February 25, 2013: Maxwell Lemuel Roach is generally considered one of the most important drummers in history.
Max Roach was born on January 10, 1924, in the small town of New Land, N.C., and grew up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. He began studying piano at a neighborhood Baptist church when he was 8 and took up the drums a few years later.
Even before he graduated from Boys High School in 1942, savvy New York jazz musicians knew his name. As a teenager, he worked briefly with Duke Ellington’s orchestra at the Paramount Theater and with Charlie Parker at Monroe’s Uptown House in Harlem, where he took part in jam sessions that helped lay the groundwork for bebop.
By the middle 1940’s, he had become a ubiquitous presence on the New York jazz scene, working in the 52nd Street nightclubs with Parker, the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and participating in such seminal recordings as Miles Davis’s “Birth of the Cool” sessions in 1949 and 1950.
In the late 1950s, he led a group that was among the first in jazz to regularly perform pieces in waltz time and other unusual meters in addition to the conventional 4/4. In the early 1960s, he was among the first to use jazz to address racial and political issues, with works like the album-length “We Insist! Freedom Now Suite.”
“We Insist! Freedom Now Suite,” played variations on the theme of black people’s struggle for equality in the United States and Africa. The album, which featured vocals by Abbey Lincoln (Mr. Roach’s frequent collaborator and, from 1962 to 1970, his wife), received mixed reviews: many critics praised its ambition, but some attacked it as overly polemical. Roach was undeterred.
“I will never again play anything that does not have social significance,” he told Down Beat magazine after the album’s release. “We American jazz musicians of African descent have proved beyond all doubt that we’re master musicians of our instruments. Now what we have to do is employ our skill to tell the dramatic story of our people and what we’ve been through.”
In 1972, he was offered a position at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, becoming one of the first jazz musicians to teach full-time on a college level. And in 1988, he became the first jazz musician to receive a genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation.
Teaching music did not mean turning his back entirely on performing. By the late ‘70s, Roach formed a new quartet, two of whose members — the saxophonist Odean Pope and the trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater — would perform and record with him off and on for more than two decades.
By the early ‘90s, Roach had reduced his teaching load and was again based in New York year-round, traveling to Amherst only for two residencies and a summer program each year. He was still touring with his quartet as recently as 2000 and remained active as a composer.
Max Roach died on August 16, 2007. Max Roach was remembered at his funeral not only as a brilliant drummer who helped bring about radical changes in American music, but also as a committed activist who worked hard to bring about radical changes in American society.
Roach ''used his music as an instrument of our struggle,'' the Rev. Calvin O. Butts III of Abyssinian Baptist Church said in eulogizing Roach.
Max Roach, we honor your memory and recognize your contributions.
*Source, The New York Times, 8/16/07