Friday, August 17, 2007


From the San Francisco Chronicle:

Jazz Master Max Roach Dies at 83

By his 30th birthday, Max Roach was already considered the greatest jazz drummer ever by his peers. By the time he died this week, the 83-year-old master percussionist was known worldwide as much more: innovator, activist, teacher, genius.

Roach, whose rhythmic innovations and improvisations defined bebop jazz during a career marked by expectations defied and musical boundaries ignored, died late Wednesday in a Manhattan hospital after a long illness.

No additional details were available, said Cem Kurosman, spokesman for Blue Note Records, where Roach played on seminal recordings with Thelonius Monk, Duke Ellington and Miles Davis. Roach was elected to the Downbeat magazine Hall of Fame in 1980, and the Grammy Hall of Fame 15 years later.

"Max was one of the founders and original members of the A-Team of bebop," said fellow music legend Quincy Jones. "Outside of losing a giant and an innovator, I've lost a great, great friend. Thank God he left a piece of his soul on his recordings so that we'll always have a part of him with us."


Roach re-emerged in the free jazz era with a new political consciousness, becoming one of jazz's loudest voices for civil rights. Albums like "We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite," released in 1960 to celebrate the upcoming centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, reflected his support of black activism.

Click here for the rest.

Years ago I got into an argument with a big sweaty fat guy on coke about who the greatest drummer of all time is. He was a Rush fan and was heavily pushing Neil Peart. I was like, "Surely there are some jazz drummers who are better than Peart." But big fat sweaty coke-head wouldn't hear any of it. After going back and forth for a couple of minutes, he became menacing, so I backed off.

Lesson: never argue with drunk, crazy, or drug addicted people; also, never argue with Rush fans.

Of course, big fat sweaty coke-guy was wrong. Peart's really good, which goes without saying, but drummers like Roach, or Elvin Jones, or Art Blakey were doing things with a five piece kit years before he was born that Peart couldn't do with his scores of drums and gongs and bangles and beads. Indeed, according to Wikipedia, Peart eventually studied jazz drumming himself in his own pursuit of excellence. He would do well to scrutinize everything Max Roach ever recorded.

I came to love Roach's work by way of Miles Davis. Roach was the drummer on Lisa Simpson's favorite album Birth of the Cool, which is definitely in my own top five. I later discovered his playing on some other Davis albums, and on the great Money Jungle record, where he was joined by Duke Ellington on piano, and Charles Mingus on bass. I've also got a couple of his own projects, M'Boom and Percussion Bitter Sweet.

That last album, which features the Roach composition "Garvey's Ghost" introduced me to Roach's political persona. The title is a reference to the Afrocentric pre-civil rights era philosopher and leader Marcus Garvey, who was an enormous influence on Malcolm X's father, and consequently, Malcom X himself. There are no words to the song, but the title invokes quite enough, especially when you consider the fact that the song was originally recorded at the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

In short, in addition to being in contention for that aforementioned "greatest drummer of all time" title, Roach was a practitioner of Real Art, that is, art which consciously seeks political change.

He was a great man.

Here is a bit of documentary on Roach via YouTube.

Here is one of his drum solos, also via YouTube.

Farewell Max Roach.