Max: Sticking Power
Jazzman Max Roach Has Kept Time for Mankind's Fastest 50 Years

Los Angeles Times
September 15, 1991
Author: MITCH BERMAN AND SUSANNE WAH LEE; Berman is the author of the novel "Time Capsule." Lee is a contributor to
Asia Week and the host of "New York Culture" for WNYE-FM. Together they have written for The Nation, Conjunctions, Mother Jones and the Village Voice. Berman is the author of the novel "Time Capsule." Lee is a contributor to Asia Week and the host of "New York Culture" for WNYE-FM. Together they have written for The Nation, Conjunctions, Mother Jones and the Village Voice.Times Magazine Desk

Estimated printed pages: 14

"SILENCE," SAYS MAX ROACH. IT ISN'T A word you'd associate with any other drummer. "Silence makes it human. When you play a wind instrument, you're forced to create periods, question marks, exclamation points. Not on drums. I play an instrument, like piano or violin, that you don't have to take a breath on. Even though I can just play constantly and never stop, the silence is just as important as the sound--silence separates sounds and makes them a language, the way we use words."

In silence, eight men dressed in black file between the customers packed solid into Greenwich Village's Blue Note jazz club. The musicians, all percussionists, take the stage and, at a nod from Roach, join him in Thelonious Monk's "Epistrophy." It is a strange and moving blend of rhythm and melody. Yes, melody--aided not only by congas and trap sets and cowbells, not only by things that go bang in the night, but also by bells and xylophones, marimbas and chimes, vibes and timpani. These are percussionists who can carry a tune.

Roach, his face bathed in blue light, listens with a faint smile to each soloist. Between songs, the musicians rotate to new places on the stage, to new instruments that they play with the same furious concentration. The group uses more than 200 instruments, and each piece not only sounds different, but it looks different from the last.

Everything M'Boom does is suffused in ritual and mystery; and the band's insistent pulse, constantly welling up under the soloists and bursting to the surface, constantly circling around the melody, constantly reshaping the tune with new combinations of sounds, is as hypnotic as a Santeria rite. With exquisite control, the band does a long, long fade-out, each musician lowering his volume as steadily as a studio engineer pulling down a fader. The silence comes rushing up around the sound.p's vast repertoire. Founded by Roach nearly 20 years ago, M'Boom has survived the recent death of charter member Freddie Waits to remain one of the most original and arresting bands in music.

Roach has brought the state of the drummer's art a long way since his recording debut, the February, 1944, session on which Dizzy Gillespie and tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins lay down the first tracks of be-bop. Back then, studio techniques--and the whole notion of what a drummer was supposed to do--were so primitive that Roach's bass drum was muffled with a heavy blanket.

"The rhythm section was always behind the front line," Roach says, "and the horns always got all the glory." So he rewrote his own job description and became one of a handful of figures who have changed the way a major instrument is played. With Roach behind them, the drums emerged from the shadows to claim equal billing with the saxophones and trumpets. It has reached the point that a few musicians, afraid of being eaten alive by a drummer, have refused to work with Roach. Most enjoy the challenge. Declares Gillespie: "Max Roach is one of the grand masters of our music."

In the 1940s, Roach's spark propelled Charlie (Bird) Parker and Gillespie as they blazed the be-bop trail and remade jazz in their own image. A decade later, with trumpeter Clifford Brown, Roach led the top small band in jazz. The early '60s saw Roach blend poetry and black activism into his music, and in the '70s, he thrust percussion to the front of the bandstand with M'Boom. Along the way, he played on such landmark recordings as the first calypso jazz standard, Sonny Rollins' "St. Thomas," and "Birth of the Cool," the Miles Davis-Gil Evans project that put "cool jazz" on the map. Roach has lived not one life but many lives, most of them rich and vibrant, all of them full of music, a few of them tinged with tragedy. Max Roach has kept the time for the fastest half-century mankind has known.

"Nobody else," says jazz writer Gary Giddins, "ever had the nerve to come out on stage with a cymbal under his arm and say, 'This is art.' Max Roach's whole bearing says he is a musician to be treated like any great virtuoso. No drummer before him had ever achieved that."

Today, Roach maintains a steady schedule of teaching, and recording and touring with his own quartet, double quartet and M'Boom. None of which has stopped him, in the past few years, from composing for the Carme Chamber Orchestra of Milan and choreographer Alvin Ailey, scoring plays by Shakespeare, Eugene O'Neill, Amiri Baraka and Sam Shepard (winning a 1985 Obie award from the Village Voice), performing with the Japanese percussion group Kodo, the Cuban group Irakere and, in a Grammy-nominat ed reunion, Dizzy Gillespie. Roach has also performed with rapper Fab 5 Freddy.

A two-time recipient of the French Grand Prix du Disque, Roach became, in 1988, the first jazz musician to be awarded a $372,000 MacArthur Fellowship "genius grant." He makes a regular affair of winning Down Beat magazine's International Critics Poll, outranking the generation of drummers that came after him--and the generation that came after that. Nearing retirement age, Roach is slowing down like a New York taxi coming on a yellow light.

ONE HUNDRED DEGREES MAKES IT THE hottest day of the year in Amherst, Mass. In a sweltering classroom with no windows and air-conditioning that went dead early in the week, Max Roach rehearses the six students in his workshop at the University of Massachusetts. These young men, four of them in their teens, auditioned their way into this intensive weeklong program, Jazz in July, that's topped off with a concert. They wear T-shirts, shorts and tennis shoes; their teacher wears a similar ensemble, except for a black baseball cap crowned by a row of tiny colorful Guatemalan figures with skulls for heads.

The students look attentively at Roach, who cues each soloist on Thelonious Monk's "Well You Needn't." He gets up from his stool a couple of times to make adjustments on the drum set. The students admit that they stood in awe of Roach upon meeting him, but now there is an easy rapport between them. Roach is each student's best audience, applauding, nodding his approval. "Save your chops for the concert," he tells the trumpeter. "Don't practice too much, and think about what we're going to do tomorrow." He turns to the drummer. "Use a different timbre for each soloist. You wouldn't play the same cymbal behind everyone." To all of them: "At the end of the concert, look at the audience and smile. Don't bow! " Most of these kids, he knows, ar e classically trained.

"Max approaches teaching with a missionary zeal," says Frederick Tillis, director of the Afro-American Music and Jazz Studies Program at the school. "He wants to see the music stay alive."

Roach was hired as a full professor by the university in 1973, around the same time that his twin daughters Ayo and Dara were born. He already had three children from his first marriage: Raoul, now an executive with Qwest Records, who was the music supervisor on the film "Boyz N the Hood"; Darryl, an actor who stars in the upcoming film "The Importance of Being Earnest," and Maxine, a violist and the leader of the all-female Uptown String Quartet--half of Roach's double quartet--which has earned a Grammy nomination on its own.

"I was on the road so much," says Roach, "and their mother and I never saw each other, so the marriage ended in divorce. I'd been trying so hard to make it that I never had a chance to see Maxine and Darryl and Raoul grow up. When I got the position at UMass, I had these two beautiful girls crawling up and down this apartment, and it was like, I can finally be a dad."

Initially, Roach taught full time. "Max was restless," Tillis recalls. "I could see that he wanted to concertize." Now Roach comes to Amherst for the Jazz in July program and for two residencies during each academic year.

Asked whether the classroom atmosphere might blunt the spontaneity of young musicians, Roach is vehement: "On the contrary. Bird, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk accomplished in spite of the conditions they worked under--a speak-easy environment--talk about distractions! Take Sonny Rollins or Miles Davis and put them before an audience where there's no smoking or drinking--then the kids can really understand what's going on.

"Now we're seeing the fruits of organized musical education in young musicians like Wynton Marsalis. Look at it like this--what could Charlie Parker have achieved, with his attitude toward developing and experimenting, if he'd been able to go to music school?" Roach says.

"When I teach, I'm repeating my own experiences. This is a music that is not formally taught but passed down from generation to generation. This is a music that is not locked in. Our music is less than 100 years old. The Louis Armstrongs, the Charlie Parkers, up through the young musicians today are still part of the beginning. We are pioneers right now. "

This small college town becomes much smaller in summer, but the teachers' concert draws 5,000 people to the Campus Pond Lawn. The Jazz in July organizers save Max Roach for last.

Alone on stage, Roach allows the silence to speak, that his playing may speak the more eloquently. The silence stretches out long and languid, and when the fury comes, it sounds like fury, not noisier noise on top of noise. Sometimes, with his sticks vertical and motionless, Roach seems like a cat gathering himself to pounce.

The solo starts softly and deliberately, almost regimentally disciplined, on the snare drum, accelerating to a roll in which the volume and speed grow until it breaks into sprints and spurts, until Roach is bearing down, staring down into the snare as if he wants to bore a hole into the skin. Roach has coaxed so many sounds from one of the drums in his set that it's easy to forget the other drums are there. The tension breaks when he suddenly spills out to the crash and ride cymbals, and then down to the tom-toms. It's as if Roach somehow plugs himself into a better sound system than other drummers: Each of the instruments in his trap set rings out clearly, cleanly, individuated from the others.

Roach saves "Mr. Hi-Hat," a tribute to Count Basie's pioneering drummer (Papa) Jo Jones, to close the concert.

He emerges from behind the trap set. Grasping the high hat by its stem, he plumps it down with a jangle onto the apron of the stage. The drummer has set himself the challenge of holding the crowd with nothing but two wooden sticks and an opposing pair of pedal-operated cymbals.

Roach has barely begun when the campus bell tower strikes the hour, which takes awhile because it is 11 o'clock. Laughing, he tolls the top cymbal a few times with both sticks.

By 11:01 he's all over the high hat, rolling and roiling on dull closed and then bright open cymbals, damping the top cymbal with one hand and whacking the bottom cymbal underhanded, working the foot pedal and not using his hands, working the steel stem without using his feet, working the drumsticks against each other without the high hat at all; then, suddenly, exuberantly, he is everywhere at once.

THE MAN WHO OPENS THE DOOR OF HIS MANHATTAN APARTMENT appears a decade younger than his 67 years. Today Roach, in a plaid shirt, corduroy pants, is editing the first of five albums he is producing for Bluemoon Records through MR Productions. "To the Max!" is a wide-ranging sampler featuring Roach as a soloist and with M'Boom, his quartet, double quartet, and chorus and orchestra. He picks up a digital audio tape recorder from a white corner sofa and takes its place. "I have to use headphones." He laughs. "My daughters had a party and blew out my speakers."

In this bright, crowded living room overlooking Central Park, cassettes from Run-DMC and De La Soul share a shelf with Yves Montand, Jessye Norman, Bill Monroe and Sam Cooke. Roach is an animated conversationalist who has a warm tenor voice and large, muscular hands that he keeps in constant motion as he speaks.

"I'm from New Land in northeastern North Carolina, the Dismal Swamp area," he says. When Roach was small, his family moved to Brooklyn.

"I came home from grammar school one day to find all our furniture sitting on the street and my parents sitting on the furniture waiting for me. We found another walk-up apartment. The tenants before us had left a player piano and a stack of piano rolls by Pete Johnson and Jelly Roll Morton. My brother and I used to watch the keys go and put our hands on them.

"Our family was hard-core Baptist people, and I was obliged to be involved in the children's choir, the junior choir, the intermediate choir and the senior choir." Roach's aunt, a church pianist, taught him how to read music and play the piano. Soon he turned to drums, playing for Brooklyn's Boys' High School at battles of the bands during halftimes of basketball games.

While in high school, Roach began drumming professionally for a band fronted by Clark Monroe, brother of Billy Holiday's first husband. "We'd play all night at Monroe's Uptown House, then the after-hours clubs and, during the day, house-rent parties where musicians would raise rent for families. Art Tatum would be playing an old upright piano in someone's living room. In communities like Harlem and Bed-Stuy in the late '30s, music was coming out of the walls."

World War II gave the 17-year-old Roach his first big break. "Most of the great drummers were in the Army, so when (Duke Ellington's drummer) Sonny Greer got sick, Mr. Ellington called Clark Monroe and asked him for a drummer for a three-day gig. I got the job because I could read music.

"I went down into the orchestra pit at the New York Paramount Theatre, nervous because I was this kid, the Paramount was New York's grandest theater and Duke Ellington was like--well, he was like God. I sat behind Mr. Greer's percussion set. Mr. Greer played mallet instruments, chimes, timpani, 'cause Duke wrote for all those instruments--he had all that on the stage. That didn't bother me so much.

"What did bother me was there wasn't a sheet of music in sight. It was horrifying. When Mr. Ellington came down to check out the band, he saw this kid looking around, saw the fear on my face, and said: 'Just keep an eye on me.' He was the damnedest conductor I'd ever played for. It was just like him playing the drums.

"From that time on, everyone began to call me to make records--Dizzy Gillespie, Henry (Red) Allen, Hot Lips Page. Whether I could play or not, they thought I could play because I'd been with the master."

Shortly after Roach graduated from high school, cornetist Vic Coulson announced to the Clark Monroe band: "Tomorrow night I'm going to bring down the greatest musician in the world." The band members greeted this news with jaded sneers. "We were New Yorkers, man--we'd been hearing Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young."

The next night, Coulson introduced a young alto saxophone player from Kansas City to the band. After the newcomer sat in, "we said, 'Yeah, he's all right.' " Roach puts his hands behind his head and lets out a laugh. "The new guy was Charlie Parker."

Parker soon broke away from Monroe, taking Roach with him, to form the band that thrust jazz into the be-bop era. At first, listeners unfamiliar with the new music "would come in and holler, 'Hey boys, can you play 'You Are My Sunshine'? Then the buzz began." Parker, Gillespie, Roach and pianists Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell mesmerized full houses at clubs like the Three Deuces, the Onyx, the Five Spot and the Royal Roost. Be-bop acolytes emigrated from all over America to Manhattan's 52nd Street district.

At the epicenter was a group of very young men--in 1946, Parker, Gillespie and Monk all were 28 or younger, and Roach was only 22. "They were gods to us," says saxophone giant Sonny Rollins, then a teen-ager.

One by one, those gods were taken down by heroin. The young musicians who idolized them followed suit and fell like dominoes. Most, like Miles Davis, kicked the habit sooner or later. Parker never did.

"I LOOK LIKE BIRD'S BODYGUARD," SAYS MAX ROACH. THE OVERSIZED BLACK-bound book across his knees, a French volume called "To Bird With Love," is opened to a group photo taken at Marseilles in 1949. In his fedora, tweed overcoat, round wire-rimmed glasses, the young Max Roach looks more like Charlie Parker's cultural attache than a bodyguard.

In a sense, this is Roach's scrapbook, and he turns the large square pages with a certain tenderness. "Chan (Parker's wife) saved every contract, every note he wrote to her, every little drawing. Here's an agreement from August, 1950--'Parker plus 11 musicians, six hours daily, Club Harlem, $2,000 per week.' Bird never made any money.

"Every time I look at this book, it does something to me inside. I spent 10 years with Bird, off and on." Roach closes the book. His nostalgia has turned to melancholy.

"I used to have an apartment on East 30th Street. Bird would come by very often at 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning and knock on the window. He'd always go straight to the bathroom. I knew what he was doing in there.

"So one of these mornings he came by, went into my bathroom. It was about six months before Bird died. Pretty soon he calls out to me: 'Come in here, Max! I want to show you something.'

"I go in the bathroom and he's standing up looking in the mirror. His pants are down to his ankles, and his whole body is a swollen mess--his hands and everything.

"Bird's looking in the mirror at himself, and he says: 'Man, I done wore this mother------- out.' He was talking about his body like it was a suit .

"He didn't say it sadly. He was so lighthearted. That's the attitude you have if you believe in reincarnation. You simply shed this and take another one." Roach smiles. "Maybe he's got one someplace."

Miles Davis credits Roach with having saved him from Parker's fate. Roach, close to Davis since their days with Parker, encountered the ragtag, heroin-addled Davis in 1953, nodding out on a New York street corner. As Davis recalls in his autobiography, "Miles": "Max Roach walked up and looked at me and told me that I was 'looking good.' Then, he put a couple of new $100 bills in my pocket, right? Now he's standing there cleaner than a mother------ looking like a million dollars because h e was taking care of himself. Now Max and me were just like brothers, right? Man, that . . . embarrassed me so bad that instead of taking the money and going and shooting up like I normally would, I called my father and told him that I was coming home to try to get it together again."

ALTHOUGH ROACH WAS IN CONTROL OF himself, he had yet to gain full control over his career. Discovering that "the record business is the dirtiest and most exploitative," he and his good friend Charles Mingus, the innovative bassist and bandleader, formed their own label.

Debut Records numbered among its releases the so-called "greatest jazz concert of all time," a 1953 performance at Toronto's Massey Hall by Parker, Gillespie, Bud Powell, Mingus and Roach. Debut was an artistic success--and a commercial failure. "The big companies kicked us out," Roach says. "They beat us up. They would threaten the distributors: If you distribute these records, you won't get Frank Sinatra, for example--I'm paraphrasing, just naming a name at random--and they shut you out of the business like that. " Debut's disintegration "tore our friendship apart. Mingus and I were not speaking up to the day he died (in 1979). The last time I saw him was at Jimmy Carter's Newport celebration at the White House. Mingus was in a wheelchair, really sick . . . ." Roach's voice drops dolefully. "And I was on the other end. We were glaring at each other like, 'You took some money from me.' I regret it to this day."

While playing with Mingus at the Lighthouse at Hermosa Beach in 1954, Roach had linked up with trumpet prodigy Clifford Brown to form the band that would dominate the mid-'50s jazz scene. The Roach-Brown Band showcased an electrifying young tenor saxophonist named Sonny Rollins.

"Sonny would leave the house screaming. It was something to see how Brownie would follow with everybody just standing on their heads. The greatest trumpeters in the world used to come to hear him play. Brownie just astounded people. They were perfect together, like Dizzy and Bird."

Rollins says: "Max has always been so open and patient with young musicians. Being in that band was one of the highlights of my life."

When Roach made the novel request that the horns play licks behind his drum solos, Rollins countered by asking Roach to write out the horn parts. Roach began to compose in earnest. In the Los Angeles apartment he and Brown shared, "the piano was in the living room with our bedrooms on either side. When we woke up, it was a race to see who would get to the piano first to write.

"In June of 1956, we were set to play the biggest club in Chicago. (Pianist) Richie Powell and Brownie were coming from Philadelphia, and (bassist) George Morrow and Sonny and I from New York. We always traveled in a caravan.

"Clifford called me up and said: 'I'm gonna leave early so I can get to Elkhart, Ind., and try out some new trumpets.' It was the first time we didn't travel in tandem.

"Our agent, Joe Glaser, called when I arrived in Chicago: 'Max, brace yourself. Clifford and Richie were killed on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.' "

Roach's voice is throaty, hoarse, as if he just got the news. "I couldn't believe it. Clifford was 25. You close your eyes for one minute." Roach shakes his head slowly. "Where? What? How?"

"We cried like babies," Rollins remembers. "I don't think Max will ever really get over it."

Though then only 32, Roach says he "felt responsibility as the 'elder' who wasn't there at that moment. I agonized about that for years. Why, why did I say, 'OK, I'll meet you in Chicago' just like that?"

Brown's death devastated Roach; you can see the scars even today. "I got really strung out on booze. One night I was in a bar in Pittsburgh, and all of a sudden on the jukebox I heard Dinah Washington, who was like a mentor to Clifford and me, and she was singing 'Relax Max.' She was trying to bring me out of it."

Others came to Roach's aid. Singer Abbey Lincoln, who would become his wife, welcomed Roach into her circle of friends in Chicago, including writers Lorraine Hansberry and Maya Angelou. Roach emerged from his depression and entered a new period of political consciousness and musical fertility. With Lincoln, he recorded his influential "We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite," which presaged both the free jazz of the '60s and Roach's increasing outspokenness on racial issues.

ROACH'S STATURE IN THE WORLD of music has never insulated him from racism. "Just a couple of days ago I went into Ralph Lauren on Madison Avenue. From the time I walked in there, a guy shadowed me. So I took my time and looked at things. Every time I turned around, he would see me and turn away. And I was nattily dressed--I was cool."

Roach lowers his head, shakes it. "Racism is part of America's character. It's natural--America is not a homogeneous society like Italy or Nigeria or Japan. So we're all looking at each other a little strangely."

For Roach, who grew up in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant, played segregated black USO clubs during World War II and played in predominantly black bands to predominantly white crowds on 52nd Street, the subject of racism can be either a provocation to anger or a call to reason.

"Sometimes I think racism is a signal for built-in self-destruction. Maybe we were programmed for extinction, like the species before us--and racism is our programming. I look at America as an experiment to see if we can deal with ourselves as human beings, and not because you're black and white.

"I make a living and I sent all five of my kids to college, but when I look out there and see black people on the street with paper cups, begging, that's me."

Roach attributes the innovations of black artists and athletes, paradoxically, to the presence of racism. "It drives black people. Because I'm still not really a part of this society, I gotta keep working till I am. That's why there's got to be a Dizzy Gillespie after a Louis Armstrong--there's got to be a Michael Jordan after a Dr. J.

"In Europe, everybody kind of sits back and says: 'We don't have to do anything else. Mozart did it all.'

"We can't do that."

MAX ROACH IS SHOWING A VIDEO from 1983, several years before the big record labels would deign to notice rap. Roach is behind his drums, wearing shiny green-black sunglasses, a black fedora, a black suit over a black shirt, and a brick-red necktie. Rap innovator Fab 5 Freddy (now host of "Yo! MTV Raps,") shares the stage, spitting out rhymes to the rhythm.

Today, Roach and Freddy are in the process of completing an album they began three years ago. "Max is courageous and open-minded," Freddy says, "to embrace the new--the now and today."

"Hip-hop is complete theater," Roach says. "These kids don't have rhetoric courses, so they've created their own script in rhyme--it's verbal improvisation. They don't have formal musical training, so they make music from the tones and rhythms of human speech--they'll sample Malcolm X saying, 'Too black, too strong.' They've even created their own instrument--the turntable. They have nothing but the inclination to be involved. And like Louis Armstrong, out of nothing they create something."

Roach takes the complaint that rap is unmusical and turns it on its ear. "The world of organized sound is a boundless palette." He spreads his arms to sketch it out in the air. "On that palette you have classical European music, you have Charlie Parker, you have the music of the East, African music, music of the Middle East, electronic music. Some people seem to think that what they are doing way over here in one corner"--he colors in a square inch of the imaginary palette--"is the end of all organized sound. That's like saying the Earth is the end of the universe.

"For centuries, Mozart and Charlie Parker and Ellington and Bach and Beethoven stood for the proposition of harmony, melody and rhythm equally balanced. Now here come these rap kids, dealing with a world of sound that makes the palette much broader. There's no melody, no harmony, just this very repetitive rhythmic thing. Rap completely obliterates Western concepts of music. It's revolutionary.

"When I play with Fab 5 Freddy, my musician friends ask me, 'Why, Max?'

" 'The sound, ' I tell them. That's the final answer to any question in music--the sound.