Bruce Robinson asseses the life and work of Max Roach
There can be few musicians who have revolutionised the way their instrument is played, helped change the whole history of their music and remained innovative and open over 50 years.
Add to that a radical social and political commitment and a keen awareness of how that was expressed in the history of jazz and could be expressed in his own music, and you get Max Roach, the jazz drummer, who has died aged 83 in New York.
Max Roach first began getting noticed in the early 1940s just as the new jazz style of bebop was starting to take off. Many of bebop’s innovations were rhythmic and Max, alongside Kenny Clarke, defined a new style of drumming to match. The basic rhythm was now spelled out on the cymbals, leaving the bass drum to punctuate the music with accents (‘dropping bombs’) and allowing a more varied role to the drummer.
From 1945-9 Roach was at the forefront of the new music as he played in Charlie Parker’s quintet, also taking part in Miles Davis’ 1949 “Birth of the Cool” recordings. In 1954, he started the first of his own groups with the young trumpeter Clifford Brown, again pointing the way forward in the music. When Brown died in a road accident aged 26 in 1956, Roach was shattered but continued to put groups together, eventually discovering another new trumpet star, Booker Little (also to die in his 20s).
In the 50s Roach began to rebel against the way the “bebop business” was run. He was a co-founder of an independent record label, Debut, with Charles Mingus. He also took part in the alternative “rebel” Newport Jazz Festival in protest at the ignoring of a whole range of black musicians across the generations by the organisers of the main event.
The 50s also saw African colonies win independence andthe start of the US Civil Rights movement, both of which had considerable impact on black jazz musicians. In 1960, a time when support for the Civil Rights movement could by no means be taken for granted, Roach brought out We Insist! — The Freedom Now Suite featuring a cover depicting three Civil Rights protestors sitting in at a segregated lunch counter. The music evoked slavery – a drum-voice duet with his then wife, singer Abbey Lincoln, graphically painting its torture and terror — followed by themes of the false hopes of Emancipation at the end of the US Civil War, and the struggle against apartheid. He followed it with two other “political” albums, Percussion Bitter Sweet and It’s Time, which featured a large choir. For much of the rest of the 60s he was effectively banned from recording and during this period identified himself as a supporter of Malcolm X.
In the 70’s he got a post in a university teaching Black Studies and continued to record. In 1981 he set King’s “I have a dream” speech to a very strong drum solo. He recorded an album about the Scottsboro boys, victims of a judicial lynching in the South of the US in the early 30s (whose fate had been the subject of a big campaign by the Communist Party).
While most of Roach’s recording at this time was with his own quartet, he remained open to newer musical styles, recording with jazz avant-gardists, Archie Shepp, Anthony Braxton and Cecil Taylor, and hip hop artists, whom he saw as directly in the African-American tradition of music making. He also worked with a string quartet, making use of them to play jazz lines, rather than using them as orchestral backing as in the “With strings” bands of the 50s.
This openness corresponded to his conception of the drummer’s role in jazz, which he never saw as one of providing rhythmic background interspersed with the odd crash-bang solo. Rather he saw the modern drum kit as a full musical instrument, a new invention of the 20th century, which black jazz musicians had played a major role in developing. (He paid his musical respects to predecessors such as Big Sid Catlett and Jo Jones).
His solos had a logic, and he used the different tones available on the kit so that one could often hear a melody, directly or implied. From the 50s, he began investigating alternative time signatures to 4/4, which then dominated jazz. Many of his performances featured a solo using the foot-operated hi-hat cymbal to show the range of musical expression he could get from even such a limited instrument, and in the 80s he would sometimes appear solo. In the late 70s, he put together a group, “M’Boom” consisting entirely of percussion instruments.
The connection between music and politics was, for Max, not dependent on explicitly political musical content. Rather two were inseparable, particularly in the case of jazz, as he stated in a 1980 interview:
“Jazz has always been under attack from the days of Buddy Bolden [ca 1900]… right up to today. Bolden because he improvised. In the 20s they had ‘race’ records and decent people weren’t supposed to listen because the music wasn’t ‘civilised’. It was an outlet to protest at the indignities faced by black people.
“Now it frees people all over the world.”
“Politically, I see jazz as very democratic music. It expresses democracy whereas European classical music expresses imperialism. European music is run by two people - the composer and the conductor who treat the rest of the musicians as slaves. In jazz, we debate a topic, the musicians are free to discuss it. It’s like a meeting…
“[Critics] separate art from society, but art grows from society.”
He put this in a broader context and showed a political viewpoint that went well beyond civil rights or “black consciousness”:
“Most people believe the Sixties was an isolated period, but it wasn't. There is only one instance of a city being bombed in the United States and it was by the government, to put down a race riot in Oklahoma in 1918. We have the oppression of black people, you in Britain have Ireland; it’s the same thing — imperialism…
“You see, this music is very political. Improvisation allows new ideas and it stimulates ideas, musically and socially as well. In Europe, political — very political — people are drawn to jazz. In Portugal, giant concerts are organized for us and the Left organizes them.”
“Asked how he would define himself, Roach replied ‘In the States, I would be called a socialist. I am just for monetary change so the masses get a big share of the wealth’.”
With the passing of Max Roach we lose not merely almost the last link to the early days of bebop and a musical revolutionary, but also a revolutionary musician, not frightened to stand against oppression.