Max Roach Biography

Maxwell Lenard Roach, 10 January 1924, New Land, North Carolina, USA, d. 16 August 2007, New York City, New Yok, USA. One of the most technically gifted musicians in the history of jazz, Roach was a major figure in the development of the music and his consistently high standard of performance never faltered.

Learning to play drums in his pre-teenage years, Roach later studied in New York and by 1942 was active in the bebop revolution. As a member of the house rhythm section at Monroe’s Uptown House and a regular at Minton’s Playhouse, he backed all the leading practitioners of the new art. Along with Kenny Clarke he established a new drummers’ vocabulary, and his work with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie from this period demonstrates his inventiveness and masterly technique. In addition to playing bebop, the 40s also found him working in small and big bands led by such swing era veterans as Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter. Towards the end of the decade, however, he abandoned the older style and was henceforth one of bebop’s major voices. He was with Miles Davis for two years from 1948, participating in the seminal Birth Of The Cool recording dates.

In 1954 Roach formed a quintet with Clifford Brown, a band that was one of the most musically inventive of the period. Brown’s accidental death in 1956 was a devastating loss to Roach and it took many years for him fully to shake off the traumatic effect it had upon him. From the late 50s Roach began to take a political stance and was active in many black cultural projects. Inevitably, his work of this period took on elements of his commitment to Civil Rights issues. His compositions included the We Insist! Freedom Now Suite. He also experimented with unusual line-ups, sometimes abandoning conventional time structures. In these respects he was in line with concurrent developments in free jazz, but was never a true part of that movement. His own small groups saw an impressive array of talented musical partners including Freddie Hubbard, Sonny Rollins, George Coleman and Stanley Turrentine. He also worked with a variety of singers and vocal groups, including performances with his then wife Abbey Lincoln.

In the 70s, although he was by then becoming an elder statesman of jazz, Roach continued to associate with musicians of the avant garde, recording duo albums with Abdullah Ibrahim, Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor and Anthony Braxton. Throughout the 80s and into the early 90s, Roach continued to perform, and compose, finding time to teach at the University Of Massachusetts and to maintain his activism in black politics. He demonstrated his mastery of the drums during his 1990 tour by playing as an encore a thoroughly absorbing 10-minute solo using only the hi-hat cymbal. In 1995, Roach worked with Ginger Baker and Tony Williams in the percussion band M’Boom. One of his most ambitious projects was in 1996 with a 50-piece orchestra, which crossed over into the classical market.

One of few drummers to perform and record extended solo works, Roach achieved a remarkably high standard of performance and he overcame the customary negative critical response to such works. It is no exaggeration to say he was a true giant figure of jazz, participating on pivotal musical events in its history without lowering his musical standards or political beliefs.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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