The Max Roach Collection at the Library of Congress

New insights into a musical and political hero

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Max Roach
By Caroline Mardok
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Items from the Max Roach collection on display at the Library of Congress in 2014
By Shealah Craighead

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Jazz is synonymous [with] all the negative connections and social inequities that exist in a racially oriented society,” wrote Max Roach at the beginning of a polemic essay titled “I Hate Jazz.” The word “jazz” didn’t sit well with the legendary drummer and composer, even though he was one of its most influential figures.

The Library of Congress displayed that handwritten essay among other cherished gems inside the Whittall Pavilion at the Thomas Jefferson Building on Jan. 27, as it announced the acquisition of the Max Roach Collection. The trove contains around 100,000 items: writings, photographs, rare recordings, letters, sheet music, contracts, videos and other memorabilia.

Negotiations between Roach and the Library began in 1995, when he visited the institution for a lecture, and talks continued toward the end of the decade. Three years after Max died in 2007 at age 83, Maxine Roach, his eldest daughter and a viola player, visited the library when it announced the acquisition of Dexter Gordon’s papers. “She must have liked what she saw,” said Larry Appelbaum, senior music specialist and jazz curator in the library’s music division. “We signed the agreement [for the Roach Collection] at the end of 2012 but felt the responsible thing was to get a handle on organizing the papers before we announced it.”

During the announcement ceremony, the library also displayed engrossing correspondence between Roach and such prominent figures as Maya Angelou, Charles Mingus and Coretta Scott King. Angelou’s 1965 letter (erroneously dated 1964) reveals her feelings on the assassination of Malcolm X a month after the slaying. Mingus’ 1961 epistle is equally impassioned: He conveys his suspicion of jazz patroness Nica de Koenigswarter, after she’d made some adverse comments about the Congolese independence movement leader Patrice Lumumba, who had recently been killed. In a 1981 note to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow, Roach respectfully asks permission to use the civil rights leader’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech as source material for his explosive composition “The Dream/It’s Time,” which kicks off his 1981 LP Chattahoochee Red. The library played a snippet of a music video of “The Dream/It’s Time,” as well as a revelatory 1964 solo piano improvisation from obscure jazz figure Hasaan Ibn Ali, recorded at Roach’s home. Thoroughly modern with a whimsical rhythmic undertow and wayward melodic passages, it sounds like a new Jason Moran composition.

All five of Roach’s children—Maxine, Daryl Keith, Raoul, Dara and Ayodele—attended the ceremony, each offering insights into their father’s life and belongings during a brief panel discussion. “He was very serious about his inventory,” Ayodele Roach said. “I was on hand when he visited his storage lockers. He liked to discover himself.”

Ayodele and her twin sister Dara, the youngest of the five, transcribed numerous tapes for Roach’s unpublished autobiography—tentatively titled Jazz Is a Four-Letter Word—that he wrote mostly in collaboration with Amiri Baraka. The library exhibited one of its chapters, “Making a Way Out of No Way,” in which Roach feels deserted by members of the jazz community in the wake of trumpeter Clifford Brown’s untimely death. The chapter also alludes to how some of Roach’s uncompromising views on civil rights might have influenced other jazz musicians to steer clear of him.

Indeed, Roach became as well known for his strong sociopolitical stance as he was for his music. When asked if Max paid a price for those unbending positions, Raoul Roach replied, “Absolutely! He said, ‘You really don’t pay a price. What price can you put on your integrity?’ But from the outside, especially economically, he paid a price. He was committed to making a change for humankind. He wasn’t going to back down from that for no amount of money. He thought that art should serve the people.”

Maxine Roach articulated her interest in seeing some of the business contracts her father signed over the years. She relayed a story about his tenure with Dinah Washington, who became furious one night about a shady deal she’d signed. “She went backstage, sat her band down and taught them a lesson about contracts. He was so impressed by that,” Roach recalled. “I’m interested in seeing the contracts because it speaks to his passion to be recognized as not only a hard-working musician but as a human being. He fought for that on so many levels.”

The collection highlights Roach’s entrepreneurship with business documents, letters and memorabilia related to Debut, the independent record label he launched with Mingus. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, the drummer also had a short-lived business venture with a soft drink, Afro-Kola, specifically targeted to black America. The library played the jingle, which was marked by spirited churchy vocals, a forceful soul-jazz arrangement and the unforgettable tagline “the taste of freedom.”

Gleeful moments were presented too, such as a mid-’90s video clip of Roach talking at the library about his experience working with Duke Ellington at age 17. Another joyous video vignette shows Roach pounding a thunderous solo in Otto Preminger’s 1954 film Carmen Jones, starring Dorothy Dandridge.

Roach’s eighth grade report card reveals that the master drummer got a “D” in music; that grade didn’t become emblematic of his life as a musician, of course. Throughout his six-decade-long career, he was constantly at the forefront of jazz’s rhythmic pulse. And through such inventive ensembles such as his all-percussion combo, M’Boom, and his Double Quartet, which gave way to the Uptown String Quartet featuring Maxine, he crafted innovative ways of reimagining the sonic and melodic capabilities of drums and percussion. “He was one of the greatest chamber musicians that I’ve ever heard or had the privilege to play with,” Maxine Roach said. “When I was on the bandstand with him, I sat right next to his ride cymbal. Never was it loud. His touch was extraordinary. He listened all the time. And he taught us how to listen.”

Although the treasures have yet to be fully processed, Appelbaum said that a sizable sum has, and is now available for public view at the library’s Performing Arts Reading Room in the James Madison Memorial Building. “We will soon have a finding aid to the collection online,” he explained. “It’s an enormous collection. So being able to find things and provide access is the key.”

Originally published in April 2014

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