The World of Max Roach pt.II- by Bill Mithoefer

In 1960, Roach would record what would become his magnum opus, an unprecedented attempt to fuse his African-American social concerns with a spoken word/instrumental jazz suite, “Freedom Now Suite – We Insist!” The recording included Coleman Hawkins, arguably one of the inventors of the tenor saxophone solo, trombonist Julian Priester and trumpeter Booker Little, brass players who, like Sonny Rollins, approached free jazz with a firm foundation in bebop, the Nigerian percussionist, Michael Olatunji (later Babatunde Olatunji,) and the singer Abbey Lincoln (incidentally, his wife.) This 7-part collaboration with Oscar Brown, Jr. prefigured later works by Archie Shepp, John Coltrane, Julius Hemphill, Charles Mingus and even the Bill Jones/Arnie Zane dance ensemble. Although not particularly commercially successful, Roach laid his career on the line in an ambitious attempt to directly infuse his musical innovations with a social conscience.

Roach’s friend and associate Charles Mingus had already laid to vinyl tunes such as “Fables of Faubus,” “Put Me In That Dungeon,” and “Prayer For Passive Resistance,” direct social commentaries on the African-American desire for emancipation. Roach’s longer work was probably the first attempt at producing a longer work dealing with these issues.

Roach was evolving musically as well, while continuing to record more straight ahead albums with musicians such as Tommy and Stanley Turrentine, he was now providing the rhythmic accompaniment for the extemporaneous adventures of Booker Little and Eric Dolphy. With an acerbic tone and exuberantly audacious technique on Alto Saxophone, Flute, and Bass Clarinet, Dolphy helped catalyze Mingus’ further development of his “street music” and would become involved in some of John Coltrane’s early sixties concerts as well as his ambitious longer written work, Africa/Brass. His playing can immediately provoke arguments amongst horn players who might agree on most other aspects of taste, but, like Trane, he would organize his solos with rhythmically complex compound figures which must have been quite stimulating for a drummer of the calibre of Max Roach.

As the ‘60’s progressed, Roach would record with Afro-centric pianist Randy Weston and incorporate Mal Waldron into his own ensembles. He was still recording with Duke Ellington and would make a fantastic record with Charles Mingus and the pianist entitled “Money Jungle.” Naturally focussed on Ellington’s works, this record is unique in sound. Mingus had extensively studied Ellington’s music and there was no better drummer to contribute to it’s minimalistic impressionism than Roach. The band sounds as if they were simply running through the compositions, with sublime performances on such notable tunes as “African Flower,” “Warm Valley,” and “Solitude.” Their superhuman communication sounds fresh and modern even today.

In the late ‘60’s, while Roach continued to tour with earlier associates such as Sonny Rollins and Howard McGhee, he would continue to expand the horizons in his bands, featuring horn players such as trumpeters Freddie Hubbard and Charles Tolliver, and saxophonists Steve Lacy and Odean Pope. With open mind and open ears, Roach continued to innovate behind the drum kit. Like Miles Davis, Roach would continue to mirror both society at large and stay in the vanguard of historical developments in the jazz world. Their difference, it might be argued, is that Roach paid less attention to fashion, commercialism and celebrity, preferring to continue an unpretentious no-nonsense approach to innovating both in the music called jazz and as a technician on the drums.

By the early ‘70’s, electric instrumentation, along with rock and funk, had become deeply entrenched in the mainstream entertainment industry. While many musicians embraced the development of fusion, an attempt to form a hybridized music featuring rhythmic elements from all three genres with the focus on improvisation defining jazz, quite a few including Roach, who had incorporated innovations from free jazz would maintain a staunch acoustic purity in their music. His curiosity, however, would not rest as he continued to experiment with unusual instrumentation, founding the innovative percussion ensemble, M’Boom.

Some of the musicians who would embrace the electric instrumentation of fusion, would capitalize quite successfully on these developments, with lucrative major label recording contracts. But Roach and other purists would become early founders of Jazz education in the american university system. He worked tirelessly to continue promoting jazz as a forum for African-American dignity and social consciousness and continued to experiment musically, yet ignoring the consequences, from an economic standpoint. He would continue to record the odd bebop record, while also playing with Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor and Anthony Braxton.

The eighties would bring Max Roach’s double quartet to fruition. Tireless in his creativity, he would make records with string quartets, even a symphony orchestra. He would become a Macarthur fellow in 1988, recognized for his individual talent and pursuit of creativity in the arts. Until 2002, he continued to tour the world presenting his solo drum performances and iconoclastic bands.

I was lucky enough to witness a performance in Oakland in the early ‘90’s. For what must have been an hour, Roach took his drum kit through the paces, schooling the audience on his rhythmic conception that had taken us through bebop, hard bop, and free jazz. After what must have been a full hour, his band, Odean Pope, Cecil Bridgewater and Tyrone Brown fired the energy up to a higher level. The music had more in common with Cecil Taylor than Charlie Parker, and I would leave that night both thoroughly satisfied and completely drained.

After writing this article, I realized that Max Roach was far more central to the history of Jazz than I might have imagined. He probably paid a price for his refusal to kowtow to the forces of commercialism and his outspoken views on race and social issues. After all is said and done, he could never be accused of either resting on his laurels or “selling out.”

A quick note on the pitfalls I may have fallen into writing this piece. 1) I understand that jazz is predominantly live music, but recordings are the documents one must refer to in writing about music. 2) Even the term “jazz” itself is problematic as a brief look at Bird’s blindfold test for Downbeat will point out. It’s all music, and as he says, one can get in the right frame of mind to listen to just about anything. 3) A 4 page two-part article is almost by definition reductionistic, but I hope that I’ve at least distilled some of the essence of what Max Roach accomplished over a long and inspiring life.

Cheers, Bill Mithoefer, Portland, OR 2007

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