Born Maxwell Roach, January 10, 1924, in Newland, NC; married Anne Marie "Abbey" Lincoln (a singer), 1962 (divorced). Education: B.A. in music composition, Manhattan School of Music, c. 1955. Addresses: Management--Brad Simon Organization, 122 East 57th St., New York, NY 10022.

An individual of multidimensional vision, drummer Max Roach has constantly expanded his creative horizons while stressing the sociopolitical and historical roots of his art. Over the last five decades, Roach has been idolized by drummers as one of the premier originators of modern jazz. Rising to prominence in the bands of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker during the mid-1940s, Roach emerged as a powerful force in defining the conception and rhythmic foundations of what became known as bebop, or modern jazz--titles Roach refuses to recognize in reference to an African-American art form he believes was prejudiciously named by those outside the musical community. In the university classroom and on the concert stage, Roach has devoted his life to musical exploration and the struggle against cultural discrimination among all people of African descent.

Born in Newland, North Carolina, on January 10, 1924, Maxwell Roach moved with his family to the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn at age four. Roach's mother, a gospel singer, took him to church where he received his first musical instruction on trumpet and piano. When he was eight, Roach studied keyboard harmony with his aunt and within a year played piano in the summer Bible school of the Concord Baptist Church. Outside of church, Roach's interest in music was heightened by the sounds of his Brooklyn neighborhood. "You could walk down the street; you heard people singing, you heard people playing," he recalled in Swing to Bop. "The community was just fraught with music."

Introduced to the drums in high school, Roach joined the school marching band. From radio shows and recordings he heard the drumming of Jo Jones and "Big" Sid Catlett who, as Roach told Don Gold in Down Beat, became his "main source of inspiration." Along with high school friends trumpeter Leonard Hawkins and saxophonist Cecil Payne, Roach watched the latest jazz bands at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. While playing in Brooklyn rehearsal bands, he read stock arrangements from the band books of Count Basie and Jimmie Lunceford. During weekends spent at Coney Island he performed in the Darktown Follies, sometimes accompanying up to 18 different acts in one day.

Local jam sessions became the main outlet for the development of Roach's rhythmic ideas. At these fiercely competitive exchanges, his drum technique began to deviate from the standard swing patterns of the period. While still a minor, Roach often wore a penciled mustache to attend after-hours jam sessions at Harlem nightclubs like Monroe's Uptown House on 138th Street and Minton's Playhouse located next to the Hotel Cecil on 118th Street.

When most of the experienced jazz drummers left New York to serve in the armed services during World War II, Roach's musical reputation and his ability to read music allowed him to find employment in some of the finest bands of the period. At age 16 he played three nights at the Paramount Theater with Duke Ellington's Orchestra, filling for the ailing Sonny Greer. "I had no rehearsal," he explained in Jazz Masters of the Forties. "The stage came up and I was sitting on Sonny's drums all about me. I followed Duke--his conducting was so hip while he played the piano."

After graduating from high school with full honors in 1942, Roach set out to study bebop at jam sessions around the city. In the evenings, following his regular jobs at white clubs, Roach traveled uptown to play at Monroe's and Minton's. At these late-night dates he established a name as one of the most formidable of the "up-and-coming" modern jazzmen.

In 1944, Gillespie and bassist Oscar Pettiford hired him to play with their group at the Onyx Club on 52nd Street. Upon first hearing Roach at the Onyx Club, drummer Stan Levey recalled to Down Beat, "I was petrified. Max was a radically new experience for me. He was completely different in his technique and musical approach."

During the same year, Roach made his recording debut with veteran swing saxophonist Coleman Hawkins on the Apollo label. One of the first big-name musicians to hire Roach, Hawkins nurtured the talents of a number of young modern jazzmen. In Song of the Hawk, Roach stated that "when the movement was in its infancy Coleman was the guy who encouraged many of us. He always made me feel like something." A few months following the session with Hawkins, Roach went on the road with saxophonist Benny Carter's band.

Returning to New York in the spring of 1945, Roach joined the legendary Dizzy Gillespie-Charlie Parker quintet at the Three Deuces on 52nd Street. After Dizzy left the group, 19-year-old Miles Davis took over the trumpet chair. Davis related in his autobiography Miles that "everybody was talking about Max becoming the next Kenny Clarke, who was considered bebop's top drummer. Max and I were roommates and went everywhere together. All I wanted to do was play with Bird [Parker] and Max and make some good music." Early in 1945 Roach and Davis, along with Gillespie on piano and trumpet, backed Parker on the recording Charlie and His Reeboppers, producing the classic numbers "Billie's Bounce," "Now's the Time," "Thriving on a Riff," and "Ko Ko."

Working with Parker's quintet between 1946 and 1953 allowed Roach artistic freedom to create new rhythmic patterns to accompany the complex arrangements and often breakneck tempos of modernist jazz. "Everything was on the edge with Bird," he told Suzanne McElfresh in Down Beat; "you never knew what he was going to do musically, but it always worked out." To compensate for the polyrhythmic texture of bebop, Roach abandoned the steady four-four bass pedal and repetitive ride cymbal patterns of earlier jazz drummers. Through the variation of rhythm he developed what has been called "melodic" drumming--an approach which freed the instrumentalist from his traditional role as time-keeping accompanist.

Aside from taking part in Davis's groundbreaking recording Birth of the Cool in 1949, Roach played on pianist Bud Powell's legendary Latin-influenced "Uno Poco Loco," which appeared on the Blue Note label in 1951. Around this time Roach also earned a bachelor's degree in music theory from the Manhattan School of Music.

In 1954, Roach and trumpeter Clifford Brown formed a quintet featuring saxophonist Harold Land and pianist Richie Powell. Their recordings for Mercury's Emarcy label received acclaim from musicians and critics. Upon the departure of Land in 1955, Roach and Brown recruited the talents of saxophonist Walter "Sonny" Rollins. The horns of Brown and Rollins, along with Roach's inventively propulsive drumming, proved a brilliant combination. The group's success, however, was short-lived--Brown and Powell died in a auto accident in 1956.

During this same period, Roach met rhythm and blues singer Ann Marie "Abbey" Lincoln. Through Roach's encouragement, Lincoln began to record with jazz accompanists. "When he came to see me he was just wonderful to be around, handsome, sophisticated," related Lincoln in Down Beat; "he gave me sanctuary." Married in 1962, Roach and Lincoln formed a musical association which would last over ten years.

Roach entered the decade of the 1960s committed to the struggle against racial subjugation. Together Lincoln and Roach became outspoken critics of white society. In 1961, Roach explained in Down Beat that he would "never again play anything" that did not "have social significance." Devoted to expanding the horizons of African-American music, Roach fused jazz with elements of Negro spirituals to create a voice of artistic expression and social protest.

As drummer-bandleader, Roach wrote and arranged choral and orchestral works, the first of which appeared on the album It's Time in 1962. His work Percussion BitterSweet remains a testament of the times, blending political passions with the vocals of Lincoln and the first-rate musicianship of Clifford Jordan, Julian Priester, and Booker Little.

In 1971, Roach began teaching at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where he helped establish a jazz major. A year later, he founded the M'Boom, an all-percussion ten-man ensemble featuring over a hundred different Third World instruments, including vibes, steel pans, marimbas, and chimes. For over 20 years M'Boom has been active playing concerts and making appearances on recordings such as 1992's To the Max!

In keeping with current musical trends, Roach collaborated with MTV's rap-music host Fab Five Freddie in recording the program From Bebop to Hip-hop. Always attentive to new musical ideas, Roach views rap as a creative form based upon the African art of the spoken word. "I hear the Charlie Parkers in these young people," explained Roach in the Metro Times. "They've figured out a way to improvise on a subject the way we improvised on thematic material."

That Roach continues to embrace new musical ideas exemplifies his vast creative vision and his incessant need to interpret the world around him. At the close of the twentieth century, Roach's musical career will serve as a time line with which to trace the creative legacy of modern African-American music. Drummer, educator, and composer, as well as political activist, Roach has brought new direction and meaning to the art of jazz drumming.

by John Cohassey

Max Roach's Career

Played in jam sessions throughout Harlem, 1942; joined Dizzy Gillespie and recorded first session with Coleman Hawkins, 1944; played with the Paker-Gillespie quintet, 1946-53; formed quintet with trumpeter Clifford Brown, then with trumpeter Booker Little, 1954-61; worked with wife, vocalist Abbey Lincoln, c. 1960s; University of Massachusetts at Amherst, teacher, beginning 1971; formed M'Boom percussion section, 1972; Bluemoon Records, record producer, beginning in 1980s; artistic director, Jazz Institute.

Max Roach's Awards

Composer/Reader's Digest Commisioning Program grant, 1988; MacArthur fellowship recipient.

Famous Works

Further Reading


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