"It's a United Nations of percussion," says Max Roach about tonight's "Sacred Drums" concert at Duke Ellington School.

Indeed it is. Roach, a significant figure in modern American music, is hardly hyperbolizing about this summit bringing together some of the world's greatest percussionists: Roach, representing the American school of jazz drumming; Nigeria's Babatunde Olatunji; Puerto Rico's Tito Puente, king of the timbales and an important figure in Latin music; Afro-Cuban percussionist Daniel Ponce; conga and bata master Milton Cardona, also from Puerto Rico; Japanese kodo drummer Seiichi Tanaka; and Native American drummer and dancer Benito Concha.

"It's combining the languages of drumming, which all have something in common," Roach says. "We all play different kinds of percussion instruments, but when you say 'one, two, three, four,' we all understand that."

The "Sacred Drums" project was organized by Marta Vega, director of the Caribbean Cultural Center in New York (where there will be a performance tomorrow) and is part of District Curators' Multi Kulti season.

What's key, Vega says, "is the fact that for people of color the drums are essential in terms of communication, in terms of ritual, in terms of calling down energies and spirits to actual material form. The fact that the drum has survived for African descendants throughout the Americas in the same form that it left Africa" is also important, as was bringing "those kinds of master drummers together because they speak with one voice."

But not one spirit.

In Tanaka's tradition, the sound of drums represents the voice of Buddha. Cardona has made public the drum-fueled liturgy of the Afro-Cuban Santaria religion. Roach himself started playing drums in gospel choirs at age 10.

"It's not art for art's sake, or rhythm for rhythm's sake," says Vega. "It's rhythm grounded in the sacred culture of each of the musicians and the experiences that we bring as racially and culturally diverse people. That's why the program is called 'Sacred Drums' -- it speaks to that spirit and that energy that each of us has brought to the world."

Oddly enough, the evening will be framed not by a percussionist, but by a trumpeter, Mario Bauza. However, Roach points out, as the chief writer and arranger for Machito's Afro-Cuban bands in the '40s and '50s, Bauza was a crucial figure in the "Cubop" movement that enriched both jazz and Latin music.

"Mario's taken each one of our musical personalities and put us in an orchestrated musical situation where our talents are best shown as individuals," Roach says, adding that a quintet will accompany the drummers. "And on the finale, we will play for and accompany each other. ... We're all in good hands."

The project is typically adventurous for Max Roach. No percussionist better symbolizes the spirit of innovation, which may explain why Roach, 65, was voted the greatest drummer of all time by his peers in a magazine poll, recognizing five decades of forward motion. He first made his mark in the '40s as a cornerstone of the bebop movement with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and others. With fellow drummers Kenny Clarke and Art Blakey, Roach turned the rhythm around to cope with the radically new music, 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.

In the process, Clarke and Roach elevated the drum from its traditional time-keeping background role to front-line status. Roach himself became a master of solo drum improvisations notable for their tonal substance and orchestral breadth.

Roach has thrown himself into every possible breach, always seeking new challenges and new ways to deal with his instrument, from the '50s bop Quintet he led with Clifford Brown to M'Boom, the percussion ensemble celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. The drummer also perfected the art of duet-as-dialogue, from singular encounters with Cecil Taylor, Dizzy Gillespie and Anthony Braxton to mass conversation with symphony orchestras, theater and dance companies and gospel choirs.

"It stimulates things that keep you alive and help you survive out here," Roach says.

Roach emerged in the '60s as an articulate voice for the civil rights and African American cultural arts movements. His "We Insist: Freedom Now Suite" came on the heels of the first North Carolina student sit-ins in 1960 and a decade later Roach helped establish one of the country's first degree-granting programs in jazz at the University of Massachusetts, where he remains an adjunct professor and, it seems, perennial student. Last week, Roach was teaching a master class involving simple rhythm: "In demonstrating to the students how to play in an accompanying groove and really have fun with it, I got so carried away I played most of the class myself."

Like his sense of drumming, Max Roach's sense of history is forward-looking. He has always embraced the new -- from bebop to hard bop to free jazz to hip-hop; eight years ago, before rap became big business, Roach was performing at New York's Kitchen with young rappers.

"I try to show my students the correlation between hip-hop and Louis Armstrong," Roach explains. "That's how well-rooted hip-hop is, coming out of an environment where people were denied any kind of cultural enrichment. ... It makes you create when you have to. If Louis Armstrong had had the training to go to the conservatories, learning the history of music in the classical tradition, we never would have had jazz."

Next year, the San Diego Repertory Theatre will present the world premiere of "The Life and Life of Bumpy Johnson," a "bopera" Roach has scored to Amiri Baraka's words and lyrics. "We just finished a concert reading in New Jersey," Roach says. He won't reveal anything about the work, except that "it's a musical comedy and it's hilarious."

Of course, the jazz life is seldom a musical comedy, but it can have a show-stopping happy ending. After collecting a houseful of honorary doctorates and awards from around the world, Roach did receive a rare financial reward two years ago in the form of a $372,000 MacArthur Fellowship "genius grant," the first jazz musician to be so honored. Those who know Max Roach are probably surprised that he didn't immediately underwrite five decades of dream-projects, but those who know the MacArthur program will appreciate its restraints.

"They make sure you don't spend it all at one time," Roach reports. That didn't stop him from calling around to ask if he could "borrow on all of it to just do what I wanted to do. But they don't allow it, it's your money, but over five years. Now I appreciate that. I hesitate to think I might have blown the whole thing."