"In this business, it's not what you have done but what have you got new," says master percussionist Max Roach. "If you want to keep recording and stay alive, you cannot repeat yourself. This is the fate of all of us."
Which may explain why Max Roach, who performs at this afternoon's Capital City Jazz Festival both solo and with the percussion ensemble M'Boom, is always looking forward.
Even if he could be excused for looking back.
Over the last 40 years Roach has been the most influential drummer in jazz, a master of melody in the rhythm mode, the instrument's most consistent thinker and poet. A poll of his musical peers voted him Greatest Ever, Drums.
"If my contribution has been anything," he reflects, "it's taking the drum out of the basement and putting it in the front line. 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. In Far- and Middle-Eastern societies, and in Afro-Cuban music, percussion has always been provided by three or four players. 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."
Roach, 60, points out that he's "part of a tradition that includes Baby Dodds and Chick Webb and Gene Krupa and Big Sid Catlett and Kenny Clarke. I want to add my little voice to saying this is a first-class instrument that can create and deal with the world of sound as any other instrument has dealt with it, even if it's not as melodic. Music itself is just part of the world of sound. The traditional definition of music is an equal triangle of harmony, melody and rhythm, but it's still just a part of the world of sound."
With his total command of polyrhythms and coloration, and his ability to magnify the suggestive powers of sound devoid of scales, intervals or harmonies, Roach has made his drum set the equal of a chromatic instrument. One can actually walk away from a Roach solo humming a melody. His synthesis of vitality and sophistication led to his being called the Art Tatum and the Duke Ellington of the drums. He was the favored drummer of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, giants with whom he helped to establish the foundations of be-bop.
But rather than locking himself in stylistically, Roach remained open to innovation. He became a key figure in what has come to be known as the hard bop movement of the late '50s, emerged as one of the major voices in the civil rights and black nationalist movements of the '60s, helped fuel the fires of free improvisation. He's remained adaptive and adventurous, and as a result his list of sidemen/compatriots is a virtual Who's Who of jazz, including Parker, Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Clifford Brown, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, Anthony Braxton and Cecil Taylor.
Born in North Carolina, Max Roach grew up in Brooklyn, playing piano in his neighborhood Baptist church. His first percussion experience was with a Boy Scout marching band, and after getting a drum set as a grammar school graduation present he was hooked.
Of course, it didn't hurt to be in the absolute center of the jazz universe. At 15 Roach was working shows on Coney Island, and "at 16 I was out working with Duke Ellington, when I didn't know anything at all." He used to paint on a mustache with his mother's eye liner to get into the fabled jazz clubs on 52nd Street, the street that never slept.
"And I wasn't the only one," he laughs. "There was a whole group of us. We wanted to hear Hawk Coleman Hawkins and them so badly. The club owners knew who we were, but we'd come in with shirts and ties on and try to act like adults. It wasn't as tight during that period as it is today. Growing up around Harlem and Bed-Stuy, you could work the clubs when you were 15, 16.
"The heavyweights like Lester Young and Hawkins would come into the little corner joints. For them it would be warming up, keeping their chops sharp. People would converge where there was a pianist and a rhythm section. That was then, but every generation has produced great people playing straight ahead. Ways are always being found by the creative people to make things happen."
Roach got his bachelor of arts degree from the Manhattan School of Music and his master's from 52nd Street, and served his musical internship in Charlie Parker's seminal quintet, emerging as a leader in the '50s. In 1960 he was part of a group of jazz artists integrating musical and political ideas in order to force a transition from the cultural nationalism symbolized by hard bop to a political nationalism reflecting the growing black consciousness of the time. One of Roach's most important recordings, "We Insist: Freedom Now Suite," coming out in 1960 just seven months after the first sit-in demonstrations in the South, became something of a cause ce'le bre.
"Nat Hentoff had written the liner notes," he recalls, "and one piece was titled 'Tears for Johannesburg' to commemorate the Sharpeville massacre. He gave a brief explanation of the tragedy. It went into South Africa as a jazz record, but when the liner notes were read by the authorities there, they banned it. And that hit the international press and it became one of the best sellers that I had ever had -- not that it was that great," he adds.
Roach continued to record, but as the '70s loomed he began to sense a climate unreceptive to his straight-ahead, purist approach. Even his record company was pushing him toward fusion. Roach resisted, and as a result he didn't record for six years.
"When we look at the history of that period, when the first wave of Republicans headed by Nixon came in, it seemed to diffuse the Dylans and the black pop groups that were doing songs like 'Keep On Pushing.' Everything in the music and the culture was turning toward that consciousness , but the industry retooled and we were all asked to change over. You can speculate on these things, but everybody went right all of a sudden after this period of political awareness. Now we're almost back to square one in that area.
"But record companies are also faced with surviving, and so they tried all kinds of things," Roach says pragmatically. "They figured if they fused popular music with jazz, it would enhance sales. My response to their wanting something familiar was to do an album based on spirituals, 'Lift Every Voice and Sing.' 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.
"And I'm glad I did. I got a great deal out of it -- an opportunity to sit down with an orchestra, a chorus. A lot of the things I'm doing now grew out of my experience up there."
Roach became a full-time professor, but it would be several years before he could convince the music department to create a jazz major. "We didn't understand each other," he says. "The classical people were not aware that jazz was as much of a science as it was until one of the students gave a demonstration on how he could create new melodies on a brief harmony. 'Giant Steps' is a 16-bar harmonization, but you can play it for seven or eight minutes, and each time you repeat the 16 bars you create a new melody on it. That's the essence of jazz improvisation. We had no idea they didn't know what we were doing -- they thought we were just blowing at random. When they found out, it was relief for everybody."
Since he started doing concerts again in the late '70s, Roach has cut back his teaching duties to one semester, although he remains heavily involved in the Fletcher Henderson Fund, which provides scholarships to inner-city youths. Ironically, it has been Europe and Japan that have sustained a passion for purist jazzmen, and it was in Italy and Japan that Roach found companies willing to record him with no strings attached.
"They're small companies, like what Blue Note and Riverside used to be here," he says. "They give you the kind of artistic freedom you don't enjoy other places. You don't get the big advances, but you do get to express yourself. I'll just be happy when the companies here decide to do it, because the U.S.A. is still the source of it all."
Yet Europe still provides the strongest concert base for Roach. "I can appear there in different settings," he explains. "If I go over with the Quartet, three months later I can go over with M'Boom. Three months later I may have an opportunity to do some duets with Cecil Taylor or Abdullah Ibrahim or Anthony Braxton, and I can come over later with the Double Quartet, or solo. In the course of a year, it allows me to hit Europe three or four times. But you have to bring in new ideas all the time."
One of those ideas is M'Boom, the 10-man percussion ensemble that performs at the Capital City Jazz Festival this afternoon (2 p.m., Washington Convention Center). Roach organized the group, now a cooperative, in 1973. "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.' "
The first such "focused" jazz ensemble, M'Boom utilizes the total family of percussion, more than 100 instruments, with definite and indefinite pitches, and melodies provided by a variety of mallet instruments. Also on today's program is the World Saxophone Quartet, and after a Roach solo set they'll all hit the stage for a truly grand finale. With M'Boom's players spread all over the country, "the logistics of getting us together is something, but it holds us together."
Roach has been busy on other fronts as well. He performs with his Quartet, with his Double Quartet (adding a classical string quartet) and with symphony orchestras. He recently premiered a concerto for jazz drum with the Boston Pops, and "to see the drum in the same spot as the violinist or pianist, with the whole orchestra behind you and the conductor waving his arm, was a great, gratifying feeling."
He has also collaborated on dance projects with Connie Crothers and the Bill T. Jones/Arne Zane Dance Company, provided scores for three Sam Shepard plays, and sat in with young hip-hop musicians. Last week he picked up an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Wesleyan University. He has records in release, tapes in the can, and his energies seem as unflagging now as when he was matching Charlie Parker's hurricane flights 40 years ago.
"To think of new ideas is difficult," Roach says. "The business and the public are there demanding that you show them something a little different. Every time out you have to prove yourself. But I love this music, I'm hooked on it. I remember watching Duke Ellington in the hospital just before he passed away. He had a piano in his room, and this orchestrator from the Kansas City Symphony flew in and was taking dictation to new music by Duke just prior to his death.
"Jazz is like that," he adds. "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."