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***** Max Roach Corner *****

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The Constitution of a Jazzman

Max Roach, at 83, left us on August 16, but his liberating presence lives on in his music

by Nat Hentoff

September 4th, 2007 5:31 PM

Early one morning years ago, I was at the Blues Alley jazz club in Washington, D.C., to do a television interview with Max Roach. As always, I was early. There was no one in the club except Max, alone at the drums, practicing for the night's gig. He played with as much intensity—and as many surprises—as if he were before hundreds of listeners.

Like Roy Eldridge and Phil Woods, Max always played as if it were his last gig on earth. With Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and another drummer—Kenny "Klook" Clarke—Max changed the direction of jazz as Louis Armstrong had decades before.

Washington Post jazz critic Matt Schudel distills how Max liberated jazz drumming: "By playing the beat-by-beat pulse of standard 4/4 time on the 'ride' cymbal instead of on the thudding bass drum, [he] developed a flexible, flowing rhythmic pattern that allowed soloists to play freely, [and] by matching his rhythmic attack with a tune's melody, Mr. Roach brought a newfound subtlety of expression to his instrument."

Off the stand, however, Max was one of the few musicians to publicly speak out, with no subtlety, about Jim Crow in and out of the music business: "We invented, we created the music. . . . Hell, man, this is black classical music. [Compared to the money we get], so much of that European classical stuff is on relief, subsidized by foundations."

Max once instructed me on the correlation between jazz as free expression and the Constitution: "Ours are individual voices," he said, "listening intently to all the other voices, and creating a whole from all of these personal voices.

Since then, when I hear a debate on whether ours is a "living Constitution," Max comes to mind.

Also a composer, the drummer created a work titled We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite in 1960, as the civil-rights movement was gathering momentum and controversy. It helped spur other jazz musicians to bring those national polyphonic protest rhythms into their music.

I was privileged, to say the least, to produce the incandescent Freedom Now Suite performances for the Candid label. By "produce," I mean only that I wrote down the length of each section and made sure Max was present to decide on the final cut. It was his byline, not mine.

Everyone on the session, including the engineer, was swept up in the cascade of emotions that Max and lyricist Oscar Brown Jr. propelled into motion. The magisterial tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins—with a sound that never needed a microphone—actually seemed to fill the building. And that very afternoon, Abbey Lincoln was being transformed, because of Max, from a supper-club singer into the utterly singular and penetrating storyteller who has since resounded around the world.

From slavery (the bitterly sardonic "Driva Man") to "Freedom Day" and "Tears for Johannesburg," to the beatings of black students going on at Southern lunch counters, the Freedom Now Suite created such a surge of rebellion that it was soon banned in South Africa, to the pleasure of everyone who had been in the studio that day.

As he continued to lead influential groups—nurturing such hard-swinging and also lyrically searching younger musicians as the late, great trumpet player Clifford Brown—Max himself was so deepening his mastery that, as Michael Bourne of jazz radio station WGBO said to the Daily News's David Hinckley the day after Max died: "He could play a whole concert on just the drums."

That's what I was hearing on that afternoon long ago at the Blues Alley in Washington, D.C.

In his extraordinarily illuminating memoir Jazz Odyssey (Continuum), the prodigious pianist Oscar Peterson speaks of Max not only as a drummer who could rivet an audience all by himself, but also as a virtuoso accompanist:

"Max . . . has a flair for 'floating'—playing patterns between the soloist's phrases without interfering or disrupting them. This kind of 'sensitive intrusion' is a very special gift. Only a handful of percussionists can separate themselves bodily from the time in order to add another separate linear, yet rhythmic string of improvisational phrases—without altogether shredding the musical fiber of the performance."

Max didn't like the term "jazz," regarding it as too limiting because he could not be limited. With his music certain to endure as long as there is civilization (itself not an entirely safe bet), Max exemplifies what Duke Ellington told me long ago about not heeding transient definitions like "modern," "postmodern," or "cutting edge."

During a break in the recording of the Freedom Now Suite, Coleman Hawkins— himself an imposing individualist—was marveling at Max's strong, bold, often towering melodies. He kept asking Max, "Did you really write this, Max?" Max just smiled. "My, my," was all Hawkins could say.

And in the erupting protest section, Abbey Lincoln startled us with fierce yet musical roars and screams of rage that, in Max's composition, told of the centuries-old black roots that led to what A. Phillip Randolph, architect of the 1963 March on Washington with Martin Luther King, called "America's unfinished revolution."

"I've learned a lot from Max Roach in recent months," Abbey told me that afternoon, "about being me when I sing."

Max had what Oscar Peterson calls the "will to perfection" in continuing to find out through his music who he was. Oscar says that will is a prevailing force among jazz musicians, explaining that "it requires you to collect all your senses, emotions, physical strength, and mental power, and focus them entirely onto the performance, with utter dedication, every time you play.

"And if that is scary, it is also uniquely exciting . . . you never get rid of it. Nor do you want to, for you come to believe that if you get it all right, you will be capable of virtually anything."

But Max also knew, as did Coleman Hawkins, that it's essentially the striving that keeps musicians and the rest of us going. During one of Hawkins's best solos in the Freedom Now Suite, there was a squeak. "Don't splice that!" Hawkins told me. "When it's all perfect in a piece like this, there's something very wrong."

What Max had created was in real, raw time—for all time.

source: http://www.villagevoice.com/news/0736,hentoff,77705,2.html

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  • 6 years later...

Upping this since I have a question...

There is some 'interesting' discussion above but a few recs for things I haven't heard and must look for. I have more of Max on others recordings than things under his own name.

I was looking through some old photos I found a couple I'd taken of Max playing at HMV in New York in the early 90s. Not great photos but a great memory. A superlative demonstration of musical drumming with minimal kit and maybe the best drummer playing solo I've ever seen.

Looked like he was promoting To The Max which made me order a copy. In pretty good condition for the price it came with no notes included. Anyone have this? Am I missing anything interesting in the liner notes? Really enjoying the varied ensembles. Remember looking at the soul note M'Boom albums years ago and not buying them since it thought I might not like. Think I was wrong...

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Herb Wong wrote the liner notes, quite nice. Some photos, detailed credits. PM me your e-mail adress and I can send you a scan.

There is only one M'Boom album on Soul Note. The other three were on Strata East, Bay State (Japan), and Columbia. The Strata East is very rare, found only some download many years ago.

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I´m a huge fan of Max Roach and I´ll never forget the first time I saw him live. It was that great group with Cecil Bridgewater, Billy Harper and Reggie Workman, in 1978. Still remember very well Harper´s composition "Call of Wild, Peaceful Heart" and an excellent version of Round Midnite.

During that time, the only record under his own name, that I could purchase from my dealer was "Speak Brother Speak" , the one you mention in this thread. It´s a great little album. I love it.

Recently I purchased some other albums from the early 80´s on the Soulnote Label I think. "In the Light" is very good, and "Pictures in a Frame", those with Odeon Pope (I saw the group in 1980 but maybe I liked the group with Harper and Workman more).

Also got an LP "In Amsterdam" with that original group and very similar to what I saw life.

Another good set is "In Berlin 1984".

I didn´t purchase "To the Max".

I think one of the last tours he did was with some chinese trio. Didn´t see it, but it got bad reviews.

Recently I saw the DVD "Dizzy´s Dream Band" from the early 80´s with Max playing on some of the tracks (Hot House and Tin Tin Deo I think).

Max seems to like very much what John Lewis does on piano, because you see Max with a big big smile to Mr. Lewis while he´s soloing.......

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Herb Wong wrote the liner notes, quite nice. Some photos, detailed credits. PM me your e-mail adress and I can send you a scan.

There is only one M'Boom album on Soul Note. The other three were on Strata East, Bay State (Japan), and Columbia. The Strata East is very rare, found only some download many years ago.

Thanks Mike I'll just do that. It was definitely soul notes I passed on, maybe the others were with the string quartet, definitely not Strata East ...

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I think one of the last tours he did was with some chinese trio. Didn´t see it, but it got bad reviews.

Undeservedly so, I'd say! Their gig in Zurich was pretty darn great! And very much on the outer end of Roach's musical spectrum. I found it thought provoking and highly enjoyable to see Roach opening up to this type of music.

Saw him in duo with Abdullah Ibrahim, too - much weaker concert, alas, but Roach's half hour solo set was darn great and he was a charmer!

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I have an M'Boom on Mesa/Blue Moon, Live at S.O.B.'s...does that duplicate the Baystate or is that something else?

According to Allmusic, the Baystate was recorded in 1973 and the Mesa/Blue Moon was recorded in 1992. I have the Mesa/Blue Moon, so I can verify that date. Checked a discography and 1973 seems to be right for the Baystate.

Anyway, thanks for the reminder about the more recent M'Boom. Haven't played it in years, so it's time for a re-listen.

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One thing I would like to tell you or ask you about Max Roach:

I´ve been listening to his art since I was a kid (first on records, later live of course), and what I´ve observed is his very very straight manner or workout of his ideas, both in ensemble and while soloing. With Max, I aways felt a very strict and precise manner of playing, sometimes almost metronomic (not in a negative sense of it !).

His drumwork almost gave and gives me an impression that I´d compare to very organized ensemble-ballett dancing, like a line of chorus girls, sheer perfection.

Other drummers that were active during the same time and maybe played with the same or similar artists, like Klook, Philly J.J., Roy Haynes, Elvin, .....how should I say it....it "flows" more, it doesn´t sound so "organized".....

Sometimes it´s almost that I could think about Max´drummin (at least on straight ahead 4/4 time) like a further developement or next step compared to something that someone like Buddy Rich may have started.

It would be very very interesting for me to get your impressions about it, how you "hear" what Max plays. But I must admit I´m not a drummer, but very aware of what the drummer plays.

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The "march" idea may be right.

As an outsider (non-musician), I have the sense that Mr. Roach thought of himself (especially from the late 50's/early 60's on) as much a composer as a drummer, which may have led somewhat to a loss of flow in his drumming.

But I'm not a musician, so what do I know?

edit: To try and clarify what I said (or perhaps not) - I think that Maz Roach was perhaps more concerned than most drummers (I definitely exclude Jo Jones from that "most") with the sound of his drums and drumming. I think that he was also very aware of the architectural qualities of his drumming. These concentrations may have led to a certain lack of flow in his accompaniment.

Edited by paul secor
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I think that he was also very aware of the architectural qualities of his drumming.

Enjoyed reading these last few posts. This quote from Paul nails it, in my opinion. Max was building structures.

To me, Max dances rather than marches, but it's a more formal dance than that of many drummers - maybe more of a gavotte than a lindy hop. (This is not a criticism.)

I'm sure some of you have recordings of the 1981 National Public Radio broadcast of the World Saxophone Quartet with Roach and M'Boom. On the first tune, Hamiet Bluiett's "I Heard That," Roach accompanies the WSQ with one of the hardest, yet lightest blues shuffles I've ever heard. I'm not sure he ever played anything like that anywhere else.

Even in the cultural backwater of Atlanta, I got to hear Mr. Roach on at least three occasions, but never with his quartet. Once was with the Georgia State University big band, once was with the Atlanta Symphony, and once was with M'Boom. Dizzy Gillespie was the guest soloist with M'Boom, and almost missed the gig because the car and driver from the Atlanta Jazz Festival didn't show up to pick him up at the airport. An Atlanta jazz fan who had just flown back into town saw him sitting alone in the airport and asked, "Aren't you supposed to be playing in the park right now?" and gave him a ride.

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  • 3 months later...
  • 6 years later...
On 1/26/2014 at 0:57 AM, Gheorghe said:

A book about the life and music of Max Roach would be fine...

Funny. Earlier tonight I was thinking the same thing, wondering: "Why hasn't someone written a biography of Max Roach?!?" 

So I search the site, read this thread, come to the end, and find Gheorghe's comment.

Because it seems like Roach would be an ideal subject for a biographer. He's one of the most important drummers in jazz history AND his life was interesting for all sorts of extra-musical reasons as well.

Why hasn't an author taken on this project?

Dumb luck? Other reasons?


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