Library of Congress gets papers of Max Roach, influential jazz drummer


Family members watch a clip of their father, the late jazz drummer Max Roach, during a panel discussion at the Library of Congress on Jan. 27. From left are Daryl Roach, Maxine Roach, Raoul Roach, Dara Roach and her twin sister Ayo Roach. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
January 27

When he was in the eighth grade, Max Roach, who would grow up to be perhaps the greatest drummer in the history of jazz, got D’s in music.

His childhood report was on display Monday during a news briefing announcing the acquisition of Roach’s personal papers by the Library of Congress. The collection of about 100,000 items includes letters, business papers, musical scores and manuscripts, photographs, recordings and videos. And, yes, that telltale report card from Roach’s junior high school in Brooklyn.

His documents will join those of other prominent jazz musicians at the library, including pianist Billy Taylor, bassist-composer Charles Mingus and saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Gerry Mulligan. The collection shows that Roach, who died in 2007 at age 83, was a prominent figure in the civil rights movement and had a cultural impact that went well beyond the world of music.

“It’s a window into his work and also into the times,” said Larry Appelbaum, a jazz specialist in the library’s music division. “He was at the nexus of music, civil rights and the black power movement.”

Roach’s five children were at the library for Monday’s announcement, and they were proud of their father’s achievement and the archiving of his materials. His oldest daughter, Maxine, recalled a home in which musicians and writers, including Dizzy Gillespie, Cannonball Adderley and James Baldwin, were frequent guests.


Drummer Max Roach plays on 52nd Street in New York City. Photo circa 1947. (William P. Gottlieb/Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division)

“He had a real sense of his place in the world,” she said.

The low grades in music didn’t keep Roach from becoming a prodigy on the drums. When he was 17, he performed with Duke Ellington and became one of the founding fathers of bebop, the revolutionary jazz style of the 1940s.

In 1944, Roach appeared on the first acknowledged bebop record, “Woody ’n’ You,” with Gillespie and Coleman Hawkins. Roach was a leading figure in changing the way drums were played in jazz, by shifting the principal beat from the bass drum to the ting-ting-ting of the “ride” cymbal, giving the music an open, flowing quality. Long before his death, he was acknowledged as the most important drummer in jazz.

But Roach never liked the word “jazz” and considered it demeaning. In a handwritten essay that is part of the collection, Roach wrote: “ ‘Jazz’ has always meant the worst of working conditions for an artist.”

He preferred to call it “America’s music” or “music in the tradition of Fletcher Henderson or Duke Ellington.”

“The last definition I heard him use,” Maxine Roach said, “was, ‘Our music was part of the world of sound.’ ”

In the 1950s, Roach led a quintet with trumpeter Clifford Brown, which was one of the most influential groups of its time. His collection contains a handwritten manuscript of Brown’s “Daahoud” as well as a contract for the quintet to perform for two weeks at Philadelphia’s Blue Note club in September 1956, for $1,500 a week. The shows never took place because, in June 1956, Brown was killed in a car accident at age 25.

Roach described Brown and his feelings after the accident in an unpublished autobiography that he was writing with the poet and activist Amiri Baraka, who died Jan. 9. The manuscript is included in the collection, along with a musical play that Roach wrote with Baraka.

Roach wrote music that became part of the soundtrack of the civil rights movement, most notably his “We Insist! The Freedom Now Suite,” which included his wife at the time, Abbey Lincoln, on vocals.

He wrote another composition for drums underscoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which is included in a video in the collection, and Roach briefly was involved in a business venture called Afro-Kola — “the taste of freedom” — in the 1970s.

These materials were gathered in a storage facility in New Jersey when the Roach family reached an agreement with Library of Congress — “one of the sanest places I’ve ever been in my life,” Maxine Roach said.

When the movers came to take her father’s things to Washington, it was a bittersweet moment, she said.

“It was like my baby,” she said. “But they treated his stuff like it was gold. I broke down in tears.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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