Memories Of Max Roach

Drummers around the world have a genuine reason to mourn the passing of Max Roach. As the news came out last week so did the emails and phone calls from those who are deeply struck by his passing. In the office today I was listening to the Brown-Roach Quintet, that combination of the most articulate drummer and most fluid trumpeter of the bebop era and thinking about what a life Max had.

Max was, as my friend Freddy Gruber says, "the real deal." A great player and a revolutionary musician. A giant who played with Parker when he was a teenager, was on the first bebop recording with Coleman Hawkins, and invented the genre of hard bop with Clifford Brown. Along the way he was on recordings such as Miles Davis Birth of the Cool, all the original Charlie Parker Quintet stuff, Sonny Rollins' Saxophone Colossus, and Bud Powell’s trio work. During the period when jazz became the most important artistic innovation of the Twentieth Century, Max Roach was the first-choice drummer for the greatest leaders in jazz.

Sit down with his CDs with Clifford Brown or the Concert at Massey Hall with Bud Powell, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Charles Mingus and you’re amazed. He played every bar as if it were a mini-composition–every note so crisp and articulated they are as definite as periods and exclamation marks. He could play at fast tempos with greater clarity than anyone. He was really the first drummer to keep time while simultaneously holding down a series of deeply melodic conversations with all the various members of the band.

In the end, of course, jazz alone could not hold such an adventurous mind and talent. He became an eloquent fighter for civil rights through his music in the Sixties, a professor in the Seventies, a leader of groundbreaking duo work with Anthony Braxton and others, the founder of the M’Boom percussion group, and a classical explorer with his double quartet. He searched all his life for new sounds and higher musical truths.

I interviewed Max only once, when helping out with a story at the old Drums & Drumming Magazine (which also was founded by DRUM!’s editor Andy Doerschuk). He told me a story that he must have liked because he’d told it many times. It happened in 1954 or ’55 when Brown and Roach were playing at the Hotel Dispatch in St. Louis. In those days, bands still came into town for a week at a time. The Quintet would rehearse in the afternoons and sometimes local musicians would come by, including Oliver Nelson, then budding saxophonist. Later, Oliver would record the glorious The Blues and The Abstract Truth and become a successful composer of movies scores in Hollywood. But at the time he was trying to show Brownie and Roach that he could compose hot, hard-to-play bebop. During the first day’s rehearsal Nelson came up to Clifford and said “Mr. Brown, Mr. Brown, I’m a composer and I’ve written a tune and I hope you’d look at it and maybe the band will play it.” And Brown told him “Sure kid, maybe we’ll play it one night later in the week.”

So every day after that Nelson showed up at rehearsal and waited for the band to rehearse his tune, but they never did. Finally after five or six days, he came up to Brown and said, “Mr. Brown, Mr. Brown, why haven’t you played my tune?” And Brownie fixed him with a hard stare, and said “Kid, I could write some shit so difficult you couldn’t play it either.”

But there was nothing that Max couldn’t play. At Zildjian’s 375th anniversary in 1998, Bill Cosby played host as the company paid tribute to Max, Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones and Louis Bellson. Cosby told of his teenage days in Philadelphia, when he himself was an up-and-coming drummer. When hot jazz bands came to town he and his buddies would go early so they could sit in the front row and watch the drummer. “I would listen to the bands for a few tunes,” Cosby said, “and then I’d turn to my buddies and say ’I can do that.’ And this went on month after month. Then Max Roach and Clifford Brown came to town and the young Cosby and his pals went extra early so they could get great seats to see their jazz heroes. But unlike other bands, in which the drummer’s solo would come late the third or fourth tune, Brown’s quintet began the first number with a 45-second solo by Max. “And then when the rest of the group came in,” Cosby recalled, “Max was all over the kit, playing all this stuff you could barely believe, much less understand. And right then I turned to my buddies and said ’I could never play this.’”

Don’t worry Bill. No one else could play like Max, either. And no one ever will.