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Drum giant Max Roach at 100: He inspired generations, from Miles Davis and Ray Davies to the Notorious B.I.G.

By George Varga, The San Diego Union-Tribune
Published: January 14, 2024, 6:00am

Who did Max Roach inspire with his astoundingly innovative drumming and exceptional musical eloquence?

It might be easier to ask who he didn’t inspire, given the enormous, genre-leaping impact of Roach, who died in 2007 at the age of 83 and would have celebrated his 100th birthday on Wednesday.

Roach played with nearly every jazz great of his time, from Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Duke Ellington to such cutting-edge mavericks as Cecil Taylor and Anthony Braxton. He wrote music for dance pieces by Alvin Ailey and theater pieces by Sam Shepard, both longtime admirers, as well as doing the musical score for a San Diego Repertory Theater of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in the 1980s. That same decade saw him collaborate with rapper Fab Five Freddy.

Hip-hop dynamo the Notorious B.I.G. learned to phrase his rapping, in part, by listening to recordings of Roach’s drum solos. Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Ray Davies of the Kinks was also a fan.

“The drum sound of Max Roach was an influence on (the Kinks’ 1964 breakthrough hit) ‘You Really Got Me,’” Davies said in a 2006 San Diego Union-Tribune interview.

Fellow Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Bill Bruford, the former drummer in the bands Yes and King Crimson, went even further. He recorded a version of Roach’s classic “The Drum Also Waltzes” that drew praise from Roach himself.

Drummer Spencer Tweedy, the son and periodic musical partner of Wilco band founder Jeff Tweedy, is a younger musician who cites Roach as a key inspiration.

“I love the drumming of Elvin Jones and, especially, Max Roach,” Spencer Tweedy, 27, said in a 2015 Union-Tribune interview.

Roach changed the shape of jazz and drumming in multiple ways. He discussed his work and career at length in a 1993 Union-Tribune interview that previewed his joint San Diego performance with author Toni Morrison.

Here is that interview in full.

Roach’s beat goes on, and on — Drummer won’t rest on laurels

By George Varga, The San Diego Union-Tribune

March 7, 1993

Max Roach has been at the cutting edge of American music for half a century — from helping to create jazz’s be-bop revolution with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in the mid-1940s to playing hip-hop with rapper Fab Five Freddy in the mid-’80s.

One of the world’s most formidable drummers, Roach has perfected an intricate, melodic style that has set a standard for emotional fire and sophistication. He has also earned a lofty reputation as a composer for his acclaimed jazz quartet, large jazz ensembles, string quartets, the Alvin Ailey Dance Company and such playwrights as Sam Shepard and Amiri Baraka.

His previous collaborators constitute a Who’s Who of artistic visionaries, from Duke Ellington, Louis Jordan and Miles Davis to Sonny Rollins, Cecil Taylor, the Japanese percussion troupe Kodo and video artist Kit Fitzgerald.

Still striving and seeking new vistas at 69, he is that all-too-rare artist who refuses to rest on his laurels, no matter how remarkable they are.

“The law is, you have to keep going forward,” said Roach, who joins Pulitzer Prize-winning author Toni Morrison for a sold-out performance Thursday at Sherwood Auditorium in La Jolla.

“What you did yesterday is great, and it may have shattered all records, a la Michael Jackson, but today is a new day — what are you doing, where are you going? … We’re dealing with a world of sound, and there are no boundaries to this world. I’m listening, and I’m constantly hearing new things …. “

Is the insatiable drive to create both a blessing and a curse?

“That’s what separates people who are, if you will, prolific and those who are not,” he replied matter-of-factly from his Manhattan office. “It’s something inside a person; you can’t do enough, you’re constantly at it. As I heard Miles (Davis) say, it’s like being a drug addict; you can’t get enough. You keep trying, you keep trying, you keep trying . . .

“Duke Ellington was writing (music) on his hospital bed. Writers are the same way. You never just stop; you can’t. Once you get involved and discover a little about yourself, you can never stop trying. You take it to the grave.”

Roach chuckled when told of the ancient Chinese sage who theorized that the moment perfection is achieved, the arrival of death is imminent.

“Absolutely,” he said. “You can only get greater. The minute you become the greatest, it’s over. And you can get greater.”

Maxwell Lemuel Roach’s still-evolving career is a testament to that.

Born in the North Carolina hamlet of New Land in 1924, he started drumming with gospel groups at age 10. After studying formally at the Manhattan School of Music, where he was a composition major, he made his recording debut in 1943 with saxophonist Coleman Hawkins.

But Roach had gotten his professional start two years earlier when, not yet 17, he was hired by former Count Basie tenor sax star Lester Young. Roach’s nervous attempt to emulate the style of Basie drum legend Jo Jones led to a gentle reprimand from Young, who stressed to the young drummer the importance of being original and finding his own voice and vision.

He did just that, and neither jazz nor drumming has been the same since.

“It has always been unsettling to me that when historians chronicle the different musics, they never talk about the rhythms, about the drums,” said Roach, who is widely credited with freeing drummers from strict time-keeping duties to interact in bands as musical equals.

“Improvising is a renewal; you are renewing yourself every night. Even when you’re playing a standard, it has to be different, because you’re different every day. When I listen to Billie Holiday I notice she did that so well — even if she sang the same song it always sounded fresh, because she never phrased it the same way. She couldn’t, because she was a different person every night; we all are.

“Whereas in opera, if you’re (playing) a scullery maid, you have to do that (the same) every night. This music (jazz) emancipated its performers, because you could go in and create something new every time you got on the bandstand and express who you are.”

Be-bop founder

Roach teamed with Parker, Gillespie, Bud Powell and the other now-fabled musicians who founded be-bop, the revolutionary style whose complexity and technical challenges turned jazz — and its audience — inside out.

Together, these maverick artists forged a musical and cultural aesthetic that still prevails. With its emphasis on virtuosity and advanced harmonies and contrapuntal rhythms, be-bop required the utmost skill and dedication. It also embodied the most important founding principle of the nation it was born in.

“This music is so democratic,” said Roach. “It’s collectively creative. When this music started, the musicians were free, but they had to be musicians, they had to know how to play. You could call up a pianist, bassist and drummer who had never seen each other, but they had a common (musical) language and you spoke to those attitudes.”

Be-bop also saw the advent of Roach as a drum pioneer whose advanced technique was matched by his combustible attack and nimble touch. His innovative approach to drumming was distinguished by several characteristics that would influence generations of drummers.

There was the four-limbed independence that allowed him to simultaneously perform rhythms, counter-rhythms and extemporaneous percussive punctuations, usually at accelerated tempos that made most other drummers blanch or worse.

Then came his mastery of dynamics and tonal and timbral colorations, which allowed him to shade each segment of music within a given piece just so as he alternated cymbal crashes, snare drum rim-shots and quicksilver tom-tom rolls with perfectly timed accents that came to be known as “bombs.”

Most significantly, he played what he calls this “uniquely American” instrument — the trap drum set — with such clarity and precision he could articulate a song’s melodic structure so well in his solos that listeners could sing along note for note if they wanted. Then as now, his view of music was an all-embracing one that knew no stylistic boundaries.

Not ‘just jazz’

“You keep adding to what you have, and then you look back in retrospect,” said Roach, who prefers the description “music of the 20th century” to the comparatively more restrictive term “jazz.”

“Don’t say, ‘I’ll do this but not that.’ All of it helps mold you as a complete artist. It’s great to be a fantastic instrumentalist, but it’s better to be a great musician, (because) a musician accomplishes everything. You can’t say, ‘I’m just going to do rock,’ or ‘just jazz,’ or ‘just classical’ or ‘just country.’ People who do have a myopic view not only of what culture is about, but of what life is about.”

It is this broad-minded approach that has driven Roach to team with poets, dancers, writers, video artists and others whose mediums are superficially different from, but aesthetically complementary to, his own. And while Thursday will mark the first time he and Toni Morrison have shared a stage, he leaves no doubt his yet-to-be-defined collaboration with the award-winning author will prove challenging and inspiring to both.

“I’ve been in love with her all my life, so I’m looking forward to this collaboration,” said Roach, his voice dancing with delight. “She’s always been one of my favorite writers and people, and I’ve known her sons for a long time.”

Have he and Morrison discussed their impending collaboration?

“No, not at all,” he replied. “I guess we’ll get together the day before. It will be a spontaneous thing where we deal with what we do. I’ve done it before with Amiri Baraka and (Bill) Cosby and (actor) Ozzie Davis.”

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Awarded a MacArthur Fellowship (the so-called “genius grant”) in 1988, Roach continues to seek frontiers to explore at the same time that he is finally allowing himself to reflect at length on his life by writing his autobiography.

School of the Arts

A tireless band leader, he currently leads three different groups: his fiery jazz quartet; the Max Roach Double Quartet, which pairs his quartet with the Uptown String Quartet, a group he formed in 1981 (but is not a member of) that is led by his viola-playing daughter Maxine; and M’Boom, the award-winning, eight-man percussion ensemble that features fellow drum greats Joe Chambers, Ray Mantilla and Roy Brooks.

In addition, Roach continues to teach music and music history at the University of Massachusetts, and recently launched the Max Roach School of the Arts, a mobile school without a home designed to take his provocative music to students and audiences across the nation.

“For me personally, the artist, simplistically, has two functions: entertainment and enlightenment,” said Roach, who has mastered both.

“It’s all part of the same oeuvre. I can go on stage and do some things, and people will consider it fun because I’m having fun. But all of a sudden people grow pensive and thoughtful about what you’re trying to say. . . . American music has its personalities, reflected in the music of Charlie Parker and Art Tatum, but also in the music of Willie Nelson and Garth Brooks, that’s distinct and different . . .

“But what all of us have in common — from Michael Jordan to Charlie Parker to rappers — that people forget to recognize is that we’re descendants of slaves. That pain is always there; it’s an underlying factor. ‘When will I be able to be like every other citizen in this country of ours, in this hemisphere of ours?’

“So I never separate rap from Charlie Parker or from (basketball). It’s all in the continuum — we all come from the same place … It has something to do with the makeup of people descended from slaves to outdo ourselves.”