A Life of Reinvention

Max Roach, the most ingenious drummer to rise with and define the nature of modern jazz, died on August 16. The news was hardly unexpected: He was 83 and had long battled that dreadful disease, Alzheimer’s. He rarely recorded or appeared in public during the past decade; his final bow, a 2002 collaboration with Clark Terry (Friendship), came as an isolated bolt from the blue, a shaking of the branches in the autumn of a career that endured more than its share of winter. So why does his passing darken the sky?

Well, for one thing, a curtain has descended—when the last of the Mohicans goes, the world grieves a bit more than for most mortals. With the passing of Max, bop belongs to the ages. A few members of its second wave remain with us, most prominently James Moody, Lee Konitz, Hank Jones and those graduates of Bud Powell’s Modernists, Roy Haynes and Sonny Rollins. But Roach was the last survivor of Charlie Parker’s “Koko” session, the last constituent (as Parker might have said) in the first wave of benign revolutionaries who brought the new music to fruition at the Onyx Club, the Three Deuces and, as we learned only a couple of years ago, Town Hall, on June 22, 1945.

Of course, Roach was not one to look back or stand on his laurels. You can count on your fingers the number of times he reconvened with his contemporaries to play in the bop style during the past half century. He first recorded, at 19, with Coleman Hawkins, in 1943, and within a year began working with Gillespie and Parker, while also touring as a member of Benny Carter’s orchestra. The breakthrough year for bop and Max was 1945. Before that, the modernists made do with swing drummers or trained younger adepts like Stan Levey in the exigencies of music that might be played very fast or very slow but was almost always volatile in a way that demanded the drummer’s complete involvement and hair-trigger reflexes.

Kenny Clarke had paved the way, changing the primary time-keeping component from the skins to the cymbals and using the drums to prod and engage soloists. But Max was simply born to the manner, the drummer Bird and company had been waiting for. He was lean and cunning, tuning his drums high, driving the rhythm with focused efficiency, developing polyrhythms with crystal clarity—playing the music rather than letting it play him, a distinction that took new meaning in the middle 1950s, when his solos shunned the trap drums tradition of virtuoso buildup in favor of melodic incisiveness.

After 1945, when he recorded with Sarah Vaughan as well as Parker, Roach became the key percussionist of modern jazz; for the next dozen years, he was everywhere. The bookends of his early career were a couple of two-year associations—working with Parker’s band in 1947-49 and, in what may have represented the peak of his professional life, co-leading the magisterial, doomed quintet with Clifford Brown, in 1954-56. In those same years, he helped to shape the budding luster of Bud Powell, Miles Davis, J.J. Johnson, Lee Konitz, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz, Charles Mingus, Herbie Nichols, Abbey Lincoln and others.

Like Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, he was always “there” when needed—at Rockland Palace, the birth of the cool, Massey Hall, Brilliant Corners. In 1952, Max and Mingus created Debut Records, a pioneering attempt to put musicians in charge of their own recordings. Most of his pioneering was in the realm of pure music: When Parker and Powell separately investigated Latin rhythms, Roach gave them foundations of blistering individuality; when Monk and Rollins separately investigated waltz rhythms, Roach gave them a modish confidence. He perfected the soon ubiquitous practice of trading fours on Parker’s “Bird Gets the Worm,” and took that gambit to another level a decade later, trading ones with Rollins on the latter’s “Someday I’ll Find You.”

That track came from two sessions, in early 1958, that made up Rollins’ Freedom Suite, which in retrospect has come to suggest a demarcation in Roach’s career. Before it, almost everything he did was in the idiom of bop and its direct tangents. Reeling from the death of Clifford Brown, he rebuilt his quintet with Kenny Dorham, a trumpet player in the bop tradition. After Freedom Suite, we have a new Max Roach. In June, he debuted the band that introduced a remarkable 20-year-old trumpet player, Booker Little, whose impulsive phrasing—asymmetrical and dissonant yet tenderly intoned—seemed to revive Roach’s appetite for endless modernism. He replaced piano with tuba in that band, and made himself available for adventurous orchestral works by George Russell, Randy Weston, Mingus and the Boston Percussion Ensemble.

In 1960 and 1961, Max and Abbey Lincoln, with whom he had twice recorded in a straight jazz context, made three stirring albums that melded jazz with black history and contemporary social conscience: We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite, Lincoln’s Straight Ahead and Roach’s Percussion, Bitter Sweet. At the same time, he grew more deeply involved with the avant-garde as represented by Little and Eric Dolphy, and with vocal choirs. Constantly in transition, he and Mingus turned even a trio date with Duke Ellington (Money Jungle) into a prickly battle of wits. He led bands that included Freddie Hubbard, in 1965, and Charles Tolliver and Gary Bartz, in 1968, but found little traction, and ceased to record for three years.

Roach returned in the 1970s with a choir, on Lift Every Voice and Sing, and the percussion ensemble M’Boom. The loft era in New York inspired him again, and he appeared in duets with musicians far removed from the music he had helped design, including Archie Shepp, Anthony Braxton, Connie Crothers and, in two infamous tussles separated by 20 years, Cecil Taylor. For two decades, he led a steely quartet with no chordal instrument and no soft edges, encouraging his longtime partners, trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater and saxophonist Odean Pope, to go for broke. For a while he added a string quartet, including his daughter Maxine on viola, touring as the Max Roach Double Quartet. Occasionally he organized other bands, leading the (apparently unrecorded) So What Brass, or teaming with percussionists like Olatunji and Tito Puente.

In the 43 years between Freedom Suite and the valedictory with Clark Terry, he reunited with the 1940s insurgents only six times—most memorably on The Bop Session, in 1975, and in combustible duets with Gillespie, recorded in Paris in 1989. Yet during those decades, the peripatetic drummer reinvented himself and the image of the solo percussionist. Max had become a recitalist. This was perhaps his most improbable and radical innovation. He showed up in a concert hall with nothing more than sticks and a hi-hat cymbal, as casually as if he were carrying a bow and violin. He would play spellbinding mosaics, usually in deference to his predecessors, Jo Jones and Sid Catlett, demanding the highest respect for himself and the drums and getting it. Quite an accomplishment.

Originally published in November 2007

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