Maxwell Lemuel Roach
January 10th, 1924 in Township of Newland, North Carolina
August 16th, 2007 in New York City, New York
- MacArthur “Genius” Grant - 1988
- Named France’s Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters – 1989
- Presented with the Samuel Rosenbaum Award by the National Guild of Community Schools of the Arts – 1990
- Two-time winner of the French "Grand Prix du Disque”
- Awarded eight Honorary Doctorates from schools including The Manhattan School of Music, The New England Conservatory of Music, The University of Maryland, and the Eastman Conservatory of Music.
An Early Start:
Jazz drummer Max Roach grew up in Brooklyn, where he played the bugle and piano as a young boy, and took up the drums in his early teens. His mother was a gospel singer, and Roach first performed as a drummer in local gospel bands. By the time he was 18, he had already played with two jazz greats, Duke Ellington
and Charlie Parker
The Beginning of Bebop:
In the 1940s, the seeds of bebop
had been planted in the New York jazz scene. Influenced by drummer Kenny Clarke, Roach began an unconventional approach to the drum set. Instead of keeping time with the bass drum, as swing
drummers did, he kept time on the ride cymbal. This resulted in a lighter, more propulsive feel, and also allowed Roach space to create elaborate rhythmic accompaniment.
Roach became renowned for his impressive technique, and for playing with subtlety and power even at rapid tempos. Kenny Clarke is said to have broken the trend of swing-style drumming, but Roach is considered the first great bebop drummer.
Roach performed extensively with virtually all of the great bebop musicians around, including Dizzy Gillespie
, Thelonious Monk
, Bud Powell, and Charlie Parker. He also played on some of the most important recordings of the late 1940s and 1950s, including Birth of the Cool
(1950) led by Miles Davis
, and Jazz at Massey Hall
(1952) featuring Parker, Gillespie, Bud Powell, and Charles Mingus. During this period, he studied composition at the Manhattan School of Music.
Hard Bop and Hard Times:
In 1954 Roach, along with trumpeter Clifford Brown
, formed a quintet that quickly rose to fame as the one of the most daring and talented hard bop groups. Tragically, Brown was killed in a car crash in 1956, along with Richie Powell, the pianist in the group. Roach faced severe depression after the loss of his friends, but his career’s trajectory was unhindered. He continued to perform with jazz greats such as Kenny Dorham, George Coleman, Booker Little, Stanley Turrentine, and Dinah Washington.
In the 1960s, with tension building in the civil rights movement
, Roach’s music took on a new focus. In 1960, Roach composed and recorded We Insist! Freedom Now Suite
, an extended jazz composition that called attention to the struggles of blacks for equal rights. After the album’s release, he told Down Beat Magazine, “I will never again play anything that does not have social significance.”
In the following decades, Roach was drawn to the avant-garde, and he avidly explored new avenues of musical expression. In the 1970s he formed M’Boom, a percussion orchestra consisting of eight drummers. The following decade, he made a series of duet recordings with avant-garde musicians including Anthony Braxton, Cecil Taylor, and Archie Shepp. He displayed his prowess as a composer, writing music for plays by Sam Shepard, and for dance pieces by Alvin Ailey. He received critical acclaim for his Double Quartet, for which his compositions combined a jazz quartet with a string quartet.
Max Roach’s first great achievement was in the development of bebop, but by the time he died at age 83 on August 16th, 2007, he had invested his talents in much more. He continually evolved as a performer, a composer, a professor, and an activist.