Max Roach at 100: ‘Inventor of Modern Drumming’ Is Only the Beginning

A new documentary shows that no musician of the 20th century made better use of time — both in performance and long-term, as in a career — than Roach.

Via Raoul Roach
Max Roach. Via Raoul Roach

‘Max Roach Centennial’
The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra With Wynton Marsalis
Guest Musical Director, Obed Calvaire
Streaming at jazzlive.com Through January 26

‘Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes’
PBS ‘American Masters’ Series
Streaming and in Theaters

‘Max Roach Centennial: Freedom Now Suite’ Concert
NJPAC
January 26

Over the course of a little more than a year in 1955 and ’56, Max Roach, who was already the premiere jazz drummer of his generation, experienced the death of two of his very closest musical partners. Both Charlie Parker and Clifford Brown died tragically, and utterly avoidably, at the ages of 34 and 25, respectively. Those incidents changed Roach, helping fan the flames of rage that were already burning within him; more positively, they helped increase his determination to achieve as much as possible within whatever time he had left.

As drummer Obed Calvaire stated at the start of last Friday’s “Max Roach Centennial” concert, Roach (1924-2007) was “the inventor of modern drumming, also an activist, pedagogue, arranger, and family man.” 

A new documentary, “Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes,” shows that no musician of the 20th century made better use of time — both in performance and long-term, as in a career — than Roach. For the South Carolina-born, Brooklyn-raised drummer, inventing modern jazz drumming was only the beginning.  

This film by Sam Pollard and Ben Shapiro includes a touching and telling sequence in which Roach demonstrates bebop rhythm to a class full of young children. Perhaps not coincidentally, what Roach described as the “Mop Mop” figure was incorporated by guest drummer Joe Farnsworth into “Pies of Quincy” at the Jazz at Lincoln Center concert “Max Roach Centennial” this past Saturday.

“The Drum Also Waltzes” is the latest in a series of documentaries by Mr. Pollard on prominent topics involving African Americans, including films on the Negro baseball league, the persecution of Martin Luther King Jr. by the FBI, and excellent profiles of Arthur Ashe and Sammy Davis Jr. At the start of the film, Mr. Pollard tells us how he started filming Roach in the early ’90s, both in formal interviews as well as following him and his family around the streets of New York. At the same time, Mr. Shapiro was recording extensive audio conversations with Mr. Roach. 

This material forms the backbone of the new film. The interviews are illuminated by copious historic footage of Roach and his various ensembles in performance and rehearsal. 

Early in the story, Roach tells us, “We started the so-called bebop movement” — by “we” he means Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, and Miles Davis.  

Yet even when you compare the drummer’s lifetime of work to that of any of the others who lived to reach middle age or elder statesman status, Roach’s accomplishments are staggering. Gillespie went on to perfect the modern jazz big band and incorporate Afro Latin elements; Davis pioneered hard bop and then fusion.

Roach, though, literally never stopped coming up with exciting new ideas for collaborations and ensembles: After establishing the quintessential combo of the mid-1950s, with Clifford Brown and Sonny Rollins, he went on to experiment with the use of 3/4 time in jazz, brought the music together with the civil rights movement, added a Gospel choir, and pioneered the solo drum recital. In his final years, he went alternatively more African, with his M-Boom percussion collective; more European, with works for symphony orchestra and a hybrid jazz small group that incorporated a string quartet; and more contemporary, in a meeting with hip-hopper Fab 5 Freddy, who is also Roach’s godson.

The film doesn’t shrink from the maestro’s dark side. As Jimmy Heath, one of many on-screen interviewees who are no longer with us, states plainly, “Max had devils too.” The drummer’s son, Daryl Keith Roach, quotes him as saying that if he didn’t have the drum as an outlet of his emotions, he would have probably used a gun instead. His rage was fueled in particular by the epically tragic death of Clifford Brown as well as in response to the indignities of being a Black man, especially an artist, in Jim Crow’s America. 

His most famous wife, singer-songwriter Abbey Lincoln, talks frankly about how Roach was both supportive and abusive, comments that are amplified by singer Dee Dee Bridgewater. Trombonist Julian Priester tells a chilling story that makes me wonder why Charles Mingus and Buddy Rich have more terrible reputations for being violently aggressive.

The Jazz at Lincoln Center concert was a particular triumph for three newer members of the orchestra. Drummer Obed Calvaire served as musical director for the first time; guest vocalist Shenel Johns captured Abbey Lincoln’s eloquently passionate outcries on “Freedom Day” and “Driva’ Man” from “We Insist! Freedom Now Suite”; and alto saxophonist and flautist Alexa Tarrantino soloed memorably on “Freedom Day” and elsewhere.  

The two-act concert featured all Roach compositions, starting with “The Drum Also Waltzes,” a piece that combines European and African aspirations, and also included two of Roach’s works for jazz ensemble and gospel choir, which utilized the eight-voice Chorale Le Chateau directed by Damian Sneed. Mr. Calvaire concluded with an original work written in Roach’s memory, which drew upon percussion traditions from his Haitian heritage and also summoned up the sound of the M’Boom collective, with all the saxophonists pounding tambourines and the trombones whacking conga drums.

This was a concert that easily deserves to be released via JALC’s Blue Engine label. In the meantime, the orchestra is performing the concert up and down the East Coast for the next five nights, and the New Jersey Center for the Performing Arts is presenting a memorial concert starring singer Cassandra Wilson and another Roach collaborator, poet Sonia Sanchez. 

Over the course of a career that lasted nearly 60 years, Max Roach showed how drums could not only play whole new rhythms and beats and drive an ensemble in ways that no one had previously thought possible, but could laugh and cry and even waltz.

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis (and guest musical director Obed Calvaire), “Max Roach Centennial.” Being presented at the Floyd L. Robinson Auditorium – Mickey L. Burnim Fine Arts Center at Elizabeth City State University at Elizabeth City, North Carolina (January 24), the Modlin Center for the Arts at Richmond, Virginia (January 25),  Music Center at Strathmore, North Bethesda, Maryland (January 26), Staller Center for the Arts, Stony Brook, New York (January 27), and Symphony Hall, Celebrity Series of Boston (January 28). See the JALC Tour Page for further details.


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