by Rick Mattingly
As the big band era of the 1930s and early '40s gave way to the bebop era of the late 1940s and '50s, Max Roach became the most important bop drummer through his work with bebop founders Charlie "Bird" Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Roach was at the forefront of a new drumming style in which the ride cymbal was the focal element of the drumkit, and Roach's ability to play extremely fast ride patterns set a new standard for drumming excellence.
Born in North Carolina but raised in Brooklyn, Maxwell Roach began playing piano at age eight and started playing drums at age 10. "Jo Jones was the first drummer I heard who played broken rhythms," Roach said. "I listened to him over and over again. But a lot of people inspired me. Chick Webb was a tremendous soloist. There was Sonny Greer, Cozy Cole, and Sid Catlett, who incorporated this hi-hat and ride cymbal style. Then I heard Kenny Clarke. He exemplified personality and did more with the instrument. It affected me."
After graduating from high school, Roach became the house drummer at Monroe's Uptown House in 1942, and he participated in the jam sessions there and at various 52nd Street clubs with Parker and Gillespie that led to the development of bebop. He recorded with Coleman Hawkins in 1943, and the following year he was a member of a bop band led by Gillespie and Oscar Pettiford, and then a band led by Gillespie and Budd Johnson. Roach then played with Benny Carter's big band before joining the Gillespie-Parker quintet and also playing in Gillespie's big band. He played with Parker's quintet from 1947–49 and appeared on many of Parker's most important recordings.
Roach also recorded with Miles Davis in 1949 for the album Birth of the Cool. The hi-hat and ride cymbal can be heard very cleanly on that album, and one can hear Roach using the ride cymbal in the bop style, but still sometimes riding on partially open hi-hats in the swing style. But it was recordings such as this that gave rise to the myth that bop drummers were not using the bass drum as a timekeeping element, relegating it only to occasional accents. "That is not what was going on," Roach insisted in a interview published in the book The Drummer's Time. "We played the bass drum, but the engineers would cover it up because it would cause distortion due to the technology at the time. There were never any mic's near our feet; they would have one mic' above the drumset, and that was all.
"It was funny to me that when I would hear a recording, I didn't hear the bass drum, because in those days the bass drum was always prevalent. You could not get a job unless the bandleader could hear that 4/4 on the bass drum. I remember standing in front of Chick Webb's drumset. His bass drum was so strong and constant I could hear it in my stomach: BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM constantly. Then on 52nd Street, we learned how to play the bass drum softly. It was always there, underneath the bass fiddle.
"But you never heard it on the recordings," Roach said. "I've heard people say that, historically, I introduced the technique of not playing the bass drum and concentrating on the ride cymbal, which was not the case. You didn't carry a bass drum around on the subways of New York—like we used to—and then not use it."
One of the most famous of all the bop recordings is Jazz at Massey Hall, which was recorded in 1953 and features Parker, Gillespie, Roach, Bud Powell, and Charles Mingus. Tunes such as "Salt Peanuts" reveal Roach's finesse with extremely fast tempos. "We'd have jam sessions at Minton's where the tenor players were long-winded," Roach explained. "Don Byas would play 20 minutes on ‘Cherokee,' and then Johnny Griffin would play another 20 minutes, and then somebody else would play. And then they'd turn to you and say, ‘You got it.' They'd wear you out and then give you a solo, right? So I had to learn to not give it all up right away so I would have something left an hour later. Those sessions were unbelievable, but it makes you strong and teaches you how all four limbs have the responsibility to create the illusion that you're playing super fast."
In 1954, Roach formed a band with trumpet player Clifford Brown, and for the next two years it was one of the hottest groups on the scene, featuring pianist Richie Powell and saxophonist Sonny Rollins. The group was cut short by Powell and Brown's untimely deaths in an automobile accident in 1956.
On the Brown/Roach recording of "I'll Remember April," the band plays in a style originated by Dizzy Gillespie on "Night In Tunisia" in which the rhythm changes back and forth between Latin and swing feels. But whereas many jazz drummers base their Latin-flavored playing around a cymbal-bell ride pattern, Roach played the Latin sections of "I'll Remember April" entirely on tom-toms. "That had a lot to do with the Caribbean thing," Roach explained, "because I grew up in Brooklyn with people from Jamaica and Trinidad and places like that, so I heard that music all the time. And then when the Cubans came to New York, they would have four or five percussionists playing congas and timbales. I was really fascinated by that."
Roach became politically active in the 1960s, and his album We Insist! Freedom Now Suite reflected the tension of the era. "That was a period of total protest," Roach said, "and I was heavily involved in the civil rights movement. I've never believed in art just for the sake of art. It is entertainment, of course, and dancing is also part of it, but it can also be for enlightenment."
Roach also pioneered solo drum compositions, such as "The Drum Also Waltzes" from his 1966 album Drums Unlimited. "When I was going to the Manhattan School of Music," Roach said, "I was able to see Ravi Shankar when he came to town around 1944. This marvelous tabla player he brought with him, Chatur Lal, did 15 minutes by himself on those tablas, and it was the most fascinating and musical thing I'd ever heard. That gave me the inspiration to deal with drums by themselves. I would also watch Art Tatum play piano by himself on 52nd Street and wonder if it were possible to do that with the drumset. And when Segovia or Pablo Casals would come to New York, they would play by themselves in a huge concert hall and just mesmerize an audience. I knew there had to be some way to do that with the percussion instrument.
"My first solo piece was called ‘Drum Conversation,' and people would ask me, ‘Where are the chords? Where's the melody?' And I would say, ‘It's about design. It isn't about melody and harmony. It's about periods and question marks. Think of it as constructing a building with sound. It's architecture.'"
Considering Roach's penchant for playing solo drum compositions, it was surprising to some that he never used more than a basic five-piece kit, which he often referred to as the "multiple percussion instrument."
"I don't need to have a lot of drums around me," Roach said. "A percussion ensemble has concert toms, the snare choir from piccolo to tenor, and the whole array of instruments. But the drumset itself is just that five-piece kit.
"The drumset is the freshest instrument in the world of percussion because the player has to use all four limbs. With all the other percussion instruments, we just use our hands. But the drumset uses all the technique that has been developed for playing drums with the hands, and having your feet in there adds other dimensions of technique. The variety on that set is amazing. It has a lot to do with taking the least and making the most of it."
As an extension of his solo drum compositions, Roach started the first jazz percussion ensemble, M'Boom. "Musicians were so oriented that music was this holy triangle of melody, harmony, and rhythm," Roach said. "If you didn't have this perfect balance, you really weren't dealing with organized music. But people forgot that there were percussion ensembles in Africa and Europe, as well as groups like the Kodo drummers of Japan. The drumset doing solos was new to us here, but it wasn't new to the rest of the world.
"So M'Boom grew out of my still trying to justify what we were about as percussionists. I decided we were going to be the front line and everything. The first thing was, I wanted everybody to be well versed in the trap set. But I also wanted them to be composers, because I knew that if I got a group of people together like that, eventually we could deal with mallets and timpani and everything."
In his later years, Roach led his own groups and also performed with a wide variety of artists, from avant-garde musicians such as Cecil Taylor and Anthony Braxton to classical string quartets and the Japanese taiko group Kodo. Roach's Double Quartet featured his regular jazz quartet with the Uptown String Quartet, which was led by his daughter, Maxine.
Roach also taught at the Lennox (Mass.) School of Jazz in the late 1950s and during the 1970s and '80s at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He was awarded two honorary degrees and in 1988 received the first MacArthur Fellowship ever awarded to a jazz musician.
Roach died on Aug. 16, 2007 after a lengthy illness.