Maximum Roach

Max Roach is the most highly regarded drummer in the history of jazz, which he should be. At 78—and variously claiming now that he might not be playing again, or that he might be playing again, or that he is tired of playing, or that he has some new stuff he’s thinking about playing—Roach should be saluted for all that he has brought to his instrument and to jazz. Few words can accurately describe him, but genius, even as abused a word as it now is, fits him like a perfectly tailored suit.

In New York in 1944, Roach performed in the very first bebop band under the leadership of Dizzy Gillespie. The style he was playing had been invented by Kenny Clarke, who was then in the army. But Roach went far, far beyond bringing his own personality to the innovations of another man, which is what most artists do in any art form. Roach, due to his jazz experience and his knowledge of European concert music, which included playing percussion and Bach two-part inventions, made another synthesis, bringing to jazz a far more advanced version of the kinds of compositional extensions of thematic material that Stravinsky used to blow a hole in the wall of academic convention.

Roach became the one who brought about a new kind of hearing by taking the trap set out of a military conception in which drummers swung rudimental patterns of the sort heard in marching bands. It was as a result of Roach that drummers began to hear the trap set as an entire percussion ensemble with registers, from the cymbals to the snare to the ride tom to the floor tom to the bass drum. Before Roach’s unprecedented and unexcelled phrasing across the entire instrument, using rhythmic motifs from the melody as the basis for his improvising, drummers heard the snare drum as a huge steak and the rest of the instruments as garnish.

Roach taught everyone that the drums could improvise within the forms just as clearly as tonal instruments did. His percussive inventions have been called “melodic,” which is incorrect. What we hear from him is not melody in the way we get from an instrument with 12 notes at its disposal, but an abstraction of melody delivered in percussive timbres and varied registers. In fact, one could say that a certain kind of “avant-garde” saxophone playing that ignores notes and harmonies but toys with the rhythms of melodic motifs is more in line with what Roach brought into the music than anything else.

Jazz drumming is the most modern conception of percussion in the world, and it’s played upon the most original percussion assemblage to emerge over the last 100 years. The best drummers from Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, South America and Australia surely play with majesty and style. But that assemblage of drums and cymbals that make up the jazz percussion kit is not only an American invention, it is an instrument of special demands, all of which Max Roach has mastered on a scale inferior to none and superior to almost all because he understands the instrument so well. Roach once observed to me that when one is playing the ride cymbal, the snare drum, the sock cymbal and the bass drum, one is not only playing four different instruments with hands and feet, one is playing four different instruments that call for different touches and attacks.

We can hear Roach’s mastery of four coordinated limbs with Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk on classic recordings as he comes to maturity in the late ’40s and early ’50s. In 1954, with Clifford Brown on Brown and Roach, Inc., Roach extends drum accompaniment into the arena of comping on a new level of ensemble interaction, as we can hear on “Sweet Clifford.” His “Mildama” is a timelessly adventurous percussion feature. On “I Get a Kick Out of You,” some of his cymbal crashes while accompanying Brown and Harold Land foreshadow Sunny Murray. Whether playing in the rhythm section or featured, all of Roach’s work is superbly executed, beyond brilliant and emotionally full.

By 1956, Sonny Rollins and Roach were recording some of the greatest interplay between saxophone and drums in jazz history, anticipating what we would later hear from Ornette Coleman and Ed Blackwell and John Coltrane and Elvin Jones. From that point forward, Roach continued to develop his playing, experimenting with “odd” meters, unusual ensembles and protest projects that brought the politics of race to the bandstand.

His appetite for challenge and for new contexts is peerless. For all of the percussion pieces written in the 20th century, none of them approach what Roach brought to the drum solo. He expanded its emotional and tonal palette. He brought ceremonial dignity to it, and a streetwise grit and verve backed up by a sumptuous wit that were delivered with the finest drum tuning of them all.

Taken as a whole, he is the grandest of the grand masters, whether he ever plays again or not, and we should never, ever forget that.

Originally published in June 2002

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