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Drummer Max Roach; Architect of Bebop

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 17, 2007

Max Roach, 83, a dazzling drummer who helped create the rhythmic language of modern jazz while expanding the expressive possibilities of the drums, died Aug. 16 in a New York hospital. The cause of death could not be learned, but he had suffered for years from a neurological disorder.

Mr. Roach was a founding architect of bebop, the high-speed, harmonically advanced music of the 1940s that helped elevate jazz from dance-hall entertainment to concert-stage art.

In dozens of landmark recordings with such musical giants as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk -- including a 1953 performance that has entered legend as "the greatest jazz concert ever" -- he pioneered an approach to drumming that remains the standard to this day.

When Mr. Roach was still in his 30s, fellow musicians named him the greatest jazz drummer ever. He remained an influential force for 60 years, expanding the borders of improvised music by incorporating elements of other artistic traditions, including African and Asian music, dance, poetry and hip-hop. He was among the first to use Afro-Cuban rhythms and unusual time signatures.

He led performances with as many as 100 percussion instruments on stage, but he also played minimalist solos using only a high-hat -- a pair of cymbals mounted on a metal stand and worked with a pedal.

"Nobody else ever had the nerve to come out on stage with a cymbal under his arm and say, 'This is art,' " jazz critic Gary Giddins told the Los Angeles Times in 1991. "Max Roach's whole bearing says he is a musician to be treated like any great virtuoso. No drummer before him had ever achieved that."

Mr. Roach later became a strong voice for racial equality through his recordings with singer Abbey Lincoln, to whom he was married for several years. In 1988, he was one of the first two jazz musicians to receive a MacArthur Fellowship, or so-called genius grant.

Mr. Roach's most significant innovations came in the 1940s, when he and another jazz drummer, Kenny Clarke, devised a new concept of musical time. By playing the beat-by-beat pulse on the "ride" cymbal instead of on the thudding bass drum, Roach and Clarke developed a flexible, flowing rhythmic pattern that allowed soloists to play freely. The new approach also left space for the drummer to insert dramatic accents on the snare drum, "crash" cymbal and other components of the trap set.

By matching his rhythmic attack with a tune's melody, Mr. Roach brought a newfound subtlety of expression to his instrument. He often shifted the dynamic emphasis from one part of his drum kit to another within a single phrase, creating a sense of tonal color and movement.

Virtually every jazz drummer plays in that manner today, but in the 1940s, it was a revolutionary musical advance.

"When Max Roach's first records with Charlie Parker were released by Savoy in 1945," jazz historian Burt Korall wrote in the "Oxford Companion to Jazz," "drummers experienced awe and puzzlement and even fear."

One of those awed drummers, Stan Levey, summed up Mr. Roach's importance: "I came to realize that, because of him, drumming no longer was just time, it was music."

Maxwell Lemuel Roach was born Jan. 10, 1924, in Newland, N.C., and moved with his family to Brooklyn, N.Y., when he was 4. He sang in a children's church choir, played in a drum-and-bugle corps and had his first drum set at 12.

He played briefly with Duke Ellington's orchestra when he was 16 and studied at the Manhattan School of Music, but his real education came in the all-night clubs of Harlem.

"When I was young in New York, we worked seven days a week, around the clock," he said in a 1977 interview. "We'd play downtown from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. Then we'd pack our gear and go uptown to an after-hours club from 4 a.m. until 9 a.m. During the day, there were house-rent parties where you could see [pianist] Art Tatum and [drummer] Sid Catlett. That was our teaching. It was the most marvelous way to learn."

In 1944, Mr. Roach played drums with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins on Gillespie's "Woody 'n' You," widely acknowledged to be the first pure bebop record. Working with alto saxophonist Parker a year later, Mr. Roach performed on such benchmark bebop tunes as "Billie's Bounce," "Koko" and "Now's the Time."

"Everything was on edge with Bird," Mr. Roach said of Parker, whose quicksilver style of music "demanded new drumming concepts."

He worked off and on with Parker until 1953 and for a time acquired Parker's taste for narcotics. Mr. Roach overcame his addiction and, in the 1950s, helped trumpeter Miles Davis kick his heroin habit.

In 1949, Mr. Roach appeared on pianist Bud Powell's groundbreaking "Tempus Fugit" and "Un Poco Loco," then turned up on the influential 1949-50 sessions led by Davis and Gerry Mulligan called "Birth of the Cool." In 1951, he was the drummer on "Genius of Modern Music, Vol. 2," an important work by pianist and composer Thelonious Monk.

Taken together, these recordings defined the vibrant language of bebop, which remains the predominant form of modern jazz.

In the view of many fans, bebop reached its zenith May 15, 1953, when Mr. Roach joined Parker, Gillespie, Powell and bassist Charles Mingus in Toronto for an event billed as "the greatest jazz concert ever." It was captured on the album "Live at Massey Hall," released on the Debut record label, founded by Mingus and Mr. Roach. (The two later feuded over money after the company folded.)

In California in 1954, Mr. Roach and trumpeter Clifford Brown formed a widely admired quintet that came to include saxophonist Sonny Rollins. They created a sensation with their earthy yet elegant music, which became the foundation of the jazz style known as hard bop.

In 1956, when Brown was killed in a car accident at age 25, a distraught Mr. Roach fell into an alcoholic depression. He sought psychiatric help and threw himself into projects with Rollins, Monk and trumpeter Kenny Dorham. He also formed a musical and personal alliance with Lincoln, a singer and actress who abandoned her early sex-kitten image for a stance of black pride.

Their 1960 recording, "We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite," with music by Mr. Roach and lyrics by Oscar Brown Jr., featured Lincoln's sometimes anguished vocals and became an important musical milepost in the civil rights movement. Mr. Roach was proud that the "Freedom Now Suite" was banned in South Africa, and he became increasingly outspoken in confronting racism in his own country.

He and Lincoln, who were married from 1962 to 1970, recorded two other albums and continued to live in the same Manhattan apartment building for years. She was his second wife.

His survivors include a daughter, musician Maxine Roach, and a son, actor Daryl Roach, from his first marriage, to Mildred Roach; a son, Raoul Roach, from another relationship; and twin daughters, Ayodele Roach and Dara Roach, from his third marriage, to Janus Adams Roach. All three marriages ended in divorce.

Beginning in 1972, Mr. Roach taught at the University of Massachusetts and lectured on music throughout the country. He worked with avant-garde musicians Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton and Archie Shepp; formed a drum ensemble, M'Boom Re: Percussion; and appeared with gospel choirs, symphony orchestras, brass quintets and Japanese drummers. He also composed music for dance pieces by Alvin Ailey and for plays by Sam Shepard.

In the 1980s and '90s, Mr. Roach often performed with a string quartet that included his daughter Maxine on viola. He played drums in spoken-word concerts with writers Toni Morrison and Amiri Baraka and sometimes accompanied hip-hop artists.

When asked why he would perform with rappers, Mr. Roach replied, "The world of organized sound is a boundless palette." (He drew the line at jazz fusion.)

He made his final recording, with trumpeter Clark Terry, in 2002.

Trim, dapper and typically attired in a suit and tie, Mr. Roach was a man of dignity who demanded respect for his art. Late in his career, he rejected the term "jazz" altogether, saying it relegated his music to second-rate venues and low pay. He assumed the role of elder statesman, shining the light of his music from the past into the future.

"The thing I notice about this music," he said in 1991, "is that every generation is allowed to make a contribution. You're 'obliged,' is a better way of saying it. You're obliged to make a contribution."

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