Percussion Always Sweet

Seeing as how every November we spotlight the engines who drive jazz machines, it was a slam-dunk decision to honor Maxwell Lemuel Roach with a cover story on the eve of his 80th birthday (born January 10, 1924, in Newland, N.C.).

But sometimes music and images speak more to a person’s character than words, which is why we’ve decided to honor Roach with a photo tribute: “Deeds, Not Words,” named after Roach’s amazing 1958 album for Riverside, features a remarkable and rare collection of shots from throughout the master drummer’s career. (Don’t forget to put on some music while looking.)

In Ira Gitler’s The Masters of Bebop: A Listener’s Guide (Da Capo) Dexter Gordon says, “Max is kind of Mephistophelian. I dig him, I love him. He’s got a very sharp mind, very apt, but personality wise, he’s not a real warm-type cat.”

Maybe so, but his drumming certainly is as warm and inviting as anyone’s.

The same can be said of Jimmy Cobb’s playing. He powered the most famous album in jazz, Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, with an expert mixture of time-keeping and percussive coloration, and he’s had a successful sideman career for more than 50 years. It’s only been in the last few years that Cobb has stepped out front—at least in name—to lead his own band. Ashley Kahn, the author of Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece, catches up with Cobb—the last surviving musician from that incredible session—about his Mob, Miles and Wynton (Kelly, that is).

The legendary drummers continue in our pages with Chuy Varela’s feature on Ray Barretto, a conga player and bandleader who helped revolutionize charanga and salsa music, and who was part of the second wave of Latin percussion players to integrate those sounds into jazz (following Chano Pozo). Because Barretto came to play Latin music via jazz, and not vice-versa, he’s especially sensitive about being called a Latin-jazz musician; jazz-Latin musician—or just jazz musician—will do fine, thanks.

Lou Grassi may be the least known out of our four feature subjects this month, but, as Mike Shanley finds out, he’s not an inferior player. Rather, Grassi’s eclectic skills are so in demand that he plays everything from Dixieland to free jazz, and he’s one of the busiest drummers on the New York City improv scene.

A collection of percussionists this tasty is never bittersweet.

Originally published in November 2003

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