Pioneering percussionist, composer, band leader, and drummer Max Roach was born on this day in 1924. Born Maxwell Lemuel “Max” Roach in North Carolina to parents Alphonse and Cressie, he worked with dozens of jazz greats, including Miles Davis, Charlie Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, and countless others. Although Roach once told radio host Phil Schaap that his parents believe he may have been born a year later, his birth certificate highlighted this date.
The Roach family moved to the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn in the late 1920s. Roach’s mother was a gospel singer, and young Max would start his long musical career playing the bugle before moving on to playing drums for gospel groups by age 10. Roach’s first big break came when he was just 18, when he was asked to fill in for Duke Ellington’s drummer, Sonny Greer, for a performance at the famed Paramount Theater.
Sideman gigs came in droves for Roach, and he scoured the jazz clubs in Manhattan along with his former school mate saxophonist Cecil Payne. It was in the 1940s, however, that Roach and fellow drummer Kenny Clarke would change jazz drumming forever. The pair were a part of early jazz players who drummed in a new musical time pattern that would eventually help shape the style of jazz known as bebop. The loose drumming style allowed for more space for musicians to use improvisational techniques in their music.
Watch Roach perform here:
While studying classical percussion at the Manhattan School Of Music, Roach would form his own label in 1952 along with Charlie Mingus. He went on to lead a quintet and released several records on the Debut Records label before landing a gig as vocalist Dinah Washington’s drummer in the late 1950s.
The Civil Rights Movement played a part in Roach’s career, and in 1960, the release of “We Insist!: Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite” would capture the spirit of African independence movements of the 1950s and helped commemorate the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1962. The cover of the record also showcased a photo of one of the many sit-ins that took place in America during the racially charged time.
Listen to “We Insist!” here:
As the 1970s rolled around, Roach championed the drum as more than just a backing instrument and created the M’Boom percussion orchestra. The percussion troupe performed together all over the world, disbanding in 1992, although they rejoined in 1994 for the Monterey Jazz Festival. Roach’s intention for M’Boom was to explore how percussion instruments from other parts of the world would sound in an orchestral setting.
The ’80s and ’90s were especially daring times for Roach, as he continued to push the boundaries of percussion. He would release records that consisted of nothing but his drumming, insistent that his sound was just as viable as other forms of jazz that feature various instruments. Roach also embraced hip-hop music as well and shocked his longtime fans by joining with rapper Fab Five Freddy and the New York Break Dancers. Roach believed that jazz and hip-hop were aligned as forms of Black expression.
Roach was also a teacher, working at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst from the 1970s until the mid-’90s.
Max Roach would die at the age of 83 in 2007 while living in Manhattan. He was survived by five children and four grandchildren after a series of three marriages. In a funeral tribute, former Lt. Governor David Paterson hailed Roach’s innovations as a jazz master and compared his musical courage to that of Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X, and Paul Robeson.
It is without question that Max Roach’s desire for drumming to be seen as more than a way for musicians to keep time changed the jazz landscape forever. Playing with both finesse and soulful grit, he has left behind more than 60 pieces of recording that fans and students alike will be able to enjoy forever.
Happy Birthday to Jazz giant Max Roach!