Memories of Max Roach

January 10 was Max Roach’s 90th birthday anniversary.  I met Max around 1977, and two years later brought him to Worcester for the first solo concert of his career.  I was awestruck at the prospect of meeting the great drummer, even brought an LP for him to autograph, but he treated me with a respect more in keeping with colleagues than with hero and admirer.  I remain humbled by the kindness and encouragement he offered me over the years.  Max was a gentleman, the kind who made you stand a little straighter when he approached and feel a little better for having been in his company.  I didn’t see much of Max in his final years, but when I drove to his funeral at New York’s Riverside Church on August 24, 2008, I reflected on how pivotal he was to my life’s journey.

(Max Roach; photo by Richard Laird)

Roach became a Professor of Music at UMass in 1972, the same year that I would have entered college as a freshman.   However, college was not in the cards for me at that time.  I had a legacy of my own to deal with, that of a family-owned engineering business that I’d been told to prepare myself for from my earliest days in grammar school.  This was not to be, but in 1972 I was profoundly stuck between respecting my family’s wishes and honoring something that felt much truer to me, namely my love of jazz.  No doubt about it, celebrating the music of Max and Miles and Monk and Mingus held a much greater sense of calling for me than running a transit.  But as an 18 year old, the path to the latter was much clearer than was turning a passion for jazz and a keen interest in its history into a career.  So I put off college, made a stab at civil engineering, and continued my nightly jaunts to record stores, nightclubs, back alleys, and anywhere else where one might glory in music and its attendant pleasures.

A feeling of misdirection haunted me for a few years until the day my cousin Tara, who was attending UMass, paid a visit.  I was wearing out the BYG reissue of Charlie Parker’s Savoy recordings when she arrived, and as we sat and listened, she made casual reference to the fact that Roach, the drummer in Parker’s quintet, was on the faculty in Amherst.  This came as a stunning revelation to me, and at first I was incredulous; apparently I hadn’t been reading the fine print comings and goings in Downbeat.  But I picked up the phone the next day, called UMass, asked for application materials, and with Max as my beacon, I began to envision a course of study that didn’t involve geometry.  A few months later, I enrolled at the University, eager to read the classics and study jazz history with Professor Roach.

As it happened, Max had begun a sabbatical the semester I arrived in Amherst (and thereafter, he maintained more of an adjunct status with the campus), but I learned this only after attending the first meeting of his Jazz History class.  There, I met Max’s sub, the saxophonist Jake Epstein, who admitted to being a more confident alto player than he was a jazz historian, and before the day was over, he asked me if I’d be willing to help him teach the class.  I leapt at this informal arrangement, and over the course of the semester discovered that I had something of a gift for conveying my knowledge and enthusiasm for jazz.  And I had Professor Roach, in absentia, to thank for the opportunity.

It would remain another couple of years before I met Max, and by then I was hosting jazz radio programs in Worcester, writing music features for the local weekly, and co-producing a concert series with my WCUW colleagues Alan West and John Voci.  During a chance meeting in Boston, I asked Max if he’d be interested in playing a solo concert for the series, which had already featured percussion greats Milford Graves, Andrew Cyrille, Sunny Murray, and Don Moye.  I explained that we had only a hundred-seat venue and a modest admission price, but he was all ears. 

A few months later, he drove up from his home in Greenwich, and like the model professional he was, arrived ahead of schedule for the soundcheck.  That afforded even more time for an interview and dinner, for which he picked up the tab.   We drew an SRO crowd for the concert, and when I handed him more than the $500 minimum guarantee, he asked, “What’s this?” I reminded him that the deal was $500 or the door, whichever was greater.  He asked what we were putting in our pockets, and when I said it was a non-profit venture, he said, “This music needs honest presenters, but if you’re going to be a successful, you’ve got to make some money too.” 

Several of the WCUW-sponsored concerts can be heard at the Worcester Jazz Database.  Click here for a link to Max’s, which took place at the New England Repertory Theater on May 28, 1979.   The concert includes “The Drum Also Waltzes,” “Mop Mop (for Sid Catlett),” “Jass-Me,” “Drums Unlimited,” and “South Africa ’76,” complete with elaborate introductions.  Before he plays “Jass-Me,” a piece in 7/4, Max mentions the dispute that ensued over whether it was Roach’s quintet or Dave Brubeck’s quartet that was first in making new use of odd time signatures.  Brubeck, of course, enjoyed great success with Paul Desmond’s “Take Five,” but Max’s band was playing the Julian Priester-Tommy Turrentine composition in 5/4, “As Long As You’re Living,” around the same time.  Back then, Max claimed that Brubeck, Desmond, and drummer Joe Morello stole the idea when they shared a bill at the Detroit Jazz Festival in 1958.  Doug Ramsey’s biography of Desmond quotes quintet member Stanley Turrentine saying that “Max like to went crazy after he found that out.  Went crazy.  He was really upset.”  In Worcester, Max stated wryly, “We often thought that Brubeck took five from us.”

I was hardly alone in having my life impacted by Maxwell Roach.  As was abundantly clear by the presence of over 2000 people in Riverside Church and an overflow crowd outside, Max served as a mentor, role model, and teacher to many over the course his long career.  He came to prominence as the young counterpart to Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker in modern jazz, and he may be the most influential drummer of all time.  To watch Max play the trap drum set, which he often called a “multiple percussion unit,” was to behold a marvel of human inventiveness, not to mention strength, speed, and agility. 

Roach was in the vanguard of a new social consciousness, one reflected in his powerful music, which by the late 50′s boldly decried racism on recordings like Deed, Not Words; We Insist: Freedom Now;  Percussion Bitter Sweet; It’s Time; Speak, Brother, Speak; and Members, Don’t Get Weary.   He was a tireless advocate for the recognition of jazz as an art form and played a major role in the establishment of the African-American Music major at UMass, and in the growing prestige that jazz enjoys at cultural institutions such as Jazz at Lincoln Center and the NEA.  At the funeral, Congressman Charlie Rangel read a letter by Bill Clinton in which the former President praised Roach for “aligning” his music with the civil rights movement and “promoting ideals of equality and justice.”

Others paying tribute to Roach included Maya Angelou, who described Max as “dedicated, disciplined, and daring.”  Poets Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez testified to his musical genius and political courage in bold, staccato verse.  New York Lt. Gov. David Paterson placed Max in a lineage of black heroes including Harriet Tubman, Paul Robeson, and Malcolm X.  

Bill Cosby paid tongue-in-cheek tribute to Max as the man who made him become a comic.  Initially, Cos had wanted to be a drummer.  He’d spent $75 for a basic kit, and he gained a sense of how certain things were done from seeing Vernell Fournier and Art Blakey, but once he saw Max, he gave up in frustration.  Later, when he’d become famous and finally met Roach, he said, “You owe me $75!” Cosby recounted how impressed he and his homeboys from the Philly projects were with Max’s sartorial elegance.  When they spotted him wearing a blue blazer with a crest, one of them said, “Max must have a boat!”  He also noted that “Brooks Brothers must have sold a ton of suits” once Max and Miles and other jazz icons began wearing them in the 1950′s.

Riverside Church resounded with musical interludes by Billy Taylor, Randy Weston, and Jimmy Heath, who played a solo version of “There’ll Never Be Another You” on soprano saxophone.  Cassandra Wilson sang “Take Me Back Where I Belong.”  In his eulogy, the Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts III invoked “The Holy Ghost” as a likely source of Max’s extraordinary musicianship, and a sense of “righteous indignation” as a guiding force of his activism.  In the words of the gospel hymn, “When the Saints Go Marching In,” Butts voiced certainty that Max is now “in that number.” 

I served on the committee that produced a concert in Max’s memory at UMass in the spring of 2009.  Bowker Auditorium wasn’t quite as majestic as Riverside Church, but Max surely would have been moved by Dawning Holmes’s rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and by how readily the Amherst audience rose to its feet as she sang the work widely hailed as the Black National Anthem.

Max was born in New Land, North Carolina, and raised in Brooklyn.  He returned to NC in the early ’90′s for a statewide tour of 14 public school districts.  The opening minutes of this report include great footage of Max in action.  He describes the trap drum set as an American innovation, and notes that the diverse origins of cymbals, tom-toms, bass and snare drums combine to reflect the multi-cultural nature of the U.S.  True to form, Max never wasted an opportunity to educate and enlighten.  Thank you, Professor Roach.

 

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