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A Salute to The Evolutionary Giant…Max Roach

A Salute to The Evolutionary Giant…Max Roach

With the ten-year anniversary of the passing of Max Roach last month, we look back on his life…a life of hard work, passion, and innovation that has influenced many of today’s young drummers.

If ever there was a single individual who both established and consistently re-established the nature of jazz drumming, it’s Max Roach. In a career that spanned more than fifty years, Max performed in every known style of music—and helped to introduce some that had not been known before.

A drummer from the age of ten, Max made his professional debut at only eighteen, subbing for the great Sonny Greer with the Duke Ellington Orchestra at New York’s Paramount Theater in 1942. From there he moved quickly into the burgeoning jazz scene, playing in the clubs on NYC’s 52nd street. He also got into recording, making his first record in 1943 supporting saxophonist Coleman Hawkins.

As Max developed his career, he also helped to develop a totally new style of jazz: bebop. This exciting, improv-based small-group style saw Max playing with bands led by Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Coleman Hawkins, Bud Powell, and Miles Davis. But perhaps Max’s best-known and most important work in this period was with sax innovator Charlie “Bird” Parker. Max played on most of Parker’s important records, including a Savoy Records session in 1945 that many consider a turning point in jazz.

The 1950s were busy years for Max. From 1950 to 1953 he studied classical percussion at the Manhattan School of Music. There he developed his talents as a composer—and a love for percussion above and beyond the drumset.

In 1952 Max and bassist/composer Charles Mingus founded Debut Records. Though short-lived, that label is credited with releasing a recording called Jazz At Massey Hall, which documented a May 19, 1953 concert featuring Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, and Max. The label also released what may have been the first-ever free-improvisation bass-and-drum recording, called Percussion Discussion.

One of the leading groups in the hard-bop style came about in 1954, when Max partnered with trumpeter Clifford Brown to form a quintet that included pianist Richie Powell, bassist George Morrow, and saxophonist Harold Land (later replaced by Sonny Rollins). Critically regarded and highly influential, the group’s tenure was cut short when Brown and Powell were killed in a car accident in 1956. Max went on to lead similar groups of his own, while continuing to explore other avenues in jazz composition. These included his 1957 album Jazz In ¾ Time, which used waltz rhythms and modalities throughout.

Max was always in high demand as a live player, often backing other name artists. His appearance with Dinah Washington at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival is included in the documentary film Jazz On A Summer’s Day, and his 1954 recording with her (Dinah Jams, made in front of a live audience in the studio) is considered by many critics to be one of the best vocal jazz albums ever.

Max was a dynamic and imaginative drumset artist. His technical skill is clearly evident in the blazing solos he traded with drum wizard Buddy Rich on the now-legendary Rich Versus Roach album recorded in 1959 for Mercury Records.

In the turbulent 1960s Max became a civil rights activist, expressing his views through his musical compositions. When he was invited to contribute to works commemorating the hundredth anniversary of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Max composed and recorded the album We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite. He later composed a solo drumset accompaniment to a narration of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.

Max also made musical history in the ’60s, playing with Charles Mingus and Duke Ellington on Money Jungle, which is considered by many to be one of the finest trio albums ever made.

Expanding on the studies he did back at the Manhattan School of Music, in the 1970s Max founded, composed for, and performed with a unique musical group called M’Boom. This was, in fact, a total-percussion ensemble that included nine other multi-talented percussionists.

In 1973 Max (and M’Boom) took part in a truly historic Gretsch-related event. This was the Great Gretsch Jazz Drummers Summit, a live concert sponsored by Gretsch Drums, held at the Wollman Amphitheater in New York City’s Central Park. Along with Max the event featured the cream of the jazz drumming world (all Gretsch drummers, naturally), including Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Mel Lewis, Freddie Waits, and “Papa” Jo Jones.

Perhaps more than any other drummer before or since, Max regarded the drumset as a complete musical instrument, equal to a piano or a guitar in its ability to present solo compositions. Accordingly, by the late ’70s and early ’80s he was performing entire concerts by himself, playing pieces that he had specifically composed for the drumset alone. Perhaps the best known of these is “The Drum Also Waltzes,” which has been adopted and performed by such other legendary drummers as Bill Bruford and Steve Smith as an homage to Max’s pioneering work.

Through the 1980s, ’90s, and beyond, Max continued to explore new and different formats for his live and recorded work. While maintaining more or less “traditional” quartets and small groups, he also made free-improvisation duet recordings with avant-garde musicians like Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, Archie Shepp, and Abdullah Ibrahim, as well as with his lifelong friend Dizzy Gillespie. Max also recorded with his “Double Quartet,” which paired his traditional jazz quartet with the Uptown String Quartet (led by his daughter Maxine).

Max continued to create, compose, perform—and innovate—well into his later years. One of his last recorded performances was on Rush drummer Neal Peart’s Burnin’ For Buddy album (made in tribute to Buddy Rich). Characteristically, while other notable drummers played with Rich’s big band, Max went his own way, performing a singular rendition of his own “The Drum Also Waltzes.”

Gretsch drums were a major part of Max Roach’s career, while his stature and influence were major contributions to the success of Gretsch Drums. We honor and cherish that partnership.

— Fred W. Gretsch

Enjoy these video clips:

In this 1960s performance at L’Alhambra, in Paris, Max solos and plays with his quartet, which includes Stanley Turrentine (tenor sax), Tommy Turrentine (trumpet), Julian Priester (trombone), and Bobby Boswell (bass).

Here’s the Max Roach Quintet with vocalist Abbey Lincoln, performing Max’s Freedom Road Suite on Belgian TV in 1964.

The Max Roach Quartet sounded quite different in 1977.

Max shows us how to make a simple hi-hat sound like a total solo instrument in this 1994 performance from the New Jersey State of the Arts archive.

Here’s the Max Roach Quintet playing “Minor Mode Blues” on the TV program Stars of Jazz, which was broadcast in LA in 1958.