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Max Roach: Telling our people's story

By Alexander Billet | August 24, 2007 | Page 9

ASK WHO the absolute greats of jazz are, you'll get a few short words: "Bird," "Trane," "Miles," "Dizz"..."Roach." Few did more for jazz as an art form than Max Roach, who died August 16 at age 83.

Normally the drummer is the nameless guy in the back, the one who just keeps the beat while the "real musicians" do the actual work. But Roach showed everyone what a sham that is. A virtuoso in his own right, a composer, an innovator and revolutionary, Roach was the last survivor of a string of jazz greats from an era that changed the face of American music.

Born in North Carolina in 1924, his family moved to Brooklyn when he was 4. At age 10, he was playing drums in the church choir. By the time his teenage years were over, he'd played briefly with Duke Ellington's orchestra and participated in jam sessions with Charlie Parker that many say helped invent the genre known as bebop.

Roach was "one of the first American musicians to understand the complex polyrhythms of Africa," said longtime friend and collaborator Quincy Jones. In every group and orchestra he played in, he brought that complexity with him. His drumming frequently engaged in a "conversation" as one writer put it, with the other instruments.

Previous jazz drummers had used the bass drum to provide the rhythm. Roach, along with Kenny Clarke, moved it to the ride cymbal. It was a move that allowed greater freedom and improvisation for the whole group, and would define bebop and its successors.

Bebop's sound was, at the time, controversial. It relied not on elaborate orchestrations but on the musical instincts of small groups of four or five. Count Basie once called bebop "Chinese music" for its seemingly atonal and erratic qualities. But bebop was also the re-affirmation of jazz as art.

Most bebop musicians consciously viewed themselves proudly as artists. In an America dominated by Jim Crow, lynch mobs and urban poverty, a pride like this among Blacks was dangerous--even revolutionary. So it comes as no surprise that many bebop innovators, including Roach, identified with the radical left in the '30s and '40s. Roach played several benefits for the Communist Party, which had made an effort to reach out to Black jazz musicians.

The late '40s and early '50s was a turning point for jazz with the advent of hard-bop and cool jazz. Roach, in typical fashion, was there at ground zero when he played on Miles Davis' iconic "Birth of the Cool" sessions. Roach demanded an amount of creative control that was--and is--rare in the recording industry. For that reason he and fellow jazz great Charles Mingus founded the Debut imprint in 1952 as the first musician-run jazz label.

It wasn't merely a business move. To him, jazz artists' control over their output was an integral part of the struggle for civil rights in Black America. Two things he did in 1960 reflected both sides of this. He and Mingus organized a festival rivaling the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island protesting its treatment of Black artists, and together with lyricist Oscar Brown and vocalist Abbey Lincoln he composed and recorded "We Insist! Freedom Now Suite."

Largely considered one of the best jazz protest records ever, its cover was a picture of Black men sitting at Greensboro, N.C., lunch counters. Roach's drumming, along with Lincoln's voice, seems to capture the defiant strength of their struggle. In few albums like this one can the "freedom" of free jazz be so directly paralleled to the freedom sought by the civil rights movement in the U.S., South Africa and all over the world.

"I will never again play anything that does not have social significance," Roach said to Down Beat magazine after the album's release. "We American jazz musicians of African descent have proved beyond all doubt that we are master musicians of our instruments. Now what we have to do is employ our skill to tell the dramatic story of our people and what we've been through."

Roach kept true to his word with Percussion Bitter Sweet and Speak, Brother, Speak! as well as the rest of his catalog of over 50 recordings with countless groups and ensembles. Always pushing the boundaries of what was possible in both his genre and his instrument, he formed a group in 1979 called M'Boom, made up of eight percussionists, showing how flexible--and melodic--percussion could be.

Perhaps one of the best modern testaments to his far-reaching influence, Roach performed in the early '80s with rapper Fab Five Freddy and the New York Break Dancers. "I try to show...the correlation between hip-hop and Louis Armstrong," said Roach. "That's how well-rooted hip-hop is."

From bebop to hip-hop, the world looks very different now from when Max Roach hit his first snare. There is no doubt that he played a role in shaping that world. And if his music is taken to heart, so do we.

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