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Associated Press

Happy Birthday, Max Roach, Jazz Drummer

January 10, 2010
by Isabel Cowles
Legendary jazz drummer Max Roach was an innovator to the end. As a young musician, he helped define new movements in jazz: later in life, he experimented with hip-hop and video artists, constantly exploring and moving forward with his art. Throughout his career, Roach rose to the forefront of any group he played with, actively engaging other musicians by exploring the melody of a piece through his drums, rather than simply keeping the beat.

Early Days

Max Roach was born on January 10, 1924, in New Land, North Carolina. His family moved to New York shortly thereafter, and Roach spent his childhood in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. Roach’s mother was a gospel singer and endowed Roach with an appreciation for music at an early age.

At age 10, Roach began playing the drums and enrolled in formal lessons at the Manhattan School of Music. By the time he was 18, Roach was involved in the New York music scene, playing with legends like Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk and Dizzy Gillespie at Monroe’s Uptown House, a Harlem nightclub.

Roach was a young musician at a time of great inspiration: he was a pioneer of development of bebop, which included techniques like using the cymbals to carry the beat. Although he would not lead his own studio session until the early 1950s (when he established a quintet with trumpet player Clifford Brown, Roach was involved in many seminal bebop recordings throughout the 1940s, including Charlie Parker's “Ko-Ko” from 1945 and Miles Davis’ “Birth of the Cool” recordings from 1949 and 1950.

Notable Accomplishments

Roach’s musical innovations defined his career from beginning to end. He led a an all-percussion group as well as a “double quartet” of drums, bass, trumpet, saxophone and full string quartet. He performed in duets, as a soloist and with video and hip-hop artists at various points in his career.

Roach made percussion a primary focus of any group he played with; he used his instruments to actively engage the other players, focusing on a song’s melody as well as its rhythm.

Roach was also a passionate social activist. In 1960, he recorded “We Insist! Freedom Now Suite,” an homage to black people’s struggle for equality across the U.S. and Africa. Although the album was not a major commercial success, it encouraged Roach to work themes of social justice into his music. “I will never again play anything that does not have social significance,” he told Down Beat magazine when the album was released.

Roach became a music professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1972. While he was teaching, Roach continued to perform and collaborate regularly with other musicians.  In 1988, Roach was the first jazz musician to be awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant.

Listen to Max Roach on Last.fm.

The Rest of the Story

Unlike many musicians, Roach continued experimenting with new elements in his music until he died on August 16, 2007, at the age of 83. In a tribute on the All About Jazz Web site, contemporary drummer Carl Allen called Roach revolutionary, “because a lot of musicians of his generation were really turning their nose up at this other art form that was being created—hip hop, rap … Max’s thing was about trying to keep the music moving forward.”

Roach may have defined his inspiration and influence best when he said, “The instrument is in your mind. You can take cardboard boxes and make them sound like dynamite. If you want to deal with the drums, you have to realize that the instrument is the human being.”

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