Drummers aren't supposed to be intellectuals. The instrument is so direct and intense that it purportedly attracts only your more, ah... physical types. We all know the jokes — Q. How can you tell if the stage is level? A. The drummer is drooling out of both sides of his mouth. And so on.
Max Roach was an intellectual — the best kind of intellectual. He was constantly pushing against the boundaries of what was expected of him as a drummer, as a jazz musician, as an African-American artist. He started his career by creating the template for modern jazz drumming, taking Kenny Clarke's proto-bebop style and making it more conversational and interactive. His playing propelled Bird and Diz to new heights -- their best moments all came with Max behind the kit. He was just as concerned about color and timbre as he was about timekeeping, and his playing is shot through with intricate details and subtle shadings. He is legendary for coming up with truly oddball choices and making them work, somehow. (See Ethan's post for a few great examples of this.) His solos are models of rigorous, methodical development.
Like Blakey, in 1954 he co-founded a canonical hard bop band, and like Blakey, he eventually assumed sole leadership of the group. Unlike Blakey, though, Max contributed original compositions to the band. In fact, even while he was one of the busiest drummers in jazz, he had also been enrolled as a composition major at the Manhattan School of Music. (He graduated in 1952.)
At a time where virtually no one played tunes in 3/4, Max released an entire record of them. Then he went on to prove he could play just as effortlessly in 5/4 and 7/4, both in his own groups and alongside the young firebrand Booker Little.
In 1958, he played (beautifully) on Sonny Rollins's Freedom Suite. The record doesn't sound angry or solemn or even overtly political — it's classic Sonny, ebullient and witty. I mean, Side B opens with a Noel Coward tune, and the 19-minute title track is vibrant, tuneful, singsong-y. But because the sleeve included a brief authorial note from Sonny, which shockingly observed that "America is deeply rooted in Negro culture," the record was quickly pulled, stripped of its original liner notes, and reissued as Shadow Waltz.
Two years later, Max came out with a blisteringly explicit political statement of his own, consisting entirely of his original compositions. The title literally shouts in your face — WE INSIST! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite. It's possibly the only jazz record to open with a song that begins with a slave getting raped. The vocals are by Max's wife-to-be, Abbey Lincoln, who on the vocal-drum duet "Triptych (Prayer, Protest, Peace)," combines some of the most beautifully poignant singing you've ever heard with full-throttle screaming that makes Yamatsuka Eye sound like a piker. And it closes with the haunting "Tears for Johannesburg," decades before the horrors of South African apartheid were anywhere close to being on white America's radar -- after all, we had only just barely begun to acknowledge our homegrown apartheid. The Freedom Now Suite is among of the most powerful, innovative, and artistically coherent political works ever — in any genre, in any artform. (You can listen to the second cut, "Freedom Day," over at Destination Out.)
In 1962, he released another record of original compositions, It's Time, augmenting his sextet with a 16-piece choir. He also thought it might be fun to play on one of the most kickass piano trio records ever.
In 1970, he enlisted some of the best jazz drummers around to start his own all-percussion ensemble, M'Boom, presaging Steve Reich's Drumming by a year. Joe Chambers recalls:
[A]lthough I had been playing piano, I really didn’t ever think of playing the mallets until [Max] called me and the rest of the [M'Boom] members in 1970 — it was 1970, in the summer of ‘70 — with the idea to this and I remember I said that I was very excited to get the call and I said “Damn! What are we going to do? Have six guys on a drums set?” (laughs) Max said “No, no, no. We’re going to play percussion.” So we had to learn all of this. That’s when I really got into this.
He built on his M'Boom experience to create solo percussion concerts. And in 1979, up at Columbia, he played a legendary duo concert with Cecil Taylor, having absorbed enough of Cecil's language to meet him on his own terms. But by exerting his own gravitational force, Max was able to eventually draw Cecil into his orbit.
In the 1980s, he began writing music for the stage, and for dance companies -- Bill T. Jones, Alvin Ailey, and others. He augmented his working quartet with the Uptown String Quartet, led by his daughter Maxine -- this was the first string quartet with the rhythmic authority to play jazz convincingly. And in 1983, just in case anyone needed any further evidence that Max Roach didn't give a damn what the retrograde forces in jazz thought, he played a hit at The Kitchen with Fab Five Freddy.
Here is a video that includes footage of some of these late-career creative highlights, along with terrific commentary from Max:
Many of the obits so far have focused on Max Roach's well-deserved place in the pantheon of the greatest drummers of all time. There is no question that he deserves every last one of those accolades. Hell, he deserves them for the first five years of his career alone. But Max Roach was so much more than "just" a brilliant, innovative, prolific, sensitive, massively influential, swing-your-ass-off jazz drummer. He was an artist — a great one, and, paradoxically, an underrated one, despite all the accolades. His most personal and creative works aren't widely known, even amongst jazz musicians and aficionados.
It would have been easy for him to rest on his laurels, but Max lived a life of constant artistic renewal. He always kept his ears open to what was going on in the jazz scene, and in the culture at large. He found a way to let the fight for civil rights and social justice enrich his music and broaden, not limit, its scope. He idolized older players, especially Papa Jo Jones, but he never let his love for the past constrain his vision of the future. His career spanned almost 70 years, and every single one of them was spent setting new challenges for himself — as a player, as a composer, as an artist.
I can't think of anyone who exemplifies what I personally love about music better than Max Roach. I never met him, but I will miss him dearly.