Max Roach | The Life and Music of a Bebop Pioneer

An early pioneer of bebop, jazz drummer Max Roach along with his frequent collaborators – like Charles Mingus, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and Coleman Hawkins – helped birth the sound of modern jazz. In this article, we explore the life and career of the great drummer.

One of the most influential drummer-percussionists of the twentieth century, Max Roach created a new paradigm regarding how drums were approached, arranged, and viewed by others.

He was also one of the first entertainers to venture into the entrepreneurial facet of the industry. A college graduate as well as an educator, Roach also used his celebrity status to amplify his voice in the political arena as he became involved with the civil rights movement during the 1950s and 60s.

Roach’s innovations were many, and they reached far beyond the scope of performance and recording.

Max Roach’s Early Years

Born into poverty, the son of a farmer in rural North Carolina, his family moved to Brooklyn, NY when he was four.

Roach’s beginnings in music came from an outreach program at a local church. Attempting to emulate his older brother, young Max joined the church’s marching band and chose the bugle as his first instrument.

He struggled playing the horn and soon switched to the snare drum. By age 12, Max had proven his ability and dedication to music enough to inspire his father to buy a simple trap kit for him.

It was around this time the family moved to a different apartment. Those that believe in fate would likely say it was no accident this residence included an old player piano left there by the previous tenants.

It was on this piano that Roach would learn the basics of music theory and composition with help from his aunt, who served as the church pianist.

Career Beginnings

Throughout his adolescence, he continued to hone his craft and perform with various jazz bands.

At just 18 years old, he was asked to stand in for a Manhattan concert with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Around the same time, he was starting to make a name for himself in the jazz clubs of 52nd Street in New York.

At age 19, Max Roach first appeared on commercial recordings as a member of Coleman Hawkins’ quintet in 1943. Over the next 60 years he amassed a formidable discography consisting of hundreds of albums, both as a sideman and a bandleader.

His earliest recordings were rather typical for the time. Roach kept impeccable time, mastering the traditional role expected of a drummer.

Although it was apparent early on that his brush technique was exceptional, there was little to indicate the true depth of his talent.

June 22 1945 marks the date of the phenomenal Town Hall Concert in New York City. The crowd had gathered to see Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie weave their intricate melodies as no others could, but Max Roach claimed his place among the giants of jazz that night.

Within the first few measures of the opening tune, (aptly titled, ‘Bebop‘), he informed listeners that the role of the modern drummer had evolved. Ironically, the recording of the show was shelved for six decades.

Rise to Fame

Over the next few years, Roach stayed busy performing and recording with numerous jazz luminaries, including Miles Davis on his first solo album (Miles Davis’ All Stars -1947).

In early 1949, Max reunited with long-time friend and jazz master Bud Powell, who had been temporarily released from a psychiatric hospital. Bassist Ray Brown was brought in to complete the group.

The trio only recorded two songs, both original compositions by Powell. One was the light-hearted ‘Celia’. The other was something else entirely.

‘Tempus Fugit’, is an amalgam of thunderous Romanticism and Be-Bop. Slamming along at 150 bpm, Max Roach plays as smoothly as ever, gliding through the changes and accenting Powell’s virtuosity on the piano.

In many ways, these two-and-a-half minutes of music foreshadowed the heavy jazz fusion that would become popular over twenty years later.

Work with Miles Davis

The following year, Miles Davis would finish recording one of the most groundbreaking albums of the 20th century. It was only fitting that Max Roach was the principal drummer Miles used when recording Birth of the Cool.

Roach played on seven of the album’s eleven tracks (Roach also played on the live session cuts – finally released in 1998). The legendary Kenny Clarke filled in on the other four. Although recording was completed in 1950, the album was not released for another seven years as the studio executives did not know how to market it, or if they should even try.

After a 1950 live performance of the tracks, the prominent music critic Winthrop Sargeant gave the band a great review, but also stated that he did not consider it to be jazz, likening it more to the style of impressionist composer Maurice Ravel.

In hindsight, this is the album that sparked the cool jazz movement. Once again, Max Roach was at the forefront of a musical evolution. It was also in 1950 that Max Roach decided to do something even more impressive.

Return to Education

The prior summer, he had visited Haiti and studied Afro-Caribbean rhythms with master drummer Ti Roro.

Roach was searching for something new, working to expand his musical consciousness. After fulfilling his commitment to Davis, Roach enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music as he “wanted to learn more about the inner workings of what music was about”.

In 1953, he was awarded a bachelor’s degree in music theory and composition. Education became an avocation, as Roach was named to the faculty of the Lenox School of Jazz and later, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

In 1988, he became the first jazz musician to be awarded a MacArthur Fellowship and 13 years later he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Columbia University. He was later awarded the Harvard Jazz Master award, adding to his long list of decorations.

‘The Greatest Jazz Concert Ever’

While working to complete his degree, Roach was unable to record and perform with the same prolificity. Nonetheless, in 1952, the inexhaustible Roach found time to start a record label with his friend Charles Mingus.

The label was only in operation for a few years and its releases limited to mere dozens, yet one of those albums has been dubbed by Prestige Records as The Greatest Jazz Concert Ever.

On May 15, 1953, within weeks of graduating from college, Roach played a gig at Massey Hall in Toronto with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell and Charles Mingus.

Performing under the name, The Quintet, it was the first and last time these five would perform together and the last time that Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie would record together.

The original 1953 Debut label release was titled Jazz at Massey Hall, but 20 years later it was re-released on the Prestige label with the new moniker.

What appears to be nothing more than a marketing ploy has since sparked much debate. Ethnomusicologist, Mark Laver pointed out that, “…the Prestige title greatly exaggerates the importance (and the quality) of the Massey Hall concert, it nevertheless marks the position jazz had attained in the popular consciousness by 1973.”

Opinions aside, the show included a four-minute drum solo called, ‘Drum Conversation’.

With this recording, Roach single-handedly influenced several generations of drummers. Echoes of this piece can easily be heard in John Bonham’s, ‘Moby Dick’, as well as Neil Peart’s first recorded, earth-shaking drum solo from a 1974 concert in Cleveland.

Moreover, in 1994 Peart asked Mr Roach to be a part of the Burning for Buddy tribute to Buddy Rich. Peart also cites Roach’s influence in the 1996 Rush documentary, A Work in Progress.

Study in Brown

In 1954, Roach formed a pioneering partnership with trumpeter Clifford Brown.

For the next two years, they would sit atop the jazz world as a quintet with saxophonist Harold Land, Bud Powell’s brother Richie on piano and George Morrow holding down the bass. Harold Land would later be replaced by Sonny Rollins after playing with the band for a year.

Alongside the likes of Art Blakey and Horace Silver, Roach and Brown pioneered the Hard Bop sound of the 1950s

Their first release, simply titled, Clifford Brown & Max Roach, is listed at #34 in Jazz: A Critic’s Guide to the 100 Most Important Recordings.

Tragically the group’s success would be short-lived, as Clifford Brown and Richie Powell were both killed in an auto accident in June of 1956.

After the tragic deaths of Brown and Powell, Roach continued to perform and record in a similar set-up, but with a new line up consisting of trumpeter Kenny Dorham, tenor saxophonist George Coleman and drummer Ray Byrant.

Dorham would later be replaced by fellow trumpeter Booker Little, another talented young musician who died tragically young.

Less than three weeks after the loss of Brown and Powell, Roach found himself in the studio with Thad Jones. Recorded in one day, the original release included five tracks and had a running time of 38:06. Opening with, “April in Paris”, listeners can clearly hear the sadness in each swirl of Roach’s brushes.

At around four minutes, an unquestionable spark arises from the kit. As much as Max Roach had done for the legacy of music, music was doing for Max Roach by lifting his heart from the depths of sorrow.

The Boston Percussion Ensemble

The following year, Roach had the opportunity to join the faculty at the newly formed (and short-lived) Lenox School of Jazz.

Among others, he would be teaching alongside his good friends Dizzy Gillespie and Percy Heath. Free Jazz pioneers Ornette Coleman and Jimmy Giuffre were also present (Coleman as a student, Giuffre as a teacher).

In 1958, Roach brought a group together which was named the Boston Percussion Ensemble. They made a live recording at the school’s venue, known as the Music Inn.

Far from a typical jazz album, only two non-percussionists performed, and only sparingly at that. It is a concept album consisting of two independent compositions which precede an eight-part suite. The compositions are abstract in nature, especially for that time.

Over a decade later, this style of music would become more commonplace through the works of progressive rock and fusion bands such as King Crimson and the late Frank Zappa.

Just two years later, in 1960, Max Roach would again attach his moniker to another landmark album.

Max Roach and the Civil Rights Movement

We Insist! Freedom Now Suite is a seminal work, not only as a musical album but more importantly as an oral history that addresses both cultural and political injustices experienced by African Americans.

“I will never again play anything that does not have social significance…”, Roach told DownBeat Magazine.

That same year, Roach and Mingus advocated for equal pay for black musicians when Mingus discovered that the Newport Jazz Festival was unfairly compensating performers according to their race.

Music for music’s sake was no longer enough for Max Roach; he was among the first to use jazz as a political voice.

Roach’s Magnus Opus and the Birth of M’Boom

Politics notwithstanding, Roach’s emphasis was always on improvisation and innovation.

“Jazz has always been identified by the great solo improvisers,” Roach said “If you’re a percussionist, it’s creating design using the elements of your instrument and coordinating all four limbs. It isn’t just at-random playing.”

Given this philosophy, it was no surprise to those close to him, that three of the six tracks on Roach’s 1966 release, Drums Unlimited, were unaccompanied drum solos.

This album is considered, by many drummers, as Roach’s magnum opus.

1970 marked the year in which Max Roach formed the M’Boom Percussion Ensemble. In its numerous incarnations, spanning over three decades, the group always consisted only of percussionists.

From 1973 to 1992 they released four albums (plus an alternate version of their debut which includes two additional tracks), culminating in a live recording of Roach’s final performance with the ensemble.

One critic described their work as, “colourful sounds…full of surprises” and “consistently fascinating”. One would expect nothing less from the genius Max Roach. M’Boom was a momentous part of music history.

Renowned percussionist and music scholar Dr Leah Bowden (2018) explains: “Together, M’Boom’s members produced a unique and cohesive library of percussion music integrating elements from African and world music, avant-garde classical music and jazz.

“Instead of writing lyrics, the percussionists set out to encode a politics of diversity and radical inclusiveness into the sound itself.”

Later Years

For many, such an achievement would be a mark of completion or resolution to an almost mythical career. This was the emblematic cherry atop the sundae which eludes the vast majority of all musicians.

Time and again Roach redefined prescribed norms regarding percussionists, education, business, politics and cultural awareness.

In many ways, he changed how people acknowledged music, yet his proclivity for growth remained unfettered. From 1973 on, he recorded another two-and-a-half dozen albums, working with the likes of Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp and Eddie Henderson. And in 1980, he was inducted into the Downbeat Hall of Fame.

Roach’s final release in 2002 was a collaboration with long-time friend and trumpet virtuoso Clark Terry.

The following year marked the official retirement of a man who many consider the most influential drummer to ever hold a pair of sticks. During the 50th anniversary performance of the Massey Hall concert, Roach’s last public performance was a metaphor for the effect he had on the world.

The master of the trap kit played only the hi-hat, as he contributed one small, yet tremendously essential element to something much larger than himself.

Looking to learn more about the lives and music of the jazz greats? Check out our articles on Max Roach’s collaborators Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington.

Author Cory Radosevic, a faculty member of The Temecula Music Academy (guitar and bass), is a composer of original music and lyrics.

He began performing on-stage as a child in the mid-1970s and was officially indoctrinated into the world of Bop, Jive and Swing in 1987, as the bassist for his high school jazz band. A

Although the upper echelons of fame have eluded him (his words, not ours!), he has been privileged to work with pianist Bill Heid as well as tap luminaries Baakari Wilder and Joseph Webb.  He also earned a master’s degree in education from Western Carolina University.

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