Max Roach

Love Is A Many Splendored ThingAt Basin Street (1956)
Just One Of Those ThingsMax Roach + 4 (1956)
There Will Never Be Another YouDeeds, Not Words (1958)
Driva' ManWe Insist! (1960)
Garvey's GhostPercussion Bitter Sweet (1961)
Din-Ka Street... The Legendary Hasaan (1964)
For Big SidDrums Unlimited (1966)
Streams Of ConsciousnessStreams Of Consciousness (1977)
OnomatopoeiaM'Boom (1979)
Elixir SuiteBright Moments (1986)


Max Roach playlist



Contributor: Calvin Rydbom

While still in High School the Brooklyn-raised Max Roach used to take the subway out to Harlem and join the late night jam sessions at Minton’s and Monroe’s along with Monk, Dizzy, Kenny Clarke and so many others. Think about that. These guys might have only been in their mid-to-late 20s themselves but they all had recording contracts and national reputations and there was this High School kid good enough to sit in with them during after hours jam sessions. Of course he had been drumming for Gospel bands since the age of 10.

At the age of 17 he, along with many others of course, helped re-harmonize the blues and jazz form. Max and others stretched out the beat and set fiery tempos on their way to creating something we now call bebop. That summer, while still just 17, he went on the road as Duke Ellington’s drummer. By 18 he was recording as part of Coleman Hawkins band. Around this time he and Clarke essentially developed a new concept of musical time, which doesn’t happen every day. The idea was to play a beat by beat pulse in standard 4/4 time on the ride cymbal instead of on the bass drum. This allowed a much more flexible rhythmic pattern allowing them to solo more freely than drummers ever had before. He essentially shifted the focus from one part of his drum kit to another, perhaps a few others.

Throughout the 1940s he was Charlie Parker’s primary drummer and developed his style to keep pace with Bird’s fiery playing and partnered with him in displacing rhythm in a way that changed what defined jazz. Listen to his solo in Bud Powell’s Un Poco Loco in 1951; the man could play.

He actually took a little time off to study composition at the Manhattan School of Music in the early 1950s before co-founding Debut Records with Charles Mingus, making it one of the first artist owned record labels. By this time he had started calling his drums a multiple percussion set. He weaved each part as a separate instrument turning his set into an autonomous instrument and creating all sorts of possibilities. I love Gene Krupa and Chick Webb but they treated drum solos as an outgrowth of their snare. Max spread a solo melodically around the whole drum set, from cymbal to tom-tom, he changed the way drums approached form and melody.

In the 1970s he formed M’Boom, an all percussion group. In the 1980s he worked with a string quartet. He recorded with choirs and orchestras. He scored plays by everyone from Shakespeare to Sam Shepard. He created music for Alvin Ailey, worked with a Japanese kodo ensemble, Flamenco Singers and just about anything you can think of. I love the oft-times one on one work he’d do with other musicians that he referred to as ‘conversations’.

I could go on forever concerning his achievements, but it comes down to this – Max Roach is undoubtedly the greatest musician who ever chose the drums to be his primary instrument. I really can’t fathom how that point can be argued. It just is.

“When Max Roach’s first records with Charlie Parker were released by Savoy in 1945,” Burt Korall wrote in the Oxford Companion to Jazz, “drummers experienced awe and puzzlement and even fear.” Fear; he made other drummers afraid. Stan Levey, whose career and accomplishments as a drummer stretched over thousands of recordings as well, said of Max, “I came to realize that, because of him, drumming no longer was just time, it was music.”

While he recorded an untold amount of songs as the drummer for other artists during his 60 year recording career, many of them outstanding examples of some of the things I’ve spoken of, I’ve decided to simply look at recordings where he was the leader and that were released under his own name. I thought quite a while about discussing Max, as a ‘shortlist’ of favorite tracks settled in at 34. I pared it down to 18 before putting it aside for a few weeks. It’s impossible to pick 10 favorite tracks from the career of a man who, seven years after his death, has over 70 non-compilation albums as a leader still in print. Yet here I go.

By the mid 50s Max had served his time in the bands of Parker, Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Hawkins, Miles Davis, Monk and Bud Powell. So the only thing to do was put together perhaps the greatest example of hard bop that ever existed. He was a few years older than Clifford Brown and established in a way Brown was not, yet he worked with Brown as the co-leader. The rest of the band was Bud’s brother Richie, George Morrow, and while at first Harold Land, quickly the sax was taken over by Sonny Rollins. Sadly, this band only lasted two years before Brown and Powell were killed in a car accident in June of 1956. Honestly, it could have an entry of its own. Think about this; Max’s drums with a couple of now legendary young guns holding down the fort on the horns. While there is so much to choose from we’ll pick Love Is A Many Splendored Thing from this era. The piece starts out with a cymbal intro before going into solos by four of the band members. The way the solos come out of each other is amazing, it’s seamless. What is extraordinary is they were playing in 5/4. At this point nobody was playing in 5 beats. These guys were steering their music towards something nobody in their audience had heard or were accustomed to. From the start, Max was ahead of his time.

Recorded later that year, after the deaths of Brown and Powell, Just One Of Those Things is surprisingly uptempo as Rollins and Max set a ridiculous pace that seems to be celebratory instead of mournful for their dead band mates.

By 1958, Max had brought aboard another young trumpet player named Booker Little, who was clearly following in Brown’s footsteps. Unfortunately he also lost his life at an early age from kidney failure.

Here is an idea; let’s take a song that has been a jazz standard for about fifteen years and try it out as drums and bass duet. Well it worked on There Will Never Be Another You, in fact I’d say a lot of people probably didn’t even realize the just under six minute piece was simply a conversation between Max and bassist Oscar Pettiford. It swung that much, it sounded that much like a full band.

1960’s We Insist!: Freedom Now Suite is one of the rare albums given the Crown accolade from the Penguin Guide to Jazz and is listed as part of their Core Collection. That said, all five of the selections from this album could be included. Also, it would be impossible to do a list such as this without including some collaboration Max did with vocalist Abbey Lincoln, who was his wife from 1962-1970. By this point, Max was using his music to campaign for civil rights and social justice. It’s very difficult to listen to Driva’ Man though and not feel somewhat unsettled by its dark tones and odd beats. The solo by Coleman Hawkins is chilling as well.

Max’s writing on social justice kept growing. Garvey’s Ghost is perhaps my favorite piece by Max. Booker Little’s solo is inspiring, and tenor sax Clifford Jordan matches him. And far removed from a joke, Max included a cowbell player in the composition. Max keeps swinging back and forth between different patterns and beats on every part of his kit but the cymbal, which somehow maintains the same pattern while he seems to be improvising with every other piece of his kit. He mixes in Eric Dolphy and Cuban conga player Carlos Valdez, yet it never seems busy. Ten musicians seem to be talking with each other yet still allowing each other space. And I swear, until I read it somewhere and never realized, that at no time during Lincoln’s vocals did she actually say a word. Just amazing.

The 1964 album The Max Roach Trio featuring the Legendary Hasaan carried on Max’s desire to foster talent and hold ‘conversations’. Every composition of this album, which is largely interplay between Hasaan and Max with Art Davis holding down the fort on bass, is credited to Hasaan Ibn Ali. Yet Hasaan never recorded anything before or after this which was ever released. Who knows why as his playing is brilliant, and actually all three of their playing is brilliant. It is so different than what you’d expect from a piano trio at the time. The rhythm section is hardly there to support. At times all three of them seem to be soloing at the same time, with the best example being Din-Ka Street.

I never get tired of listening to a piece like For Big Sid. Much like some of the earlier conversation pieces where you don’t notice the rest of the band is somewhat missing, I don’t think the casual listener of music is fully aware this is from beginning to end simply a three minute drum solo. It’s a prime example of how the drums were several instruments for Max, and not just one. As he was known to point out, there really isn’t any other musician who used all four limbs to create their music. He was also known to say he didn’t play melody, what he played was form, structure and shape. You understand what he meant in this piece.

Much of the 1970s was full of the experimental conversations I’ve raved about, and I’m somewhat embarrassed that I’ve not included one of Max’s pieces with collaborator Anthony Braxton. But 1977’s Streams Of Consciousness with Abdullah Ibrahim, who was then known as Dollar Brand, is almost beyond description. According to the the album jacket, written by Max, he and the South African piano player never rehearsed or planned what they were going to play and, according to Max, “the resulting cohesiveness, I am sure had much to do with our environmental similarities”. The title cut is 21 minutes of two masters weaving in and out of each other’s statements and solos, following each other and leading each other without any point or having any real idea where the other is about to go. They leave space for each other, they lapse into some South African stylings, and at one point it almost touches on gospel. It’s truly amazing.

A good deal of Max’s life was dedicated to exploring the idea of percussion as music-making instruments equal to horns or anything with strings. So it really only makes sense he would spend a few years leading a nine piece percussion band that featured drums, vibes, marimbas, xylophones, timpanis, congas, bongos and bells. The collection recorded five albums between 1973 and 1992. And this first cut from their second album, M’Boom, is probably my favorite. The word Onomatopoeia essentially means creating a word to describe a sound, such as ‘roar’ or ‘splat’. You can’t help but be drawn to the rhythms of the piece, the clashing yet dancing around each other by different percussion instruments from the bells to the timpanis create something very unique. Oh, and by the way, the xylophone solo is Max.

Elixir Suite is one of the later recordings Max did with his trio, which included Odean Pope and Cecil Bridgewater, where they dueted with the Uptown String Quartet, which was lead on viola by Max’s daughter Maxine. It’s astonishing a track less than 10 minutes long could swing so far back and forth between such sparseness and full orchestration, yet it does. Sometimes rough and tumble, sometimes soft and almost tender. It’s yet another amazing piece.

As I come to the end of these 10 compositions I can’t help feel I could have chosen a different 10 and it would have been just as justifiable. As I said, Max Roach was the greatest musician ever who chose the drums as his primary instrument.


Max Roach Discography

Max Roach biography (Apple Music)

Calvin Rydbom’s latest book is “The Akron Sound: The Heyday Of The Midwest’s Punk Capital”. He is the vice-president and archivist of the “Akron Sound” Museum and vice-president of freelance archiving firm Pursue Posterity. He has published a number of music-related articles and was elected to the Society of American Archivists steering committee on recorded sound before being promoted to website liaison. Calvin has written on many artists for this site including Gene Clark, Nanci Griffith, Billie Holiday, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk.

TopperPost #246

1 Comment

  1. Ilkka Jauramo
    Apr 9, 2014

    I heard Max playing 100 per cent solo in a drum workshop in the mid sixties and it was, like you said, “exploring the idea of percussion as music-making instruments equal to horns or anything with strings”.

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