[Marxism] Max Roach

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Aug 16 12:39:05 MDT 2007

NY Times, August 16, 2007
Max Roach, a Founder of Modern Jazz, Dies at 83

Max Roach, a founder of modern jazz who rewrote the rules of drumming in 
the 1940’s and spent the rest of his career breaking musical barriers 
and defying listeners’ expectations, died early today in Manhattan. He 
was 83.

His death was announced today by a spokesman for Blue Note records, on 
which he frequently appeared. No cause was given. Mr. Roach had been 
known to be ill for several years.

As a young man, Mr. Roach, a percussion virtuoso capable of playing at 
the most brutal tempos with subtlety as well as power, was among a small 
circle of adventurous musicians who brought about wholesale changes in 
jazz. He remained adventurous to the end.

Over the years he challenged both his audiences and himself by working 
not just with standard jazz instrumentation, and not just in traditional 
jazz venues, but in a wide variety of contexts, some of them well beyond 
the confines of jazz as that word is generally understood.

He led a “double quartet” consisting of his working group of trumpet, 
saxophone, bass and drums plus a string quartet. He led an ensemble 
consisting entirely of percussionists. He dueted with uncompromising 
avant-gardists like the pianist Cecil Taylor and the saxophonist Anthony 
Braxton. He performed unaccompanied. He wrote music for plays by Sam 
Shepard and dance pieces by Alvin Ailey. He collaborated with video 
artists, gospel choirs and hip-hop performers.

Mr. Roach explained his philosophy to The New York Times in 1990: “You 
can’t write the same book twice. Though I’ve been in historic musical 
situations, I can’t go back and do that again. And though I run into 
artistic crises, they keep my life interesting.”

He found himself in historic situations from the beginning of his 
career. He was still in his teens when he played drums with the alto 
saxophonist Charlie Parker, a pioneer of modern jazz, at a Harlem 
after-hours club in 1942. Within a few years, Mr. Roach was himself 
recognized as a pioneer in the development of the sophisticated new form 
of jazz that came to be known as bebop.

He was not the first drummer to play bebop — Kenny Clarke, 10 years his 
senior, is generally credited with that distinction — but he quickly 
established himself as both the most imaginative percussionist in modern 
jazz and the most influential.

In Mr. Roach’s hands, the drum kit became much more than a means of 
keeping time. He saw himself as a full-fledged member of the front line, 
not simply as a supporting player.

Layering rhythms on top of rhythms, he paid as much attention to a 
song’s melody as to its beat. He developed, as the jazz critic Burt 
Korall put it, “a highly responsive, contrapuntal style,” engaging his 
fellow musicians in an open-ended conversation while maintaining a 
rock-solid pulse. His approach “initially mystified and thoroughly 
challenged other drummers,” Mr. Korall wrote, but quickly earned the 
respect of his peers and established a new standard for the instrument.

Mr. Roach was an innovator in other ways. In the late 1950s, he led a 
group that was among the first in jazz to regularly perform pieces in 
waltz time and other unusual meters in addition to the conventional 4/4. 
In the early 1960s, he was among the first to use jazz to address racial 
and political issues, with works like the album-length “We Insist! 
Freedom Now Suite.”

In 1972, he became one of the first jazz musicians to teach full time at 
the college level when he was hired as a professor at the University of 
Massachusetts at Amherst. And in 1988, he became the first jazz musician 
to receive a so-called genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation.

Maxwell Roach was born on Jan. 10, 1924, in the small town of New Land, 
N.C., and grew up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. He 
began studying piano at a neighborhood Baptist church when he was 8 and 
took up the drums a few years later.

Even before he graduated from Boys High School in 1942, savvy New York 
jazz musicians knew his name. As a teenager he worked briefly with Duke 
Ellington’s orchestra at the Paramount Theater and with Charlie Parker 
at Monroe’s Uptown House in Harlem, where he took part in jam sessions 
that helped lay the groundwork for bebop.

By the middle 1940’s, he had become a ubiquitous presence on the New 
York jazz scene, working in the 52nd Street nightclubs with Parker, the 
trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and other leading modernists. Within a few 
years he had become equally ubiquitous on record, participating in such 
seminal recordings as Miles Davis’s “Birth of the Cool” sessions in 1949 
and 1950.

He also found time to study composition at the Manhattan School of 
Music. He had planned to major in percussion, he later recalled in an 
interview, but changed his mind after a teacher told him his technique 
was incorrect. “The way he wanted me to play would have been fine if I’d 
been after a career in a symphony orchestra,” he said, “but it wouldn’t 
have worked on 52nd Street.”

Mr. Roach made the transition from sideman to leader in 1954, when he 
and the young trumpet virtuoso Clifford Brown formed a quintet. That 
group, which specialized in a muscular and stripped-down version of 
bebop that came to be called hard bop, took the jazz world by storm. But 
it was short-lived.

In June 1956, at the height of the Brown-Roach quintet’s success, Brown 
was killed in an automobile accident, along with Richie Powell, the 
group’s pianist, and Powell’s wife. The sudden loss of his friend and 
co-leader, Mr. Roach later recalled, plunged him into depression and 
heavy drinking from which it took him years to emerge.

Nonetheless, he kept working. He honored his existing nightclub bookings 
with the two surviving members of his group, the saxophonist Sonny 
Rollins and the bassist George Morrow, before briefly taking time off 
and putting together a new quartet. By the end of the 50’s, seemingly 
recovered from his depression, he was recording prolifically, mostly as 
a leader but occasionally as a sideman with Mr. Rollins and others.

The personnel of Mr. Roach’s working group changed frequently over the 
next decade, but the level of artistry and innovation remained high. His 
sidemen included such important musicians as the saxophonists Eric 
Dolphy, Stanley Turrentine and George Coleman and the trumpet players 
Donald Byrd, Kenny Dorham and Booker Little. Few of his groups had a 
pianist, making for a distinctively open ensemble sound in which Mr. 
Roach’s drums were prominent.

Always among the most politically active of jazz musicians, Mr. Roach 
had helped the bassist Charles Mingus establish one of the first 
musician-run record companies, Debut, in 1952. Eight years later, the 
two organized a so-called rebel festival in Newport, R.I., to protest 
the Newport Jazz Festival’s treatment of performers. That same year, Mr. 
Roach collaborated with the lyricist Oscar Brown Jr. on “We Insist! 
Freedom Now Suite,” which played variations on the theme of black 
people’s struggle for equality in the United States and Africa.

The album, which featured vocals by Abbey Lincoln (Mr. Roach’s frequent 
collaborator and, from 1962 to 1970, his wife), received mixed reviews: 
many critics praised its ambition, but some attacked it as overly 
polemical. Mr. Roach was undeterred.

“I will never again play anything that does not have social 
significance,” he told Down Beat magazine after the album’s release. “We 
American jazz musicians of African descent have proved beyond all doubt 
that we’re master musicians of our instruments. Now what we have to do 
is employ our skill to tell the dramatic story of our people and what 
we’ve been through.”

“We Insist!” was not a commercial success, but it emboldened Mr. Roach 
to broaden his scope as a composer. Soon he was collaborating with 
choreographers, filmmakers and Off Broadway playwrights on projects, 
including a stage version of “We Insist!”

As his range of activities expanded, his career as a bandleader became 
less of a priority. At the same time, the market for his uncompromising 
brand of small-group jazz began to diminish. By the time he joined the 
faculty of the University of Massachusetts in 1972, teaching had come to 
seem an increasingly attractive alternative to the demands of the 
musician’s life.

Joining the academy did not mean turning his back entirely on 
performing. In the early ‘70s, Mr. Roach joined with seven fellow 
drummers to form M’Boom, an ensemble that achieved tonal and coloristic 
variety through the use of xylophones, chimes, steel drums and other 
percussion instruments. Later in the decade he formed a new quartet, two 
of whose members — the saxophonist Odean Pope and the trumpeter Cecil 
Bridgewater — would perform and record with him off and on for more than 
two decades.

He also participated in a number of unusual experiments. He appeared in 
concert in 1983 with a rapper, two disc jockeys and a team of break 
dancers. A year later, he composed music for an Off Broadway production 
of three Sam Shepard plays, for which he won an Obie Award. In 1985, he 
took part in a multimedia collaboration with the video artist Kit 
Fitzgerald and the stage director George Ferencz.

Perhaps his most ambitious experiment in those years was the Max Roach 
Double Quartet, a combination of his quartet and the Uptown String 
Quartet. Jazz musicians had performed with string accompaniment before, 
but rarely if ever in a setting like this, where the string players were 
an equal part of the ensemble and were given the opportunity to 
improvise. Reviewing a Double Quartet album in The Times in 1985, Robert 
Palmer wrote, “For the first time in the history of jazz recording, 
strings swing as persuasively as any saxophonist or drummer.”

This endeavor had personal as well as musical significance for Mr. 
Roach: the Uptown String Quartet’s founder and viola player was his 
daughter Maxine. She survives him, as do two other daughters, Ayo and 
Dara, and two sons, Raoul and Darryl.

By the early ‘90s, Mr. Roach had reduced his teaching load and was again 
based in New York year-round, traveling to Amherst only for two 
residencies and a summer program each year. He was still touring with 
his quartet as recently as 2000, and he also remained active as a 
composer. In 2002 he wrote and performed the music for “How to Draw a 
Bunny,” a documentary about the artist Ray Johnson.

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