Roach, Max(well) (New Land, NC, 10 Jan 1924)


Drummer and composer



His mother was a gospel singer and he first played drums at the age of ten in gospel bands; this early involvement with black religious music had a significant influence on his musical development, though he also studied formally at the Manhattan School of Music. In 1942 he became associated with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and others and, as the house drummer at Monroe's Uptown House, participated in the jam sessions there and at Minton's Playhouse that led to the development of the bop style. From the 1940s Roach played and recorded frequently with bop groups in New York, notably as a member of quintets led by Gillespie (1944) and Charlie Parker (1945, 1947-9, and intermittently, 1951-3). During the same period, however, he also performed with musicians as dissimilar as Louis Jordan, Henry "Red" Allen, and Coleman Hawkins (with whom he made his first recordings, 1943), and took part in sessions with Miles Davis (1948-50), some of the results of which were issued as Birth of the Cool.


From 1954 to 1956, with Clifford Brown, Roach led an important quintet; this group produced a number of seminal recordings, including Study in Brown and At Basin Street, that epitomized the style of jazz known as hard bop. During the late 1950s and early 1960s Roach made a series of recordings that prefigured developments associated with free jazz; on Max Roach Plus 4 at Newport and Deeds Not Words (both 1958) he occasionally omitted the piano from his ensembles; on We Insist! Freedom Now Suite (1960) he utilized a wide variety of open formal structures instead of the more usual theme and variation format; and on Drums Unlimited (1966) he drew on his earlier innovatory concept of performing solo drum improvisations as independent pieces (Drum Conversation, 1953).


In the 1960s Roach became an articulate spokesman and activist in the black-American cultural arts movement, and the titles of many of his compositions and albums from that period - notably We Insist! Freedom Now Suite, on which he collaborated with Oscar Brown, Jr. - reflect his awareness of and involvement in the struggle for racial equality. Much of his work was undertaken in conjunction with the singer Abbey Lincoln, his wife at the time, and made use of solo voices and chorus as well as jazz ensemble. From that time he has also composed music for Broadway musicals, films, television, and symphony orchestra. Roach has continued to work regularly with his own groups; in 1970 he organized M' boom Re: Percussion, an ensemble of ten percussionists that performs and records works written specifically for percussion instruments. He has also made recordings with such artists as Abdullah Ibrahim (1977), Anthony Braxton (1978-9), Archie Shepp (1979), and Cecil Taylor (1979), and as a soloist with a string quartet (Survivors, 1984). He has been an active lecturer on jazz and has held positions at the Lenox (Massachusetts) School of Jazz and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.


Roach holds a significant position in the history of jazz. With Kenny Clarke, he was particularly important in establishing the practice of setting the fixed pulse on the ride cymbal instead of the bass drum; this enabled more flexible use to be made of the other parts of the drum set and allowed for greater polyrhythmic texture. His imaginative performances as a soloist and his mature technique of improvisation, which is based on the use of deft interaction of pitch and timbral variety, subtleties of silence and sound, rhythmic and metrical contrast, and a refreshingly flexible approach to the fixed pulse, establish him as one of the most outstanding and innovative drummers of his time.

Olly Wilson



The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Macmillan Reference Ltd 1988