Obituary: Max Roach / Innovative jazz drummer
Jan. 10, 1924 -- Aug. 16, 2007By Matt Schudel, The Washington Post
Max Roach, dazzling drummer who helped create the rhythmic language of modern jazz while expanding the expressive possibilities of the drums, has died.
Bloomberg News reported that he died early yesterday at a care facility in New York City. He was 83 and had been ill for several years.
Mr. Roach was a founding architect of bebop, the high-speed, harmonically advanced music of the 1940s that helped elevate jazz from dance-hall entertainment to concert-stage art.
In dozens of landmark recordings with such musical giants as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk -- including a 1953 performance that has entered legend as "the greatest jazz concert ever" -- Mr. Roach pioneered an approach to jazz drumming that remains the standard to this day.
An influential force in music for 60 years, Mr. Roach expanded the borders of improvised music by incorporating elements of other artistic traditions, including African and Asian music, dance, poetry and hip-hop. He led performances with as many as 100 percussion instruments on stage, but he also played minimalist solos using only the high-hat, a pair of cymbals mounted on a metal stand and worked with a pedal.
"Nobody else ever had the nerve to come out on stage with a cymbal under his arm and say, 'This is art,' " jazz critic Gary Giddins told the Los Angeles Times in 1991.
He later became a strong voice for racial equality through his compositions and his recordings with singer Abbey Lincoln, to whom he was married for several years. In 1988, he was among the first jazz musicians to receive a MacArthur Fellowship, or so-called "genius grant."
Mr. Roach's most significant innovations came in the 1940s, when he and another jazz drummer, Pittsburgh's Kenny "Klook" Clarke, devised a new concept of musical time. By playing the beat-by-beat pulse of standard 4/4 time on the "ride" cymbal instead of on the thudding bass drum, Mr. Roach and Mr. Clarke, who died in 1985, developed a flexible, flowing rhythmic pattern that allowed soloists to play freely.
By matching his rhythmic attack with a tune's melody, Mr. Roach brought a newfound subtlety of expression to his instrument. He often shifted the dynamic emphasis from one part of his drum kit to another within a single phrase, creating a sense of tonal color and rhythmic surprise.
Virtually every jazz drummer plays in that manner today, but when Mr. Clarke and Mr. Roach introduced the style in the 1940s, it was revolutionary.
Mr. Roach played briefly with Duke Ellington's orchestra when he was 16 and studied at the Manhattan School of Music, but his real education came in the all-night clubs of Harlem.
In 1944, Mr. Roach played drums with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins on Mr. Gillespie's "Woody 'n' You," widely acknowledged to be the first true bebop record.
Mr. Roach worked off and on with Mr. Parker until 1953 and for a time acquired Parker's taste for narcotics. Mr. Roach overcame his addiction and in the 1950s helped trumpeter Miles Davis kick his own heroin habit.
In 1949, Mr. Roach appeared on pianist Bud Powell's groundbreaking "Tempus Fugit" and "Un Poco Loco," then turned up on the influential 1949-50 sessions led by Mr. Davis and Gerry Mulligan called "Birth of the Cool." In 1951, he was the drummer on "Genius of Modern Music, Vol. 2," an important work by pianist and composer Thelonious Monk.
Taken together, these recordings defined the vibrant language of bebop, which remains the dominant form of modern jazz. In the view of many fans, bebop reached its zenith on May 15, 1953, when Mr. Roach joined Mr. Parker, Mr. Gillespie, Mr. Powell and bassist Charles Mingus in Toronto for "the greatest jazz concert ever." It was captured on the album "Live at Massey Hall," released on the Debut record label, founded by Mr. Mingus and Mr. Roach.
In California in 1954, Mr. Roach and trumpeter Clifford Brown formed a widely admired quintet that came to include saxophonist Sonny Rollins. They created a sensation with their earthy but elegant music, which became the foundation of the jazz style known as hard bop.