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Reportage From Max Roach’s Funeral

JazzTimes received the following report on Max Roach’s Aug. 24 funeral through an electronic mailing list. The author is Tom Reney, host of the Jazz à la Mode program on 88.5 WFCR in Amherst, MA.

I attended Max Roach’s funeral today at The Riverside Church in New York City. It was scheduled from 11 a.m.-1 p.m., and it more than honored Max’s flawless sense of time as it began precisely at 11, and notwithstanding numerous tributes and musical interludes, it ended at 1:10. The church was filled to capacity with over 2,000 in attendance and an overflow crowd outside on Riverside Drive.

Speakers included Maya Angelou, Amiri Baraka, Lt. Gov. David Paterson, Congressman Charlie Rangel, Bill Cosby, Stanley Crouch, Sonia Sanchez, Phil Schaap and the Rev. Dr. James Forbes, whose invocation suggested that Max had “modulated from time to eternity.” The Rev. Dr. Calvin Butts gave the eulogy. These were interspersed with music by trios featuring Cecil Bridgewater, Billy Harper and Reggie Workman; Gary Bartz, Harper and Workman; Cassandra Wilson, Bridgewater and Tyrone Brown; and solos by Randy Weston, Billy Taylor and Jimmy Heath, who played “There’ll Never Be Another You” on soprano saxophone. The soprano Elvira Green sang “City Called Heaven” and “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” A brief documentary of Max’s tour of Israel in 2001 was screened, and a video monitor displayed a succession of photos of him. Max’s drum stool and high-hat were placed prominently on the altar; no other drummers played during the funeral.

The speakers wove elements of humor, awe and poignancy in their tributes. Maya Angelou described Max as “dedicated, disciplined and daring.” Poets Baraka and Sanchez each testified to Max’s musical genius and political courage in bold, staccato verse. Baraka’s poem called the names of numerous drummers who are in Max’s debt, and Sanchez riffed on how beautifully he embodied the name Max.

Bill Cosby has long credited Max with making him pursue a career as a comic. Initially, Cos explained, he had wanted to be a drummer. He’d spent $75 for a kit, and he gained a sense of how certain things were done from seeing Vernell Fournier (with Ahmad Jamal) and Art Blakey, but once he saw Max, he gave up in frustration. Later, when he’d become famous and finally met Max, he said, “You owe me $75!” Cosby recounted how impressed he and his friends from the Philly projects were with Max’s sartorial elegance. When they spotted him wearing a blue blazer with a crest, one of them said, “Max must have a boat!” He also noted that “Brooks Brothers must have sold a ton of suits” once Max and Miles and other jazz icons began wearing them in the 1950s.

Phil Schaap talked about Max as a man of sensitivity and strength. Of the special interest that many jazz musicians have in boxing, he noted that Max related it to power. Schaap, the jazz radio legend of WKCR in New York and a close personal friend of Max’s, said that when they listened to records together in these past few years, Max would often ask Phil to put on “Strong Man,” the Oscar Brown, Jr., song he recorded with Abbey Lincoln in 1959. Schaap also described the wounds that Max suffered and carried through the years, of racism and widespread Klan terror in the decade of Max’s birth in North Carolina; the early death of Max’s only brother; and the devastating deaths of trumpeters Clifford Brown and Booker Little, at ages 25 in 1956 and 23 in 1961, respectively.

Charlie Rangel read a letter from Bill Clinton, who praised Max for inspiring future generations of artists by “aligning” his music with the civil rights movement and “promoting ideals of equality and justice.” Lt. Governor Paterson placed Max in a lineage of black heroes including Harriet Tubman, Paul Robeson, and Malcolm X. The Reverend Butts invoked “The Holy Ghost” as a likely source of Max’s extraordinary musicianship; a sense of “righteous indignation” as a guiding force of his activism; and voiced certainty that Max is now “in that number.”

Among those I saw in attendance were Sonny Rollins, Roy Haynes, Cicely Tyson, Chico Hamilton, Odeon Pope, Avery Sharpe, Fred Tillis, Yusef Lateef, Sheila Jordan, Harold Mabern, Rufus Reid, Steve Turre and former New York Mayor David Dinkins.

Originally Published