Max Roach

Why he was jazz’s greatest drummer.

Jazz drummer Max Roach

Max Roach’s death last Wednesday, at age 83, marks another step toward the end of the modern jazz world’s greatest generation. Only a few remain among the giants who were present alongside Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie as they created the harmonically adventurous, rhythmically turbulent postwar music called bebop. There’s still Sonny Rollins, 76; Roy Haynes, 82; Hank Jones, 88. A few of their immediate successors remain active as well: Lee Konitz, 79; Ornette Coleman, 77. But there aren’t many more.

Roach made his mark in the mid-1940s playing in the Gillespie-Parker quintet, and it takes only a few seconds to understand the impact his presence made. Here, for instance, is a fragment of “Groovin’ High,” taken from one of the band’s earliest studio sessions, recorded on Feb. 28, 1945, and featuring Cozy Cole on drums. Cole was a swing drummer; he taps the drums on each 4/4 beat—tap-tap-tap-tap—and the song (which would evolve into a bebop anthem) sounds, at this stage, like an easy-going, head-swaying swing tune, with just a dash of horn-led syncopation.

Now listen to “Groovin’ High,” as played at Town Hall in New York City on June 22, 1945, with the same band, except with 21-year-old Max Roach on drums. The basic beat is still 4/4, but it has a propulsive drive; the cymbals are leading the way, not just following the chart; and, every now and then, Roach accents a beat or drops an explosion on the tom-tom, to carve up the rhythm and extend the horns’ liberties—to make it jarringly clear that we’re all on new terrain.

Pianist Ethan Iverson, in his jazz blog, reminds me of a later Parker tune, “Kim,” from a 1952 studio date, where Roach presses the pedal still harder and where he experiments more drastically with rhythms within rhythms on top of still different rhythms.

Roach didn’t invent bebop, but he showed a whole new way for drummers to play a role in the new music—to do something besides just keeping time. (It would be a while longer before a bass player came along to do the same.)

Unlike some boppers, Roach didn’t stop there. He kept exploring new techniques, new rhythms, new sounds. His first real eye-popper—the track that has drummers shaking their heads even now, 56 years later—was “Un Poco Loco,” recorded in 1951 with pianist Bud Powell (and preserved on a compilation titled The Amazing Bud Powell, Vol. 1). The song, written by Powell, has, as the title suggests, a crazy rhythm to begin with. But Roach adds a more complex layer that goes against Powell’s rhythm, on a cowbell no less, while pounding a rumbling roll on the bass drum at a different tempo still. Simply jaw-dropping—and you can dance to it.

More remarkable, Roach clearly devised this approach on the spot. The album contains three takes of “Un Poco Loco,” and the drumming is a bit different on each. On the first take, Roach hits the cowbell in a high-energy Latin rhythm that goes with Powell’s rhythm; had he stopped there, it would have been impressive enough. On the second take, he tries a whole other approach, hitting only a couple beats per measure and altering the beats; it’s very diverting. Only on the third and final take did he pull out the polyrhythmic marvel.

Later that decade, and into the 1960s, Roach became active in the civil rights movement and recorded several albums with explicitly (and, at the time, provocatively) political themes, some of them featuring his wife at the time, singer Abbey Lincoln: We Insist! Freedom Now Suite, Speak Brother Speak, and Lift Every Voice and Sing. All along, he continued to play adventurous but usually accessible jazz with most of the giants—Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, and Clifford Brown. In the 1970s and ‘80s, he performed tightrope-walking duets—just him on drums and another daring acrobat on a horn or  piano—with Cecil Taylor, Mal Waldron, Dollar Brand, Archie Shepp, Clark Terry, and, most surprising, Dizzy Gillespie (the resulting album may be the only time Gillespie, the master of chord variations, played without a piano or guitar comping behind him).

I remember watching Roach on The Tonight Show—it must have been in the early 1970s—when Bill Cosby was guest-hosting for Johnny Carson. He played a drum solo for something like seven minutes. With most drummers, that alone would have been deadly, but Roach upped the stakes by playing nothing but a hi-hat cymbal, and I think he was hitting the cymbal with a pair of brushes, not sticks. It was enthralling. I’d never seen anything like it, and neither, it seemed, had anyone in what I recall was a cheering audience.

I couldn’t find that clip on YouTube, but I did come across this one, a similar but shorter solo on hi-hat, recorded (judging from the graying hair) at least a few years later. He was a drummer who saw the drums as much more than a percussive instrument. Melody and tone clusters came as naturally to him as rhythm. He was, simply, a master musician.