It’s a sad fact that those jazz greats from the period of the mid-1940s through the mid-1960s who did not die tragically young for any number of reasons (such as Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown, and John Coltrane each did) are now aging, with most in their 80s. As a result, over the past few years we have seen several legendary figures pass away one by one. Max Roach, one of the greatest drummers of all time, is the latest.
Roach is most associated with that period of jazz music history from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s. It’s hard to say this was the golden era of jazz, for there was certainly great, wonderful jazz both before and after, but it was definitely a golden era for the music, a period associated with performers worthy of their legendary status. There were a variety of jazz styles during the period, “bebop,” “cool jazz,” “hard bop,” “free jazz,” etc., but there was a loose unity of style as well (cool and hard bop styles were direct and clear developments from bebop, and even with free jazz, there is continuity both in the senses that most free players were well grounded in bebop related styles and the freeing up of the parameters for individual improvisation begun with bebop was magnified in the free style). I would say that this period was the golden era for the small acoustic jazz combo (as opposed to the earlier dominance of big band swing or later experiments with electric instruments and fusion and even acoustic groups directly or indirectly influenced by those experiments).
Max Roach was an integral part of jazz music and history during that two decade period (I don’t intend to slight anything he did later, but it is the case that he was a driving force in the mainstream of jazz mainly during the two decade period under discussion).
Among the highlights of his career:
In the mid- to late 1940s, as part of the bebop scene he was as responsible as any drummer for introducing complex polyrhythm on top of straightahead 4/4 time, transforming the drumkit from a time keeper into simultaneously a time keeper and a frontline instrument. He was part of many classic bebop recordings alongside other legends like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, including “Disorder at the Border,” “Ko-Ko,” “Anthropology,” “Scrapple from the Apple,” and “Now’s the Time.”
In 1949 and 1950, he was a major part of the creation of the “cool jazz” sound, participating in the Miles Davis nonet recording sessions, first released on 78 rpm records, that were ultimately collected as the famous Birth of the Cool album a few years later.
In 1953, he participated in one of the most famous jazz concert recordings of all time as a member of “The Quintet” in Jazz at Massey Hall, alongside Gillespie on trumpet, Parker on alto sax, Bud Powell on piano, and Charles Mingus on bass. I wouldn’t claim this as one of the most important jazz concerts of all time – this wasn’t one of those moments that changed music, no radically new innovation was introduced, or anything of that sort – instead it’s five established and very accomplished musicians playing some damn fine music.
In the mid-1950s, Roach played in one of the best hard bop combos, Brown and Roach, Inc. The “Brown” was the talented trumpeter Clifford Brown, who died far too young in a car accident in 1956. Given Brown’s untimely death, the group didn’t record much, but what they left behind is well worth a listen, especially the Roach original “Mildama” and their version of the standard “I get a kick out of you.”
In 1962, he participated in a piano trio recording with Duke Ellington and Mingus, producing the Duke Ellington Money Jungle album. (15 tracks were recorded in a single day – I’m continuously amazed when reading jazz album liner notes with how quickly massive numbers of tracks would be recorded by jazz musicians in the 1950s and 1960s. By the way, this album was part of one of the busiest months in the career of Ellington. Within a span of about a month, he recorded this album with Roach and Mingus, and the Duke Ellington meets Coleman Hawkins and Duke Ellington and John Coltrane albums.) Money Jungle could be described as the closest Ellington ever got to free jazz – and on some tracks that’s actually pretty close.
Just a bit earlier, in 1960, Roach had already forayed into free jazz territory with his important album We Insist!: Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite (an album featuring, among others Booker Little, Coleman Hawkins, Olatunji, and Abbey Lincoln). This recording attempted to unify the emphases on freedom in jazz improvisation and in the demands of the civil rights movement.
An obituary of Roach can be accessed here.