The Drummer Who Beat a Path to the Height of Jazz Artistry

Max Roach saw in percussion the full spectrum of musical components needed to make jazz.
Max Roach saw in percussion the full spectrum of musical components needed to make jazz. (2001 Photo By Kevork Djansezian -- Associated Press)
By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 17, 2007

In the last half of the 20th century, there was no more influential drummer in jazz, no greater master of melody in the rhythm mode, than Max Roach. Thanks to his total command of polyrhythms, dynamics and coloration, you could easily understand why he was once chosen in a poll of his musical peers as "Greatest Ever, Drums."

Roach, who finally stopped keeping time yesterday at age 83, helped elevate the drum from its traditional accompanying role to equal, frontline status with other instruments.

"If my contribution has been anything, it's taking the drum out of the basement and putting it in the front line," he told me in an interview more than 20 years ago. "You know, the drum set is one of the few indigenous American instruments, though it's not recognized as such. In no other society do they have one person play with all four limbs. In the classical orchestra, they have three or four men in the percussion ensemble. It's the same in the African ensemble. And they're all hand players.

"This foot thing came out of the U.S.A.," he went on, sounding very much like the professorial advocate of the genre that he always was. "The jazz drum set itself is uniquely American, yet the drummer has always been treated as a second-class citizen. I've tried in my own humble way to say that this instrument can create sound design that can be arresting and interesting, intellectual, full of feeling."

A lifetime of achievement and innovation countered any need for humility. To witness the mastery, go to YouTube, which hosts a good number of Roach's solo and ensemble performances. His playing shows power, control, precision and sharpness of reflex, as well as the anticipation and empathy that made him both an ideal leader and superb accompanist -- or maybe accelerator. (Check out "Hi Hat," his tribute to Count Basie drummer Papa Jo Jones, or Roach with M'Boom, or "What Am I Here For," with Billy Taylor.)

In the 1940s, with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, whose seminal quintet he anchored, Roach was a cornerstone of the bebop movement, shifting the pulse from the bass drum to the cymbals, thus allowing for greater polyrhythmic textures and opening up the rest of the drum kit. A decade later, Roach was a key figure in the hard bop movement, when he and the tragically short-lived trumpeter Clifford Brown formed one of most powerful ensembles in jazz.

The civil rights era and the emerging black consciousness movement were the inspiration for one of Roach's best-known works, "We Insist! Freedom Now Suite," which came out in 1960 just seven months after the first sit-ins in the South. The seven-part suite dealing with slavery and racism featured performances by tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and Roach's then-wife, singer Abbey Lincoln; their drum-voice duet on "Tryptich: Prayer/Protest/Peace" is as cathartic now as it was 47 years ago.

Max Roach recordings are notable for what they don't do -- compromise. There is consistency to them, a straight-ahead, purist sensibility. He joked to me that in the early '70s, when marketing jazz meant accommodation to the fusion movement, his response was "Lift Every Voice and Sing," an album based on spirituals.

"That really didn't cut the mustard, because that wasn't the kind of fusion they were talking about. I had an alternative, to teach school, so in 1971 I moved up to the University of Massachusetts."

Roach had always taught by example. Even as a professor, he continued to record, to tour, to explore. "I always needed to look for something else to do on my instrument," Roach said. That's why for more than half a century, he managed to remain at the forefront of music he helped create -- adaptive, curious, adventurous.

Later in the '70s Roach formed M'Boom, a 10-person percussion ensemble that embodied and exemplified his desire to explore the melodic and harmonic possibilities of rhythm instruments, with such mallet instruments as marimbas, vibraphones and steel drums providing deft melodic contours as dozens of common and exotic drums added phonic shading.

"We wanted to experiment with percussive textures because we believe percussive instruments contain the full spectrum of whatever's required musically -- harmonically, melodically, as well as rhythmically -- within the continuum of this music we call 'jazz.' "

No one did it as brilliantly as Roach did alone, working with a musical palette devoid of scales, intervals or harmonies. Yet community was central to his work, whether in the duet format he mastered with the likes of free-jazz icons Cecil Taylor and Anthony Braxton, quartets and quintets (and double quartets that added string players), gospel choirs, theater and dance companies, and symphony orchestras.

In the early 1980s, before hip-hop became big business, Roach was performing with young rappers, exploring the bebop-to-hip-hop connection. It was one long piece, with endless variations, constant renewals and unflagging opportunities.

"Jazz is like that," Roach told me. "What makes the performance is the dialogue created between you and everybody around you spontaneously. And you have to interact with everybody up there, interacting and reacting, throwing out ideas. Jazz is a purely democratic music. It's collective creativity where somebody introduces something and we all get a chance to say something about it. It always amazes me, the whole of it is just a great spirit. It grabs you to the point where it never lets you go until the very last breath."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company