keep pace with and enhance Parker s ferocious velocities and ingenious rhythmic displacements. His famous polyrhythmic solo on Bud Powell s Un Poco Loco in 1951 foreshadowed things to come in the next decade.
During the early 1950s, Roach studied composition at Manhattan School of Music and co-founded, with Charles Mingus, Debut Records one of the first musician-run record companies. In 1954, he formed the Max Roach Clifford Brown Quintet, in which he elaborated his concept of transforming the drum set into what he liked to call the multiple percussion set, treating each component as a unique instrument, while weaving his patterns into an elaborate, kinetic design. After the death of Brown and pianist Richie Powell in 1956, he battled depression and anger, but continued to lead a succession of bands with saxophonists Sonny Rollins, Hank Mobley, George Coleman, Stanley Turrentine, Eric Dolphy, Clifford Jordan, and Gary Bartz, trumpeters Kenny Dorham, Booker Little, Richard Williams, Freddie Hubbard, and Charles Tolliver, tubist Ray Draper, and pianists Mal Waldron and Stanley Cowell.
Roach also performed as a sideman on such essential 50s recordings as Thelonious Monk s Brilliant Corners and Sonny Rollins Saxophone Colossus and The Freedom Suite, as well as important dates by Herbie Nichols, J.J. Johnson and Little. He interpolated African and Afro-Caribbean strategies into his flow, incorporated orchestral percussion into his drum set and worked compositionally with odd meters, polyrhythm and drum tonality. He gave equal weight to both a song s melodic contour and its beat. Conversations, from 1953, was his first recorded drum solo; by the end of the decade, he had developed a body of singular compositions for solo performance built on elemental but difficult-to-execute rudiments upon which he improvised with endless permutations.
He continued to expand his scope through the 60s. A long-standing member of Bedford-Stuyvesant s Concord Baptist Church, he incorporated the voice both the singular instrument of his then-wife, Abbey Lincoln, and also choirs into his presentation. It was the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and he used his music as a vehicle for struggle, expressing views on the zeitgeist in both the titles of his albums and compositions We Insist: The Freedom Now Suite (commissioned by the NAACP for the approaching centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation), Garvey s Ghost, It s Time and his approach to performing them.
Roach joined the University of Massachusetts, Amherst faculty in the early 70s, and seemed to use the post as a platform from which to broaden his expression. In 1971, he joined forces with a cohort of New York-based percussionists to form M Boom, a cooperative nine-man ensemble that addressed a global array of skin-on-skin and mallet instruments; and in the early 80s he formed the Max Roach Double Quartet, blending his group, the Max Roach Quartet with the Uptown String Quartet, with his daughter, Maxine Roach. He recorded with a large choir and with a symphony orchestra. A 1974 duet recording with Abdullah Ibrahim launched a series of extraordinary musical conversations with speculative improvisers Anthony Braxton, Cecil Taylor and Archie Shepp; these sparked subsequent encounters with pianists Connie Crothers and Mal Waldron, and a 1989 meeting with his early mentor Gillespie.
He also reached out to artists representing other musical styles and artistic genres playing drums for break dancers and turntablists in 1983; collaborating with Amiri Baraka on a musical about Harlem numbers king Bumpy Johnson, and with Sonia Sanchez on drum-freestyle improv; improvising to video images from Kit Fitzgerald, to moves from dancer Bill T. Jones, and to freestyle verse from his nephew, Fred Fab Five Freddie Braithwaite, who conjured the epigram, The man with the fresh approach, Max Roach. He scored plays by Shakespeare and Sam Shepard, composed for choreographer Alvin Ailey, and set up transcultural hybrids with a Japanese kodo ensemble, gitano flamenco singers, and an ad hoc gathering of Jewish and Arab percussionists in Israel.
Nasheet Waits (photo by Jimmy Katz)
No drummer born after the Baby Boom knew Roach more intimately than Nasheet Waits, whose father, the excellent drummer Frederick Douglas Freddie Waits (1940-1989), was an original member of M Boom. Nasheet attended high school with Roach s twin daughters, Ayo and Dara, and after Freddie Waits passed away, Roach took Nasheet under his wing, eventually hiring him to play with M Boom.
Max always used to say that the drums were treated like the nigger in the band disrespected in terms of your knowledge of music, your ability to be a real musician. Waits says. Nowadays drummers like Tyshawn Sorey and Marcus Gilmore write as well as anybody else. You have to be to be aware of what s happening on a lot of levels to be able to play the music. Max may have been the first of his kind like that. He was known as a reader. That s why he got called to play with Duke Ellington when Sonny Greer was ailing. But then, he said, when he got up to play the chart, there was no chart! So it became instinctual. That s something that he always stressed to me, personally.
I had the good fortune of being in his presence quite a bit, on a one-on-one basis, setting up drums and just being around the house. I was starting to get back into playing, and I d be asking him questions, but his answers were always in a parable, always presented as esoteric knowledge, like trying to get information from a griot and receiving it as a riddle. He always emphasized that the key was to find your own voice, your own path. Everything I ve heard he plays on always sounds like he s on the edge, always taking chances, taking it to another level, not satisfied playing the role that drummers traditionally play and still play.