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Legendary Drummer Max Roach Dies at 83

Max Roach, one of the most celebrated and influential drummers in the history of jazz, died early on Aug. 16 in New York City. The cause of death was not disclosed but Roach, who was 83, was reported to have died in his sleep following a long illness.

Roach, along with drummer Kenny Clarke, is often credited with developing the signature rhythmic pulse of bebop during the late 1940s and early ’50s. His associations with innovators such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie gave Roach an opening to hone a polyrhythmic ride cymbal- and snare-centered style that allowed for more rhythmic freedom than was previously available to jazz drummers. Roach revolutionized the drum solo in jazz as well, devoting new emphasis to the cymbals and to the brushes, and he furthered the cause of the drum kit as an instrument that not only kept pace but set it.

Known both for his blinding speed and his ability to make the most of silent and quiet passages by exploiting sounds on the instrument that others in jazz had not previously considered, Roach continued to evolve throughout his career. Once he established the tenets of bop drumming, he broke through barriers he’d created himself, manipulating time signatures, band configurations and the very foundation of the music. Roach was a restless artist who played with both avant-gardists and mainstream jazz outfits, and introduced what he called the double-quartet: his own band of sax, trumpet, bass and drums augmented by a string quartet. Roach continually expanded his reach, working within the media of stage, film and TV and with symphonies, dance troupes, gospel groups and rappers, as well as performing on countless albums as a leader and sideman.

Born Maxwell Lemuel Roach in New Land, NC, on Jan. 10, 1924, he began playing the drums with gospel groups at age 10, after two years of piano lessons proved to be the wrong call for the young musician. He grew up in Brooklyn and later attended the Manhattan School of Music. By 1942, still in his teens, Roach had worked with Duke Ellington and become the house drummer at Monroe’s Uptown House in New York City. It was there that he met and jammed with Parker, and before the decade was over he’d become a fixture on the New York club scene, working regularly with Dizzy Gillespie and others. One of the young up-and-comers who utilized Roach’s talents was Miles Davis, and Roach’s name can be found among the credits on Davis’ groundbreaking Birth of the Cool album. Roach also appeared on The Amazing Bud Powell, Volume 1, and on recordings by Coleman Hawkins, Thelonious Monk, Benny Carter, Fats Navarro and many others during those early years of his career.

In 1954, Roach formed a quintet with trumpet great Clifford Brown, but that band’s tenure was cut short with the death of Brown in 1956. Although devastated, Roach continued to play with that group’s saxophonist, Sonny Rollins. Roach also played during the ’50s and ’60s with musicians such as Charles Mingus, Stan Getz, Lee Konitz, Eric Dolphy, Donald Byrd, Stanley Turrentine and many others. His own small groups included such hot players as Booker Little, George Coleman and Hank Mobley.

As the civil rights movement of the 1960s heated up, Roach became an outspoken advocate for African-American equality. His 1960 album We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite, which featured the vocals of Abbey Lincoln, although not entirely appreciated in its day, is now considered a classic of the era, as well as one of the jewels of Roach’s discography. Roach and Lincoln were married in 1962, divorcing eight years later.

In the early 1970s Roach turned to teaching at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, but he continued to perform and record, if at a less prolific pace than before. In 1979 he formed the percussion ensemble M’boom, and also late in that decade he hooked up with such avant-garde musicians as Anthony Braxton, Archie Shepp and Cecil Taylor. The double-quartet concept followed in the ’80s, as did music created for an Off Broadway production of three Sam Shepard plays, a performance with a rapper and DJs, and a project with a video artist. He also performed many solo concerts during this decade, an almost unheard-of pursuit among drummers.

Throughout his career, Roach recorded for a number of high-profile labels, including Atlantic, Columbia, Capitol and Blue Note, but some of his most interesting and envelope-pushing work appeared on small indie labels and received little attention. He continued creating into the 21st century, writing music for a documentary film called How to Draw a Bunny in 2002. Roach was the recipient of numerous awards, including honorary doctorates from several colleges and a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.”

Originally Published