Max Roach was one of the two leading drummers of the bebop era (along with Kenny Clarke) and was one of the leading musicians, composers, and bandleaders in jazz since the 1940s. His often biting political commentary and strong intellect, not to mention his rhythmic innovations, kept him at the vanguard of jazz for more than 50 years.
Roach grew up in a household where gospel music was quite prominent. His mother was a gospel singer and he began drumming in a gospel ensemble at age ten. Roach's formal study of music took him to the Manhattan School of Music. In 1942, he became house drummer at Monroe's Uptown House, enabling him to play and interact with some of the giants of the bebop era, such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Bud Powell. Roach would later record with Parker, Gillespie, Powell, and bassist Charles Mingus at the historic Massey Hall concert in 1953.
Throughout the 1940s, Roach continued to branch out in his playing, drumming with Benny Carter, Stan Getz, Allen Eager, and Miles Davis. In 1952, he and Mingus collaborated to create their own record label, Debut Records. In 1954, Roach began a short-lived but crucial band with incendiary trumpeter Clifford Brown. This historic band, which ended abruptly with Brown's tragic death in 1956, also included saxophonists Harold Land and Sonny Rollins.
In the late 1950s, Roach began adding political commentary to his recordings, starting with Deeds Not Words, but coming into sharper focus with We Insist! Freedom Now Suite in 1960, on which he collaborated with singer-lyricist Oscar Brown, Jr. From then on he became an eloquent spokesman in the area of racial and political justice.
Roach continued to experiment with his sound, eschewing the use of the piano or other chording instruments in his bands for the most part from the late 1960s on. His thirst for experimentation led to collaborations with seemingly disparate artists, including duets with saxophonist Anthony Braxton and pianist Cecil Taylor, as well as partnerships with pianist Abdullah Ibrahim and saxophonist Archie Shepp.
As a drum soloist he had few peers in terms of innovations, stemming from his deeply personal sound and approach. His proclivities in the area of multiethnic percussion flowered with his intermittent percussion ensemble M'Boom, founded in 1970. A broad-based percussionist who was a pioneer in establishing a fixed pulse on the ride cymbal instead of the bass drum, Roach also collaborated with voice, string, and brass ensembles, lectured on college campuses extensively, and composed music for dance, theater, film, and television.
Clifford Brown and Max Roach, At Basin Steet, EmArcy, 1956
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