Max Roach, one of the last remaining giants of post-war jazz drumming who helped pioneer five of its most significant movements—bebop, cool, hard bop, Pan-African jazz and free jazz—died Wednesday at age 83.
Along with Art Blakey and Kenny Clarke, Max Roach emerged in the mid-1940s, transforming the drums from an instrument of big band showmen to a sophisticated, delicate syncopated timepiece capable of enormous personality and individualism.
Through complex rhythms and drum patterns that ran the gamut from a distinct touch on the cymbals to thunderous drum rolls across the entire kit, Roach was the drummer of choice for nearly every major jazz leader of his era. He was particularly in demand by those most intent on radically changing the sound of jazz and making a strong artistic statement.
The significance of Max Roach cannot be underestimated. He was the drummer on Charlie Parker's most important recordings for Savoy, Dial and Verve; he was on Miles' Birth of the Cool; he was co-leader, with trumpeter Clifford Brown, of the first hard bop quintet; he was in the vanguard the Pan-African jazz movement that combined the musical sounds of liberated African countries with the political overtones of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement; and his recordings shortly afterward helped set the stage for free jazz featuring a wider range of percussion instruments and open time.
Like Miles Davis, Roach had a love of everything and everyone exceptional in music and the arts. And like Miles, Max's curiosity, passion and reedy silhouette helped make him a paragon of cool in the late 1940s and 1950s.
Stylistically, Roach was a master at integrating space and subtlety into a driving, aggressive beat. But unlike many of his peers, Roach was about the small things--teasing out the snare, making the hi-hat stand out, thwacking the bass drum twice on one beat, and extracting a wondrous shuddering sound from the cymbals.
Max was two drummers. He was deft at laying down a rock solid beat, no matter how fast or complex. But he also found ways to interject his own messages and wit on the off beats. Miles Davis said it best in Miles: The Autobiography with Quincy Troupe:
"I love drummers. I learned so much about drums from Max Roach when we were playing together with Bird and living together on the road. He would always be showing me shit. He taught me that the drummer is always supposed to protect the rhythm, have a beat inside, protect the groove. The way you protect the groove is to have a beat in between a beat. Like "bang, bang, sha-bank, sha-bang." The "sha" in between the "bang" is the beat in between the beat, and the little thing is the extra groove. When a drummer can't do that, then the groove is off and there ain't nothing worse in the world than to have a drummer in that no groove bag. Man, that shit is like death."
Blakey, Clarke, Philly Joe Jones, Art Taylor and all of the other great bop drummers are gone—except, that is, for Roy Haynes, who remains the last of Bird's drummers and today is still performing.
Wax tracks: There are simply too many recorded examples of Max Roach's greatness to cover here. Hence, I am simply going to list my Top 12 Max Roach cuts.
While this list in no way attempts to rank or rate Roach's recordings, it simply will stand as my favorite dozen. I've selected them because on each track Max was doing something different, something radical and something interesting.
Buy them on CD (they're all essentials)--or simply create an iTunes download mix.
The tracks appear below in chronological order—with the album title, the artist on whose album it appears, and the year it was recorded in parenthesis...
1. Coppin' the Bop (Savoy and Prestige Sensation/J.J. Johnson/1946)
2. Half Nelson (Complete Savoy and Dial Recordings/ Miles Davis and Charlie Parker/1947)
3. Dexterity (same as above)
4. Segment (Swedish Schnapps/Charlie Parker/1949)
5. Rocker (Birth of the Cool/Miles Davis/1950)
6. Sweet Clifford (Brown & Roach Incorporated/1954)
7. Sunday Stroll (Complete Blue Note Recordings/Herbie Nichols/1955)
8. Dr. Free-Zee (Max Roach + Four/1956)
9. Junka (Sonny Clark Trio/1959)
10. Very Special (Money Jungle/Duke Ellington/1962)
11. 3/4 v. 6/8 4/4 Ways (Max Roach Featuring the Legendary Hassan/1964)
12. The Glorious Monster (M'Boom/Max Roach/1979)
Also, Roach was one of the first bebop drummers to incorporate Cuban rhythms into his playing and tags. Early examples of his Latin-tinged beats include Star Eyes (from Swedish Schnapps above) and Bongo Bop and Bongo Beep (from the Complete Savoy and Dial Recordings, also above).
Wax clip: To get a sense of what made Max Roach special, have a look. One can only hope film turns up in the future of Max playing behind Bird and Miles in the 1940s or Brownie in the 1950s. For now, watch and listen carefully to what Max was saying. There was a revolution going on.