Friday, August 17, 2007

Losing a true pioneering spirit of the Be-Bop Era

Aug 17, 4:47 AM EDT
Master Jazz Drummer Max Roach Dead at 83
Associated Press Writer

NEW YORK (AP) -- Max Roach got his first musical break at age 16, filling in when Duke Ellington's drummer fell ill in 1940. Those three nights spawned a career that would make the self-taught Roach the first jazz musician ever honored with a MacArthur Fellowship, or "genius grant."
His rhythmic innovations and improvisations defined bebop jazz. His peers deemed him the greatest jazz drummer ever by the time he was 30. And after helping reinvent the genre, he became one of its loudest voices for civil rights.
The master percussionist died late Wednesday in a Manhattan hospital after a long illness. He was 83.
No additional details were available, said Cem Kurosman, spokesman for Blue Note Records, where Roach played on seminal recordings with Ellington, Thelonius Monk and Miles Davis. Roach was elected to the Downbeat magazine Hall of Fame in 1980 and the Grammy Hall of Fame 15 years later. He won a $372,000 MacArthur grant in 1988.
"Max was one of the founders and original members of the A-Team of bebop," said fellow music legend Quincy Jones. "Outside of losing a giant and an innovator, I've lost a great, great friend. Thank God he left a piece of his soul on his recordings so that we'll always have a part of him with us."
Roach challenged his listeners and himself by making music that connected the jazz of the pre-World War II era with the beats of the hip-hop generation. His place in the pantheon of jazz greats long since secured, Roach collaborated with drummers from around the world, with a string quartet that featured his daughter Maxine, with rapper Fab Five Freddy.
"I try to show my students the correlation between hip-hop and Louis Armstrong," he once said. "That's how well-rooted hip-hop is, coming out of an environment where people were denied any kind of cultural enrichment."
The New Land, N.C., native was born on Jan. 10, 1924, and moved to Brooklyn with his family four years later. A player piano left by the previous tenants gave Roach his introduction to music.
But he was looking for another instrument while singing with the children's choir at the Concord Baptist Church. Roach found a snare drum and was quickly hooked. His father gave the eighth-grader his first set of drums, and Roach was drumming professionally while still in high school.
He would take often the nickel train ride from Brooklyn to Harlem, listening to the music spilling out of the Apollo Theater or the Savoy Ballroom. He befriended saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzie Gillespie as the burgeoning bop movement took flight. By 1942, he was playing behind Parker in an after-hours club; two years later, Roach joined Gillespie and Coleman Hawkins in one of the first bebop recording sessions.
What distinguished Roach from other drummers were his fast hands and ability to maintain several rhythms simultaneously. By layering different beats and varying the meter, Roach pushed jazz beyond the boundaries of standard 4/4 time. His dislocated beats helped define bebop.

Roach's innovative use of cymbals for melodic lines, and tom-toms and bass drums for accents, helped elevate the percussionist from mere timekeeper to featured performer - on a par with the trumpeter and saxophonist.
Through the jazz upheaval of the 1940s and '50s, Roach played bebop with the Charlie Parker Quintet and cool bop with the Miles Davis Capitol Orchestra. He joined trumpeter Clifford Brown in playing hard bop, a jazz form that maintained bebop's rhythmic drive while incorporating the blues and gospel.
In 1952, Roach and bassist-composer Charles Mingus founded Debut Records. Among the short-lived label's releases was a famed 1953 Toronto performance in Massey Hall, featuring Roach, Mingus, Parker, Gillespie and pianist Bud Powell.
Around this time, a panel of 100 jazz musicians voted Roach the greatest jazz drummer ever.
But bad times were lurking. Roach watched several friends - including Parker - die from heroin addiction. He was further devastated when Brown and Powell died in a 1956 car accident, slipping into his own battle with drugs and alcohol.
Roach rebounded with the help of his first wife and frequent collaborator, singer Abbey Lincoln. The couple, married in 1962, split after eight years.
Roach re-emerged in the free jazz era with a new political consciousness. Albums like "We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite," released in 1960 to celebrate the upcoming centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, reflected his support of black activism.
Roach eventually expanded his repertoire and explored new challenges. He taught at the University of Massachusetts, traveled to Ghana in search of new music and performed with groups from Japan and Cuba.
He also formed an all-percussion ensemble known as M'Boom, a quartet and a double quartet that included his daughter Maxine on viola.
He was survived by five children: sons Daryl and Raoul, and daughters Maxine, Ayo and Dara.
© 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved


The Beat Has Stopped
Good-bye Mr. Roach
by Alexander Billet

August 19, 2007
Ask who the absolute greats of jazz are, you’ll get a few short words: "Bird," "Trane," "Miles," "Dizz" ... "Roach."

Few did more for jazz as an art-form than Max Roach, who died August 16th at age 83.  Normally the drummer is the nameless guy in the back, the one who just keeps the beat while the "real musicians" do the actual work.  But Roach showed everyone what a sham that is.  A virtuoso in his own right, a composer, an innovator and revolutionary, Roach was the last survivor of a string of jazz greats from an era that changed the face of American music.
Born in North Carolina in 1924, his family moved to Brooklyn when he was four.  Before too long he was already proving himself something of a prodigy, and at age ten was playing drums in the church choir.  By the time his teenage years were over he had played briefly with Duke Ellington's orchestra and participated in jam sessions with Charlie Parker that many say helped invent the genre known as bebop.
Roach was "one of the first American musicians to understand the complex polyrhythms of Africa" said longtime friend and collaborator Quincy Jones.  In every group and orchestra he played in, he brought that complexity with him.  His drumming frequently engaged in a "conversation" as one writer put it, with the other instruments.  Previous jazz drummers had used the bass drum to provide the rhythm.  Roach, along with Kenny Clarke, moved it to the ride cymbal.  It was a move that allowed greater freedom and improvisation for the whole group, and would define bebop and its successors.
Bebop's sound was, at the time, controversial.  It relied not on elaborate orchestrations but on the musical instincts of small groups of four or five.  Count Basie once called bebop "Chinese music" for its seemingly atonal and erratic qualities.  But bebop was also the re-affirmation of jazz as art.  Most bebop musicians consciously viewed themselves proudly as artists.  In an America dominated by Jim Crow, lynch mobs, and urban poverty, a pride like this among blacks was dangerous--even revolutionary.
So it comes as no surprise that many bebop innovators, including Roach, identified with the radical left in the 30s and 40s.  Roach played several benefits for the Communist Party USA, which had made an effort to reach out to black jazz musicians.
The late forties and early fifties, while disastrous for much of that same Communist Party, was also a turning point for jazz with the advent of hard-bop and cool jazz.  Roach, in typical fashion, was there at ground zero when he played on Miles Davis' iconic "Birth of the Cool" sessions.
As an innovator, Roach demanded an amount of creative control that was--and is--rare in the recording industry.  For that reason he and fellow jazz-great Charles Mingus founded the Debut imprint in 1952 as the first musician-run jazz label.
It wasn't merely a business move.  To him, jazz artists' control over their output was an integral part of the struggle for civil rights in Black America.  Two things he did in 1960 reflected both sides of this.  He and Mingus organized a festival rivaling the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island protesting its treatment of black artists, and together with lyricist Oscar Brown and vocalist Abbey Lincoln he composed and recorded "We Insist! Freedom Now Suite."
Largely considered one of the best jazz protest records ever, its cover was a picture of black men sitting at Greenboro, North Carolina lunch counters.  Roach's drumming, along with Lincoln's voice, seems to capture the defiant strength of their struggle.  In few albums like this one can the "freedom" of free jazz be so directly paralleled to the freedom sought by the civil rights movement in the US, South Africa, and all over the world.
"I will never again play anything that does not have social significance," Roach said to Down Beat magazine after the album's release.  "We American jazz musicians of African descent have proved beyond all doubt that we are 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."
Roach kept true to his word with "Percussion Bitter Sweet" and "Speak, Brother, Speak!" as well as the rest of his catalog of over fifty recordings with countless groups and ensembles.  Always pushing the boundaries of what was possible in both his genre and his instrument, he formed a group in 1979 called M'Boom, made up of eight percussionists, showing how flexible--and melodic--percussion could be.
Perhaps one of the best modern testaments to his far-reaching influence, Roach performed in the early 80s with rapper Fab Five Freddy and the New York Break Dancers.  "I try to show... the correlation between hip-hop and Louis Armstrong," said Roach.  "That's how well-rooted hip-hop is..."
From bebop to hip-hop, the world looks very different now from when Max Roach hit his first snare.  There is no doubt that he played a role in shaping that world.  And if his music is taken to heart, so do we.
Alexander Billet is a music journalist and activist living in Washington DC.  He is a regular contributor to Znet and Dissident Voice.  His blog, Rebel Frequencies, can be viewed at, and he can be reached at


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