March 2008

Max Roach (1.10.24 – 8.16.07)

While both pleased and proud to have the opportunity to comment on Mr. Roach, one feels the compulsion to transcend, as did he. After witnessing the just desserts delivered at his tasty memorial by greats such as Maya Angelou, Amiri Baraka, Bill Cosby and then some, even a lowly skinsman/scribe such as I must at least attempt some feat beyond the pedestrian. With so many avenues of tribute already taken, alliteration will be my tool of choice.

Aspiration toward a drumming career caused me to hear the name of Max early and often. From my first lessons in grade school, I would make my journey home, snare drum in a shopping bag. More often than not, passersby would say his name upon noticing my instrument. If nothing else, I could do far worse for a role model than Max. I have no way of knowing if these folks were even jazz fans, but I think he always represented integrity and quality to the black community. And, by today’s standards, being a sharp brother with a cool stage name, his own label, and the Love of Ivy probably earned him some points around the way, too. The Jay-Z of his day, perhaps.

Max’s own aspirations must have been layered and limitless. To this day, he probably has done more to elevate the image of both the shiftless musician, and its subculture of the clueless, knuckle-dragging drumbeater, than probably anyone. In addition, his brave activism and work in education is well documented, enabling me to focus on his amazing musicianship.

Roach must have visualized a new Western world in which his instrument could truly stand side by side with any other. The by-product of his daring tuning, implementation of a personal yet inviting vocabulary, and open embrace of the whole of music, seemed to be filtered through a mighty will to arrive almost instantly onto the scene as this thing: this Max Roach thing.

Artistry is, of course, a subjective thing to describe. But you are usually certain when you witness it. Expressive, effortless control of one’s materials, in addition to the stylish self-assuredness that comes with it, is a wonder to behold. In the sports world, people like Oscar Robertson and Willie Mays come to mind. Having gotten to see Mr. Roach in action, usually as a bandleader, was to see the drums played to death, with the ensemble always under the control of a lucid, relaxed mind, with no motion wasted. I feel that the great rhythm-section players are those able to deliver their personal expression in conjunction with a high level of performance of their prime function. Max was able to both extend the work of drumming men like Sid Catlett, Chick Webb, Baby Dodds and Papa Jo Jones, and also exploit the possibilities of independence pioneered by Kenny Clarke. Architecturally and sonically, the subsequent works of Tony Williams, Ed Blackwell, Al Foster and so many more would not be possible without Max’s quantum leap.

Accuracy of tempo and form were necessary to make the world realize the virtuosity at play in the music of Charlie Parker, and also in Max’s later excursions in tandem with Clifford Brown and others. To this day, there is fast, and there is “Max Roach fast” with regards to breakneck tempi. Mortals like myself can only laugh.

This acuity translates to Mr. Roach’s work as a historian and spokesman for the music. His combination of perspective, scholarship and worldliness gave him the acumen to clearly explain that which could perhaps be dismissed as “instinct,” or simply “messing around” with regards to music rooted in African-American culture.

Of course, I would be remiss to suggest that Max’s instrumental achievements occurred in a vacuum. He and the other drum masters associated with the bebop movement, Roy Haynes and Art Blakey, undoubtedly have points of intersection, as they forged the work of their predecessors to create the new music. Where Roach earns his straight-As is through application. The myriad collaborations and fusions of music so common today were pioneered in large part by Max Roach. Percussion ensemble, he did it. Orchestral works, interfacing with various dance and spoken word, he did it all. Almost everywhere I turn for an alternative vehicle to showcase my instrument, from electronica to world music, the avant-garde and beyond, Max Roach did it, and did it, and did it.

Which leads me to advise anyone who loves music: go to see and hear Roy Haynes whenever you can … amen.

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