Jazz History: Max Roach

December 31, 2023

On January 10, 2024, Max Roach, one of jazz’s most remarkable figures, would have turned 100 years old. The observance of Roach’s centennial has coincided with the recent release of the documentary Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes, which celebrates the drummer’s life and music. While many remember Roach as the pioneering drummer connected to the bebop movement of the mid to late 1940s, a much more incredible story is associated with his mastery, creativity, conviction, and spirit.

From Pasquotank County, NC, Maxwell Roach spent most of his youth in Brooklyn. Early into his career, Roach was recognized for his ability to play rapid tempos with impeccable technique while providing well-placed accents on the drum kit. At 18 years old, he came to the jazz community’s attention when asked to fill in for Duke Ellington’s drummer, Sonny Greer, at the Paramount Theater in New York City. Following that performance, Roach became active on the 52nd Street jazz scene, where he began playing and recording with bebop modernists such as Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, and Miles Davis. These individuals and the bebop style (a term Roach rejected) moved jazz musicians in a new direction in which the music became more removed from the commercialism of the swing era. Roach was considered not only the premier drummer of the movement but also one of its co-creators, particularly with regard to how the drums functioned within a bebop ensemble. Also, he became more interested in African and Afro-Caribbean drumming during this era. Through intense studies and continued schooling, he transferred those root-based traditions onto the drum set.

            In 1954, Roach co-led one of the great jazz quintets with the young trumpet master Clifford Brown. The group served as one of the most influential jazz groups of the 1950s and helped develop a jazz style known as post-bop or hard bop, further incorporating blues and gospel elements into bebop. Sadly, the group ended when Brown and pianist Richie Powell died in a car accident in 1956. Roach suffered tremendously after the loss and turned inward, leading to a dark period in his life and the breakdown of his first marriage. Despite his struggles, he continued to forge ahead musically and remained one of the most sought-after jazz drummers.

            In the early 1960s, Roach grew more focused and began working with vocalist, songwriter and actress Abbey Lincoln. They eventually married, and Roach encouraged Lincoln to move away from her image as a starlet to become more focused on presenting music that was more personal and connected with the struggles of the African-American lifestyle in America. With Lincoln, Roach released We Insist! -Max Roach’s Freedom Jazz Suite (1960-Candid). The music and lyrics dealt with the African Independence Movement and connected with the American Civil Rights Movement. The recording is a monumental achievement and the first political protest album associated with the jazz idiom. Following the release, Roach continued to present music connected with activism and experimentation through his music and commentary.

            In the 1970s, the jazz scene had shifted, and many musicians such as Miles Davis were experimenting with fusing more electric instruments and rock and roll explorations into jazz music. While it might have served Roach financially to jump onto the electric fusion trend, he refused and continued to explore acoustic music. Following the breakup of his marriage to Lincoln, he married Janus Adams. As he struggled to connect with major record labels, Roach relocated to Massachusetts and began a professorship at the University of Massachusetts, where he remained until the mid-1990s. During this period, he became fascinated with the possibilities of a percussion ensemble. He formed the group M’Boom, which showcased the opportunities of a modern percussion band that paid tribute to the African roots of American music. In the early 1980s throughout the ’90s, Roach remained active by recording and performing with various ensembles, presenting solo drum concerts, and even working for some time with his godson, hip hop pioneer Fab 5 Freddy. By 2000, Roach was dealing with illness, and his activities slowed. He passed away on August 16, 2007, at the age of 84. Roach will long be remembered for his innovative drumming, pioneering spirit, and political outspokenness.

            In celebration of Roach’s life and music, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark (NJPAC) will present the Max Roach Centennial Celebration: Freedom Now Suite on January 26. Musical director and drummer Nasheet Waits leads this special one-night-only concert, which features vocalist Cassandra Wilson, poets Sonia Sanchez and Saul Williams, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, pianist Nduduzo Makhathini, and bassist Eric Revis. I spoke with Waits about Roach’s influence and connection with the drum legend.

            “My father,” he said, “is Frederick Douglas Waits, a drummer and percussionist (a founding member of M’Boom). I met many great musicians as a child, and many of my earliest memories came when my dad worked with Max Roach in M’Boom! After my father passed away, I moved back to New York City in 1989, and I was again around the music and began playing more, largely thanks to the jazz community around my family. I was very close with Max, who was like a godfather, and he kept watch over me and my brother after my father passed away and I got back into drumming. Max would allow me to roadie for him, and he brought me along to keep an eye on me because we were going through a difficult emotional time. I went to high school with his twin daughters and even went to a prom with one of them.

            “M’Boom was an extraordinary group,” he continued, “and my father was one of the original members; it was a significant group because it gave a large voice to drummers and showcased that percussionists are supremely musical. Max was always about making a statement regarding the position of the drums in the band. In western music, there has long been a stereotype concerning the usage of drums and the role of drummers, and Max was all about breaking down stereotypes. I was around the early years of that group. It was part of my environment, and I had some chances to play a few concerts with them.

           “I was always pressing Max when it came to learning, always asking questions, and he was very generous, but he usually gave me these esoteric answers. It was never like, ‘This is what you do for this.’ It was never that. It was always some story that ended with a theme encapsulated in retaining one’s identity. But I had box seats to the master, and I learned a lot from being around him.”

            By reimagining and presenting We Insist!-Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite!, Waits has taken on a monumental task that he does not take lightly. “Max had goals to achieve through his music. So, that impacted some of his choices, and activism was involved with his direction. That prompted a different direction like the Freedom Now Suite-: They were discussing freedom and the question of freedom. Asking have we really attained it? Certainly not. How do we express that through music? A certain discomfort is involved with the suite, and that’s intentional. The music reflects a certain amount of struggle. The music was pretty open, and that was intentional. So that’s the freedom. You hear the struggles through the song titles and what’s happening through the music.

           “The NAACP commissioned the album to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and to address whether we (African-Americans) are really free. It was also addressing the issues of apartheid in South Africa. The music was a vehicle to provide support to galvanize the spirit of those people who were protesting inequalities. The pot was boiling then, and Max was brave enough to initiate that protesting spirit in the music. He was a true creative spirit. I was approached to be the Music Director for the event, and I was ecstatic. Cassandra will be the only person who has done it before; she did it with Max 30 years ago, which was completely different from the recording.”-JAY SWEET

To order tickets to the Max Roach Centennial Celebration, log onto njpac.org or call (888) GO.NJPAC.

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