The World of Max Roach- by Bill Mithoefer

Loyal reader Bill Mithoefer took it upon himself to write this bio of Max Roach, who recently passed away. Thanks Bill!

Born in Newland, North Carolina on the 10th of January in 1924, Max Roach spent his formative years in Brooklyn, New York. When he was 19 and 20, Roach played in the bands of Benny Carter and Coleman Hawkins. At 21, he became the eye of the storm that was the bebop revolution, developing a fluid poly-rhythmic style that would underpin the seminal bebop recordings of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and the fascinating swing/bebop hybrid stylings of Dexter Gordon and Don Byas.

To listen to Roach’s oeuvre is to follow the history of jazz, and to reflect on the restless stylistic innovations undertaken by the music’s greatest practitioners. On his first date with Charlie Parker, Roach held time and blasted through Parker’s reworking of “Cherokee,” “Koko,” a musical tour de force.


His style revolved around building up a layer of rhythms, focusing as much attention on a song’s melody as on the beat. Roach responded rapidly and intuitively to both soloists’ ideas and the underlying rhythmic flow, initiating a conversation with the other musicians that other drummers initially found challenging. His elevation of the drums to the foreground and center of small ensembles was exploited to full advantage by later drummers such as Art Blakey, Roy Haynes and Elvin Jones, but much of the early innovation came from Roach’s reconstruction and revolution of Kenny Clark’s earlier work.

In 1946, Roach was involved in Bird’s ill-fated solo on Howard McGhee’s recording of “Loverman,” which some consider his worst recording and others find to be his most brilliant in it’s sheer pathos, an honest reflection of a saxophonist’s low point. Loverman
In 1947, Roach underpinned the rhythm in Bird’s recording of “Donna Lee,” Miles Davis’ reworking of a Fats Navarro melody, arguably one of the most highly studied tunes by students of bop.

By 1946, Roach was involved in Davis’ first attempts to render a softer impressionistic touch in his “Birth of the Cool” recordings. Roach’s sensitivity as a drummer, already evident on Parker vehicles such as “Embraceable You,” and “Parker’s Mood,” added a deeper dimension to these mellifluous recordings. He also had his first sessions as a leader, with James Moody and Kenny Dorham which included the interesting meditation on “All The Things You Are,” entitled “Prince Albert.” When 1950 rolled around, Roach had already recorded and gigged with the likes of Sarah Vaughn, Dizzy Gillespie, J.J. Johnson, Stan Getz, Bud Powell, Fats Navarro, Lee Konitz, Sonny Stitt, Flip Phillips and Kai Winding.

The early fifties saw Roach continuing his fruitful association with Charlie Parker, while helping the bop founders progress in a series of recordings with Thelonius Monk and Sonny Rollins. Monk was still considered fairly “outside” by modern jazz critics, but Roach’s open mind and innovative approach enabled him to augment Monk’s polyphonic piano rhythms on early recordings such as “Trinkle Tinkle,” and “Reflections.”

One of the distinctions that set Max Roach apart from some of his peers, was his attention to the social amelioration and recognition of African-Americans in America society. As saxophonist Jimmy Heath explained, “It was his technique, and his concepts were so innovative. But he wasn’t only a drummer. The thing about Max was he was always fighting for the rights of African-American people, that we were creative, worthy people.” Heath recalled an incident when Mr. Roach took to the stage at a Miles Davis show with a protest sign, “something to do with Africa or black people,” and “Miles was like, ‘Man, why did you have to do that during my set?’”

He participated in the early recordings of Gil Melle, the innovative saxophonist, and used Hank Mobley on his early recordings as a leader. In 1953 Max Roach made one of the first drum solo recordings, with “Drum Conversations,” recorded live at Massey Hall, along with the famous “The Quintet” recording featuring Charles Mingus, Bird, Dizzy, and Bud Powell. This was released on a label founded by Roach and Mingus in 1953, Debut records . In an unprecedented move, the two musicians started this small label and continued to release high quality jazz through 1958, when they sold the company and its catalog to the fantasy label. Roach continued to contribute to Miles Davis, Lee Konitz, and Bud Powell albums throughout the year.

In 1954, Clifford Brown and Max Roach founded the Clifford Brown/Max Roach Quintet. A cross-fertilization of bebop and Miles Davis’ cool jazz helped precipitate a style mysterious in its timbral conceptions, with the fiery solos typical of bebop. Some jazz historians and critics consider their association to have produced the first “hard bop” recordings, funkier, with a harder hitting rhythm than earlier bebop styles. It could be easily be argued that Art Blakey’s work from the earlier part of the ‘50’s with Horace Silver, Clifford Brown and Lou Donaldson could just as easily qualify. Interestingly both
men spent the late ‘40’s and early ‘50’s playing with Bird and Monk, although Roach spent more time playing with Bird and Blakey more time with Monk. Jazz music was evolving at such a rapid pace, with constant fertilization and cross-pollination, that such arguments might be considered moot. One just needs to listen to Dexter Gordon, Hank Mobley and others’ recordings of this time period to see why.

The Brown/Roach quintet toured the country incessantly until 1956, and during this time made amazing recordings. In particular, “The Blues Walk,” “Jordu” and “Daahoud” prefigured Miles Davis’ and John Coltrane’s modal experiments of the later fifties. He would also make excellent music with the idiosyncratic piano player and excellent songwriter Herbie Nichols.

During this tour, the band encountered Sonny Rollins, who was working a job not involving playing the saxophone. Inviting Sonny back on stage, he re-entered the arena, playing on several Brown/Roach r
ecordings and recording some of his masterpieces of the mid to late fifties. Together Rollins and Roach would record Sonny Rollins + 4, and Saxophone Colossus. “Blue 7” off of the latter album is a prime example of the rhythmic dialogue between the two musicians. Both Rollins and Roach contributed to Monk’s fantastic album “Brilliant Corners,” featuring the eclectic alto sound of Ernie Henry and the extraordinary performances typified by the improvisations on the angular melody of the title track. 1956 was also the year he recorded on Johnny Griffin’s first album.

Roach finished out the latter part of the fifties continuing to record with his own quintet, sometimes featuring Sonny Rollins and the great trumpeter Booker Little. He would make his first recording with Abbey Lincoln and deliver the goods on Rollins’ “Freedom Jazz Suite.” These works were becoming harmonically looser, as the focus on the chordal structures of the bebop era gave way to the forms that would typify free jazz. His work from this period would culminate in one of his great achievements of 1960, which will start part 2 of this posting.

Research for this article was mostly performed with an excellent discography located at: http://www.jazzdisco.org/max/dis/c/#500126

No comments: