Four years ago, when Max Roach died, DownBeat asked me to write a multi-part appreciation—an obituary, an account of the funeral, and an assessment of his massive contribution to the sound of jazz. Towards this end, I interviewed some 20 musicians—fellow drummers, band alumni, and admirers—from several subsequent generations to offer testimony. I’m pasting below first the legacy article, then the obituary, then an account of the funeral.
For further illumination, check out this appreciation of Mr. Roach by Nasheet Waits, which ran a few years ago on http://www.jazz.com, or this memorial program on the Democracy Now radio show, on which Amy Goodman elicited remarks from Amiri Baraka, Phil Schaap, and Sonia Sanchez.
A little later, I hope to post the verbatim interviews that I conducted in putting together the piece.
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Max Roach Legacy
By Ted Panken
At the onset of Max Roach’s career, it was unimaginable that, largely through his agency, the drums would become a co-equal voice in the jazz ensemble. But from 1944, when Roach—his bass drum blanketed by the recording engineer—propelled “Woody ’N’ You” on the Coleman Hawkins date that introduced bebop vocabulary to the world at large, the rhythmic matrix upon which jazz would grow was forever changed.
Elaborating on the rhythmic innovations of Jo Jones and Kenny Clarke at the cusp of the ‘40s, Roach worked out ways to shift the pulse-keeping function from the four-on-the-floor bass drum of the great ‘30s dance band drummers to the ride cymbal, allowing the drummer to comment more freely upon as well as to propel the action.
“Before Max, all the drummers, even the great ones like Baby Dodds or Gene Krupa or Chick Webb, approached soloing on the drumset from more of a rudimental and snare drum concept,” said Billy Hart. “Max was the first one to take the rudiments and spread them melodically around the whole drumset—bass drum, tom-tom, snare drum, cymbal.”
“Max was the first percussionist back in the ’40s to make everybody respect the drummer,” said drummer Kenny Washington. “Jo Jones and Sid Catlett and Kenny Clarke also had a hand in that development, in playing forms, but Max took it to the next level, playing lines and rhythms inspired by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Bud Powell. Max was adamant that it was just as important for him to know the form and the melody as everybody else. He took independence between two hands and two feet to the next level.”
Roach was never content to recreate the past, which he associated with segregation times, and he spent the second half of his career in perpetual forward motion, determinedly bridging stylistic categories. “Max may have used 30 signature things, but he used them in so many different ways,” said Jeff “Tain” Watts. “One piece of vocabulary could function as a solo idea, a melody for a solo drum piece. He’d take the same fragment of melodic material and take it out of time, use it like splashing colors on a canvas or whatever, or use it in an avant-garde context, like his duets with Cecil Taylor and Anthony Braxton. That cued me not to be so compartmentalized with certain stuff for soloing and other stuff for something else, but just to use vocabulary—your own vocabulary—to serve many functions.
“Max thought of the drum set as equal to any instrument, and he pushed the instrument forward by not limiting its context,” Watts continued. “Why not feature the drum set with a symphony orchestra? I saw him collaborate with dance and spoken word. He pretty much did everything. He gave everybody a really cool gift, in addition to his musicianship.”
True to the black culture ethos of his era, Roach valued individuality above all things. “I tried to get analytical answers from him, but he never gave them to me,” said Nasheet Waits, who spent much time with Roach around the cusp of the ’90s, after his father, Freddie Waits, a member of M’Boom and Roach’s close friend, died. “I asked him about playing in the odd time signatures, and he said, ‘It’s like mathematics.’ It was always in parable; I’d come away from the discussion not necessarily thinking that I got an answer. He’d give me advice on positioning myself, how to approach the art seriously from a social perspective, in terms of history and economics. He said, ‘When I was your age and trying to play on the scene at Minton’s and these places uptown, nobody ever really wanted to sound like anybody else. Everybody wanted to develop something of their own.’”
Home from Boys High School as a teenager in Bedford-Stuyvesant around 1938 and 1939, Roach recalled some years ago—in a radio interview for WKCR—that he and his friend Cecil Payne, the baritone saxophonist, “would listen to the radio shots of Count Basie’s band from Chicago, Kansas, and other places. Papa Jo Jones would break the rhythms behind Lester Young. That’s why I say say for every three beats by any drummer, five belong to Jo Jones.”
During those years, Roach, whose early drum heroes included Big Sid Catlett, Chick Webb and Cozy Cole, was making it his business to master the fundamentals of his craft. “Although Max didn’t use rudiments in the same way the early swing drummers did—five-stroke rolls, paradiddle-diddle stickings and things like that to get around the drums—he knew all that stuff,” Washington said. “He was the first guy to introduce Charles Wilcoxsen’s Rudimental Swing Solos book to bebop drumming, which he probably got from Cozy Cole. Cozy had a feature with Cab Calloway called ‘Paradiddle,’ on which he uses a paradiddle in different variations. Max quoted a lot from that in his drum solo on Charlie Parker’s ‘Koko.’”
Two years before “Koko,” Parker had joined Roach and trumpeter Victor Coulson, the band’s straw boss, on a gig at Georgie J’s Tap Room. At 3 a.m., he’d take down his gear, bring the drums to Monroe’s Uptown House in Harlem and hit for a 4 a.m.–9 a.m. breakfast show. By the end of 1943 Roach was working on 52nd Street with Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, with whom he made his first recordings; by the spring of 1944 he was playing the Three Deuces, first with Gillespie and Don Byas, then with Gillespie and Parker. Benny Carter’s big band, propelled by teenage drummer George Russell, was across the street from the Deuces; Russell developed tuberculosis, and recommended Roach as his replacement.
“I had been in an emulation groove, but Hawk and Pres made me realize that invention is something that you are charged with,” Roach had said. “You try to invent things so that you can better define your musical personality. Out of that comes melodies. Mine came about from experimenting with the superimposition of time like 5 against 4, or 7 against 3, or with polymeters—you can break up a four-bar phrase in 4/4, which is 16 beats, into four 4/4 bars, two 5/4 bars, and two 3/4 bars, and you have even more to work with if it’s an eight-bar phrase. When I came off the road, George Russell and I kept trying to open up more and more to create new sounds.”
Roach liked to recall a moment during the 1944 Three Deuces gig when Parker delivered a multilayered musical lesson. “Kenny Clarke and people like that were in the Army,” he said, “and since I could keep time and play the instrument and read, I was in demand. I got cocky. I’d come late to the rehearsals, and Dizzy and Bird would wait. One time they were waiting for me at my house! Dizzy said, ‘Here he comes now, Bird,’ and Bird was sitting on my drum set with sticks in his hand and his horn across his lap. He looked at me and said, ‘Hey, Max, can you do this?’ He played quarter notes on the bass drum, the Charleston rhythm on the hi-hat, the shuffle rhythm with the left hand, and the CHING-CH-CH-CHING beat with the right hand all at the same time! I couldn’t do it. I had to practice that. He reduced me down to where I should be.”
He never stopped developing his craft. At the cusp of the ’50s, he attended Manhattan School of Music, where he studied composition. During these years, obsessed with capturing the many voices that the drums could carry, he explored Afro-Caribbean rhythms first-hand—observing Machito’s timbalero Ubaldo Nieto on sets at Birdland, hanging out with Tito Puente, making a pilgrimage to Port-au-Prince to visit Haitian master drummer Tiroro, and doing a Washington, D.C., concert with Asadata Dafora’s pioneering African dance troupe with Gillespie and Parker. He extrapolated those rhythms onto the different instruments that comprise the drum set, and, using his extraordinary independence, wove them into elegant designs. In 1953, he recorded his first solo drum composition, and, as the ’50s progressed, he found ways to weave odd meters into the sound of his groups.
“He became a great composer as far as the language of the drums and the tradition of jazz,” said Andrew Cyrille, a Brooklyn native who recalls hearing Roach practice at the Putnam Central, a second floor space in Bedford Stuyvesant. A friend of Roach’s first wife, Mildred, he remained close to Roach throughout his life. “He made his statements, expressed his philosophy, told his stories from all the records he made. Several times I saw Max play the ‘Battle of the Drums’ gigs they used to hold on Monday night at Birdland, where they’d play ‘Cherokee’ or ‘A Night In Tunisia,’ which are both AABA, in 4/4 time. When it was time for him to solo, he’d play in 5/4, which would amaze everyone, like he’d pulled out the joker.”
“One of the things that made a big impression on me as a young musician about his music in the ‘60s was the fact that he seemed so independent-minded about his music, and didn’t conform to the machine,” said Dave Holland. “He had the courage to step out and speak out, and organize his own things. In 1967, at Ronnie Scott’s, I played for a full month opposite Max’s band with Jymie Merritt on bass, Stanley Cowell on piano, and Charles Tolliver on trumpet. and when I joined Miles in 1968, we played opposite him for three weeks at Count Basie’s in Harlem. Hearing their ideas about writing in 9/4 and 7/4 and 5/4 gave me great food for thought, and those seeds found their way into my music.”
In the late ’60s, Roach contracted Jack DeJohnette to play drums with bassist Reggie Workman and pianist Cedar Walton in Abbey Lincoln’s trio. “Max was an architect,” DeJohnette remembered. “When he didn’t use piano, you could hear him comping, as if the piano were there, in the way he painted a contour behind the soloist. I listened and played to a lot of Max, which I still do sometimes, and I imitated his solos, just to study them, although I went in another direction. I loved Max and Clifford’s early records, the precision, the tight arrangements, like ‘I Get A Kick Out Of You,’ almost like big band arrangements in a small group, and executed with amazing professionalism. They took great pains to give the best presentation possible, because they wanted to be taken seriously.”
In the summer of 1970, Roach called Joe Chambers, Warren Smith, Roy Brooks, Omar Clay, Freddie Waits and Ray Mantilla to start the percussion ensemble M’Boom. “When we got together, Max played recordings of written music for percussion by people like Stockhausen, Edgar Varese and Luigi Nono,” Chambers recalled. “He said, ‘This is what we don’t want to do; the stuff is interesting, but it’s all written out.’ It took us a while to get a concept as a group. I emphasize the term ‘group.’ Max always emphasized collective instead of autocratic, to go about the thing cooperatively.”
During these years Roach augmented his drum kit—which he called a multiple percussion set—to incorporate an ever broader array of sounds, articulating his designs and bringing out the voices of the drums with his own distinctive tunings and command of timbre.
“You hear Max’s tuning everywhere,” said Billy Drummond. “He tuned his upper tom-toms way up high, so that the mono-tom and floor tom were intervals apart from each other—the distinction between the two tom-toms and the bass drum and the snare drum made everything so clear. That’s a hard tuning to play off of. Your mono-tom is so tight that if your touch and control are not exact, the drum won’t lie—your stuff will be shown up clear.”
Lewis Nash expands upon how Roach knew how to apply the sonic nuances of a drum kit to project his tonal personality. “During the funk and fusion era, when I came up, drums were tuned low and deep, almost dead sounding,” Nash said. “With the true sense of pitch difference that you get by tuning them high, you can create in a linear way. Max knew how to use sound and space—he’d play a roll on the floor tom, in just the right place, to approximate a tympani roll, or crash the cymbals and just let them ring and die out. He’d breathe in his phrasing, whether he was playing a solo or in an accompanying mode. I liked his orchestrating mindset, and it continues to influence me in the way I play time and approach outlining the form of a tune.”
During the ’60s, Roach used the voices of his drums to express his views on the political struggles of the day. After recording the anthemic We Insist: Freedom Now Suite in 1960, he refined his trapset-as-an-orchestra-of-percussion-instruments aesthetic on such classics as Percussion Bitter Sweet and It’s Time, on a rhythmically daring trio recital with Philadelphia pianist Hassan Ibn Ali, and on Drums Unlimited, a 1965 date containing three solo drum performances.
“It was the first record I knew with drum solos that were not the ‘Hey, look what I can do’ kind of drum solo,” Drummond said. “They were drum songs, and you could hum them. They were based on were a series of Max’s, shall we say, licks—identifiable patterns that he put put together in a compositional way to make musical statements with themes, variations on themes, recapitulations and song form. Each piece was complete, different than the other one.”
Then there was Roach’s unique beat. “Playing with him was the same feeling that I would imagine John Coltrane had with Elvin Jones,” said Charles Tolliver, Roach’s trumpeter of choice between 1967 and 1969. “There’s such a cushion that you don’t have to think about playing something rhythmically to get the drummer up to snuff. You were set free to deal with the problem-solving of how to negotiate the song.”
“Max left a pocket for the bassist that made it easy for you to do what you had to do,” Workman said. “Let’s deal with tempos, which was Max’s forte. With certain drummers who flex their muscles but understand how the elements connect together as Max did, it’s much more difficult to make those fast tempos and play that time. Max understood where those pockets were and how to deal with them. His time feel was concise, and he was always into the notes of every musician on the bandstand. With the odd rhythms, I noticed that he would first examine the playing field, and then find some chant that you’d know was one created by Max Roach.”
Sonny Rollins cherished the opportunities he had to create music with Roach. “Max’s style was much more technical and polished than, say, Art Blakey,” the saxophonist said. He quickly added, “I loved playing with both of them, of course, as well as Elvin, Roy, Philly Joe and all the guys. But because of who Max was, it put him into a different category. It was like following in the footsteps in my idol, Charlie Parker, playing with one of the gods of bebop. I look at him as the original bebop drummer, and that put it on a different level.
“A guy who plays saxophone told me that he once played ‘St. Thomas’ from Saxophone Colossus for his father, and asked him what he thought about it,” Rollins continued. “The guy said, ‘Well, the saxophone plays OK, but boy, that drummer!’ That expresses the way I feel.” DB
Max Roach: 1924–2007
The iconic drummer Max Roach died of pneumonia on Aug. 16 in a hospice in New York. Suffering from the effects of dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease, he had been in assisted living for several years. He was 83.
Born on Jan. 10, 1924, in Newland, N.C., and raised in Brooklyn, Roach was the first jazz musician to treat the drum set both functionally and as an autonomous instrument of limitless artistic possibility. As a teenager, Roach paid close attention to “drummers who could solo”—Jo Jones, Sid Catlett, Chick Webb, Cozy Cole. Toward the end of his studies at Boys High School, he began riding the subway from Bedford-Stuyvesant to Harlem for late-night sessions at Minton’s Playhouse and Monroe’s uptown House, where the likes of Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke and Dizzy Gillespie, all Roach’s elders by several years, explored alternative approaches to the status quo.
By 1942, they had reharmonized blues forms and Tin Pan Alley tunes, changing keys, elasticizing the beat and setting hellfire tempos that discouraged weaker players from taking the bandstand when serious work was taking place. Before World War II ended, the new sound was sufficiently established to have a name—bebop.
Thoroughly conversant in how to push a big band—he hit the road with Benny Carter in 1944 and 1945, and filled in for Sonny Greer with Duke Ellington in early 1942—with four-to-the-floor on the bass drum and tricks with the sticks, Roach made his first record in 1943 with Coleman Hawkins, and played on Hawkins’ ur-bebop 1944 session with Gillespie on which “Woody ’N’ You” debuted. But as Charlie Parker’s primary drummer in 1944 and 1945 and from 1947–’49, Roach developed a technique that allowed him to keep pace with and enhance Parker’s ferocious velocities and ingenious rhythmic displacements. His famous polyrhythmic solo on Bud Powell’s “Un Poco Loco” in 1951 foreshadowed things to come in the next decade.
During the early 1950s, Roach studied composition at Manhattan School of Music and co-founded, with Charles Mingus, Debut Records—one of the first musician-run record companies. In 1954, he formed the Max Roach–Clifford Brown Quintet, in which he elaborated his concept of transforming the drum set into what he liked to call the multiple percussion set, treating each component as a unique instrument, while weaving his patterns into an elaborate, kinetic design. After the death of Brown and pianist Richie Powell in 1956, he battled depression and anger, but continued to lead a succession of bands with saxophonists Sonny Rollins, Hank Mobley, George Coleman, Stanley Turrentine, Eric Dolphy, Clifford Jordan, and Gary Bartz, trumpeters Kenny Dorham, Booker Little, Richard Williams, Freddie Hubbard, and Charles Tolliver, tubist Ray Draper, and pianists Mal Waldron and Stanley Cowell.
Roach also performed as a sideman on such essential ’50s recordings as Thelonious Monk’s Brilliant Corners and Sonny Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus and The Freedom Suite, as well as important dates by Herbie Nichols, J.J. Johnson and Little. He interpolated African and Afro-Caribbean strategies into his flow, incorporated orchestral percussion into his drum set and worked compositionally with odd meters, polyrhythm and drum tonality. He gave equal weight to both a song’s melodic contour and its beat. “Conversations,” from 1953, was his first recorded drum solo; by the end of the decade, he had developed a body of singular compositions for solo performance built on elemental but difficult-to-execute rudiments upon which he improvised with endless permutations.
He continued to expand his scope through the ’60s. A long-standing member of Bedford-Stuyvesant’s Concord Baptist Church, he incorporated the voice—both the singular instrument of his then-wife, Abbey Lincoln, and also choirs—into his presentation. It was the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and he used his music as a vehicle for struggle, expressing views on the zeitgeist in both the titles of his albums and compositions—“We Insist: The Freedom Now Suite” (commissioned by the NAACP for the approaching centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation), “Garvey’s Ghost,” “It’s Time”—and his approach to performing them.
Roach joined the University of Massachusetts, Amherst faculty in the early ’70s, and seemed to use the post as a platform from which to broaden his expression. In 1971, he joined forces with a cohort of New York-based percussionists to form M’Boom, a cooperative nine-man ensemble that addressed a global array of skin-on-skin and mallet instruments; and in the early ’80s he formed the Max Roach Double Quartet, blending his group, the Max Roach Quartet with the Uptown String Quartet, with his daughter, Maxine Roach. He recorded with a large choir and with a symphony orchestra. A 1974 duet recording with Abdullah Ibrahim launched a series of extraordinary musical conversations with speculative improvisers Anthony Braxton, Cecil Taylor and Archie Shepp; these sparked subsequent encounters with pianists Connie Crothers, Mal Waldron, and Randy Weston, and a 1989 meeting with his early mentor Gillespie.
He also reached out to artists representing other musical styles and artistic genres—playing drums for break dancers and turntablists in 1983; collaborating with Amiri Baraka on a musical about Harlem numbers king Bumpy Johnson, and with Sonia Sanchez on drum-freestyle improv; improvising to video images from Kit Fitzgerald and moves from dancer Bill T. Jones; scoring plays by Shakespeare and Sam Shepard; composing for choreographer Alvin Ailey; and setting up transcultural hybrids with a Japanese koto ensemble, gitano flamenco singers, and an ad hoc gathering of Jewish and Arab percussionists in Israel.
He was inducted by the Critics into the DownBeat Hall of Fame in 1980. In 1984, the National Endowment for the Arts named Roach a Jazz Master, and in 1988 the MacArthur Foundation awarded him a “genius” grant—the first jazz musician to receive one. The honors continued until the end of his life: Induction into the Grammy Hall of Fame for his Massey Hall recording on Debut with Parker, Gillespie, Powell and Mingus; a Commander of Arts and Letters award from the French government; and several honorary doctorates. —T.P.
You couldn’t copyright a drum beat when Max Roach invented his own ingenious rhythmic designs. Otherwise, Roach would have earned a percentage of almost every jazz record made after his 1947 classics with Charlie Parker for Savoy and Dial. Here’s what several drummers had to say about their early encounters with Roach’s music, and how it impacted their playing.
Roy Haynes: “I listened to Max when he first recorded with Coleman Hawkins. Then, BOOM! I fell in love with what I heard, the little different beats he was playing. I heard him play the hi-hat and turn the beat around, so to speak, like Papa Jo Jones did it, and I knew we were related. Years ago, I heard him play something, and I said to myself, ‘I thought of that same thing, too.’”
Jimmy Cobb: “Everybody was influenced by Max Roach in one way or another. Some copied him almost verbatim—they did what they could. I couldn’t do that, but I got some of the things that he could do, like the independence, the way he played fast.”
Louis Hayes: “Max was the first New York person who influenced me. It was his ability to stand out—his sound—and his technique. His thinking ability was at such a high level, and he worked at it very hard and for long periods of time. That allowed him to think of other ways to approach this music, and he ventured off into different time signatures, to be able to play solo, to play the whole kit, to use all of his limbs, to play the bass drum in 4/4 and the sock cymbal in 2/4, the way the drummers who were born before him did. He had that under control, and those are facilities that a lot of younger drummers never put together.”
Louis Bellson: “The first time I heard Max play with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in 1944 at the Three Deuces on 52nd Street, it didn’t soak in right away, because it was a different kind of music. I came from the hard-swinging, 4/4 band, and Max was throwing up such a relaxed and yet marvelous feeling. The second time I went, I suddenly realized that he was doing something new, that it had a purpose, that he—and they—had down what they wanted to hear. The more I listened, the more I realized that he’d come up with a new rhythm, a new style of playing.
“When I played with Dizzy, Max told me, ‘Don’t play 4/4 on the bass drum, Lou. Invent with it, accentuate on it.’ One time he said to me, ‘Louis, you play great, but can I offer some criticism?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘When you play ‘Cherokee,’ make sure you know what the melody is and play around it. That gives you a chance to experiment. It makes you interesting.’”
Chico Hamilton: “When I heard Max, I said, ‘Ain’t no way in the world I can play like that.’ He could do things no other drummer could do. He could do triplets faster than anyone, and he was Mr. Endurance. He created a style of playing that everyone tried to play like.”
Joe Chambers: “Kenny Clarke more or less set up the modern jazz drum, but Max Roach crystallized it. He put the multiple percussion set up front with the rest of the instruments. You can hear phrases in his playing. You hear statements. Motifs. You hear divisions of phrases, the division of the song. Max was versatile. He would do stuff with an orchestra, with an artist or videographer, a brass quintet, double quartet, strings, M’Boom. Plus he’s a composer. To me, he is the beacon. He taught me—he’s still teaching me—how to be in the business.”
Billy Hart: “When I first saw Elvin Jones with Coltrane, before I could say anything to him he told me, ‘Look, don’t ask me to show you anything, because if I could show you, we would all be Max Roach.’ It’s like Max was born in the future. He went ahead of everybody to invent an academic way to play odd time signatures, and brought it back. He was the spokesman for the whole drum community, and that means the whole drum community in the world.”
Lenny White: “Max Roach was the benchmark. Everybody had to at least try to be like him. He had drum battles with Philly Joe Jones, Roy Haynes , Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, and Art always won the drum solos. But the fact is that Max was the professor. He made melodies with the drums, and nobody tuned drums better than Max Roach. He was also a composer, and he had great insight into how his drums related to the composition and the other instruments in the band. He made rudiments speak. Buddy Rich played great drum solos, but they were mostly snare drum. Max played the whole kit. The greatest thing I heard Max play on is a two-hour concert that was recorded live with Dizzy Gillespie in Paris, just trumpet and drums in 1989. It’s unbelievable! Those beats were a cross between New Orleans traditional jazz rhythms and hip-hop rhythms—all those things were in what Max was playing. Max Roach—and Tony Williams—were the scientists of the drums. They took beats and stretched them, and did things that were unimaginable.” —T.P.
Roach Memorial Attracts Jazz Community and Beyond
“It’s a line as long as the Mississippi River,” a woman told a friend of the queue that surrounded Manhattan’s Riverside Church to view the body of Max Roach, draped in a beautiful farewell suit, on the morning of his Aug. 24 memorial service. Like many of the witnesses, she was elderly and African-American, but the throng was multiracial, spanning several generations and including many dignitaries, among them most of the drummers in the New York metropolitan area who weren’t on the road.
Stage right stood a drum stool and a hi-hat, unmanned, as trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater, saxophonist Billy Harper and bassist Reggie Workman—all members of Roach’s stretched-out 1970s quartet—played “Nommo,” “’Round Midnight” and “Equipoise.” After five minutes of silence, Reverend Dr. James Alexander Forbes included Psalm 139:1-18 in his invocation. Elvira Green sang the spiritual “City In Heaven” as the pallbearers, who included Roach’s nephew Fred “Fab 5 Freddy” Braithwaite and drummer Nasheet Waits, placed the coffin by the pulpit.
Maya Angelou spoke of Roach’s brotherly guidance and support, of marching with him and his then-wife Abbey Lincoln at the United Nations in 1962 to protest the murder of Patrice Lumumba. Amiri Baraka, the author of Roach’s unpublished biography, read “Digging Man.” Congressman Charles Rangel read a letter from former President Bill Clinton, Stanley Crouch positioned Roach as an innovator within a uniquely American cultural matrix and Phil Schaap focused on the imperatives of strength and manliness that animated both his art and career. Randy Weston, who knew Roach when both were youngsters in Brooklyn, and Billy Taylor, a friend from 52nd Street days, played solo piano. Jimmy Heath played “There Will Never Be Another You” on soprano saxophone, and Cassandra Wilson sang “Lonesome Lover.” The Reverend Calvin Butts of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church delivered a sly, stirring eulogy in which he declared Roach possessed by the Holy Ghost.
It took Bill Cosby, though, to nail the essence of Roach’s greatness. Taking the podium, he announced, “Why I became a comedian is because of Max Roach.” He paused for just the right amount of time. “I wanted to be a drummer.” He related how, on his $75 drum set, he learned to execute a reasonable facsimile of Vernell Fournier’s “Poinciana” beat, then copied Art Blakey’s patterns on “Moanin’” after watching the masters do it in person. But while playing along with Roach’s high-octane late-’50s records, he was stymied by the crisply executed lightning tempos. “I kept falling behind,” Cosby said. “The left hand said, ‘Look, you play,’ and the right hand said, ‘Well, if you play, then I lose,’ and I said, ‘Well, just hit the bass drum and then try to catch up and … oh, just do something!”
Despite these difficulties, when Roach brought his latest edition to Philadelphia’s Showboat, Cosby figured he could scope out Roach’s secret. “He had a blue blazer on with some kind of crest,” Cosby recalled. “One of my boys said, ‘Max got a boat.’ The musicians warmed up. Max sat down. His face never changed.” Cosby sang Roach’s beat. “I went home,” he said. “It was no tricks. Nothing I could take.”
Cosby casually slipped on his bebop shades. “I finally met him in person to the point where Max Roach knew who I was,” he said. “I said, ‘Let me tell you something. You owe me $75.’”
After the service, across the street from the church in Riverside Park, an impromptu choir of African drummers and flutists played as a convoy of hearses and limousines carried Roach’s coffin to Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.
At Kenny Washington’s instigation, a gaggle of drummers—including Rashied Ali, Candido, Joe Chambers, Bruce Cox, Sylvia Cuenca, Billy Drummond, Louis Hayes, Ray Mantilla, Eric McPherson, T.S. Monk, Adam Nussbaum, John Riley, Bobby Sanabria, Nasheet Waits, Jeff Watts and Leroy Williams—strolled two blocks north to the steps of Grant’s Tomb for a group photo. At the count of five, several dozen shutters clicked simultaneously as they yelled in unison, “Max Roach, Max Roach, Max Roach, Max Roach!!”
He will be missed.
“One thing that troubles me is that Max was the sole patriarch and spokesman for the whole drum community,” said Billy Hart. “He’s the guy who spoke at all the funerals, like a priest or something. Nobody else. He was the spokesman for the whole drum community, and that means the whole drum community in the world.”
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