I think the death of Max Roach on Thursday has hit jazz fans a little harder than most of us expected.
In New York, Phil Schaap, host of WKCR-FM's Birdflight, a daily morning radio program devoted to the music of Charlie Parker, was devastated. When I gave Phil a call during the show, we spoke for a minute between records about the loss.
Phil knew Max well. In fact, most mornings during Birdflight, Phil would salute Max with an unexpected shout-out, "Morning Max!" The outburst was part slap on the Max's back and part reminder to listeners that this genius was still with us on the Upper West Side. "It's such a huge, huge loss," Phil said on the phone, his baritone voice trailing off. "I guess now I'll just have to shout, 'Max Roach!'" It sounded more like a pained wail than a salute.
Fortunately for everyone with a computer, WKCR is airing a marathon Max Roach Memorial Broadcast that started on Thursday and will run 24-hours a day until next Wednesday (go here to hear the broadcast live).
I, too, feel a void. One of the last living connections to Bird and Brownie and so many other legends whose art and messages I adore is gone. All that's left are Max's CDs, LPs, 78s and downloads. If there's anything we wanted to ask Max about that age or specific recordings or musicians, it's too late now.
In 1986, when I sat down to interview Art Taylor, another great drummer who played with John Coltrane and so many others, he told me that jazz musicians aren't as focused on personality as they are on the posterity of the music they record. "We know that after we're gone we're still going to be here on those records," he said. Funny how true that is.
Which is why I reached for Taylor's Notes and Tones. For those unfamiliar with the book, Notes is an intimate and candid collection of interviews Taylor conducted with dozens of great jazz musicians. When my interview at Taylor's Riverside Drive apartment was wrapped, Taylor left the room and came back with a copy of his 1977 book, inscribing it, "To Marc, I know that you know that I know that..."
Reading that inscription today made me think of Max and that he really shouldn't be missed too much. Nor should AT, who died in 1995. They're both still here with us on all those records.
While re-reading the book last night, I came across the follow exchange between Taylor and Max during conversations they had in Paris and New York in 1970 and 1971:
Taylor: How did you become interested in music?
Roach: I started music in the Concord Baptist Church Bible School. That was during the summers when both my parents worked. It was similar to what they call day-care centers today, but it was the church which took the children. That's where I stared becoming interest in music, at the age of seven or eight.
We had an aunt living with us who was church pianist. She taught my brother and me the staff and keyboard harmony we could use for playing spiritual music. I became interested in the drums in the same church, and I began to study formally. Then i decided to make music my profession. I continued through high school and later went to the Manhattan School of Music.
Taylor: Tell me something about the Putnam Central Club.
Roach: I grew up in Brooklyn, as you know, and Putnam Central was the place where we used to play. I liked the gentleman who owned it at that time very much and respected him a great deal. He took an interest in me. He was an old West Indian man. I knew him as Mr. John [Parish]. I had a studio there and moved in a piano, some vibes and drums.
He had a small ballroom downstairs where we used to have sessions on weekends. I guess that played a major part in whatever I have accomplished in this business. I was trying to promote sessions and organize bands, like most of us were doing at that time. It helped us learn something about our craft.
The music that has been left to us is a great, great gift. We are very fortunate indeed to have this kind of musical heritage handed down to us.
Taylor: Would you tell me about technique in relation to your instrument?
Roach: I find there are two kids of techniques, and I can tell you a funny story about that:
I was going to the Manhattan School of Music and working on 52d Street at the same time. I was paying for my tuition by playing on 52d Street with Bird and Coleman Hawkins. The percussion teacher at Manhattan asked me to play as a percussion major and told me the technique I used was incorrect. This eventually made me change my major to composition. If one thing doesn't work, I go on to another, which I've found very rewarding.
The percussion teacher told me, 'This is the way you have to play in order to be a percussion major.' That particular technique would have been fine if I had intended to pursue a career in a large orchestra playing European music. But it wouldn't have worked on 52d Street, where I was making a living.
There was a conflict there until it dawned on me that I was involved in two kinds of techniques. On the one hand, I was playing with people like Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Parker and emulating Jo Jones, Sidney Catlett, Chick Webb and Kenny Clarke. On the other hand, if I had used the technique that the percussion teacher wanted to involve me in at Manhattan, it would not have been adequate for 52d Street.
By the same token, the technique I was using then, that I use today, that I was trying to learn and am still learning about today, couldn't be used in European music.
This is truly segregation: There's a highly developed technique for playing black music, and I imagine there's a highly developed technique for playing European music, which you learn in school. The two techniques are different. Our black technique is difficult, and it changes constantly. It's the kind of music which develops its own techniques with the times, so to speak. Each new generation of musicians has the opportunity to bring something new to the music, if they are aware of what went on before them, of course.
Hey now, AT. Like Max, you're still here with your sticks flashing on all those recordings—and in your book. I know that you know...
Wax clip: While I Remember Clifford was written by Benny Golson in tribute to Clifford Brown, after Brownie died in a car crash in 1956, the song's sorrow and joy applies now to Max as well. I Remember Clifford is really Taps for any jazz great who dies.
Go here for a rare clip of Lee Morgan playing the tune. That's Golson on tenor and Jimmie Merritt on piano in 1958.
I think this I Remember Clifford may be my absolute favorite. I hope you find it just as moving and apropos. Hail and farewell, Max. We'll be listening.