EARLY LIFE AND CAREER
Max Roach was born to Alphonse and Cressie Roach in the Township of Newland, Pasquotank
County, North Carolina, which borders the southern edge of the Great
Dismal Swamp. Many confuse the Township of Newland with Newland Town in Avery County, North Carolina. Although his birth certificate lists his date of birth as January 10, 1924, Roach has been quoted by Phil Schaap as having stated that his family believed he was actually born on January 8, 1925.
Roach's family moved to the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn,
New York when he was 4 years old. He grew up in a musical home, his mother being a gospel singer. He started to play bugle in parade orchestras at a young age. At the age of 10, he was already playing drums in some gospel bands.
In 1942, as an 18-year-old recently graduated
from Boys High School, he was called to fill in for Sonny
Greer with the Duke Ellington Orchestra when they were performing at the Paramount
Theater in Manhattan. He starting going to the jazz clubs on 52nd Street and at 78th Street & Broadway for Georgie Jay's Taproom,
where he played with schoolmate Cecil Payne. His
first professional recording took place in December 1943, supporting Coleman Hawkins.
He was one of the first drummers, along with Kenny Clarke, to play in the bebop style. Roach performed
in bands led by Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Coleman Hawkins, Bud
Powell, and Miles Davis. He played on many of Parker's most important records, including the Savoy
Records November 1945 session, which marked a turning point in recorded jazz. His early brush work with Powell's trio, especially at fast tempos,
has been highly praised.
Max Roach nurtured an interest in and respect for Afro-Caribbean music and traveled to Haiti in the late 1940s
to study with the traditional drummer Ti Roro.
Roach studied classical percussion at the Manhattan School of Music from 1950 to 1953, working toward a Bachelor of Music degree.
The school awarded him an Honorary Doctorate in 1990.
In 1952, Roach co-founded Debut
Records with bassist Charles Mingus. The label released a record of a May 15, 1953 concert billed as "the greatest concert ever", which came to be known as Jazz at Massey Hall, featuring Parker, Gillespie, Powell, Mingus, and Roach. Also released on this label was the groundbreaking bass-and-drum free improvisation, Percussion Discussion.
1954, Roach and trumpeter Clifford Brown formed a quintet that also featured tenor saxophonist Harold
Land, pianist Richie Powell(brother of Bud Powell), and bassist George
Morrow. Land left the quintet the following year and was replaced by Sonny Rollins. The group was a prime example of the hard
bop style also played by Art Blakey and Horace Silver. Brown and Powell were killed
in a car accident on the Pennsylvania Turnpike in June 1956. The first album Roach recorded after their deaths was Max
Roach + 4. After Brown and Powell's deaths, Roach continued leading a similarly configured group, with Kenny Dorham (and later Booker
Little) on trumpet, George Coleman on tenor, and pianist Ray Bryant. Roach expanded
the standard form of hard bop using 3/4 waltz rhythms and modality in 1957 with his album Jazz
in 3/4 Time. During this period, Roach recorded a series of other albums for EmArcy Records featuring the brothers Stanley and Tommy Turrentine.
In 1955, he played drums for vocalist Dinah Washington at several live appearances and recordings. He appeared with Washington at the Newport
Jazz Festival in 1958, which was filmed, and at the 1954 live studio audience recording of Dinah
Jams, considered to be one of the best and most overlooked vocal jazz albums of its genre.
In 1960 he composed and recorded the album We Insist! (subtitled Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite), with vocals by his then-wife Abbey Lincoln and lyrics by Oscar Brown Jr., after being invited
to contribute to commemorations of the hundredth anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation
Proclamation. In 1962, he recorded the album Money Jungle, a collaboration with Mingus and Duke
Ellington. This is generally regarded as one of the finest trio albums ever recorded.
During the 1970s, Roach formed M'Boom, a percussion orchestra. Each member composed for the ensemble and performed on multiple percussion instruments. Personnel included Fred King, Joe
Chambers, Warren Smith, Freddie Waits, Roy Brooks, Omar Clay, Ray Mantilla, Francisco Mora, and Eli Fountain.
Long involved in jazz education, in 1972 Roach was recruited to the faculty of the University of Massachusetts Amherst by Chancellor Randolph
Bromery. He taught at the university until the mid-1990s.
1980s - 1990s
In the early 1980s, Roach began presenting solo concerts, demonstrating that this multi-percussion instrument could fulfill the demands of solo performance
and be entirely satisfying to an audience. He created memorable compositions in these solo concert, and a solo record was released by the Japanese jazz label Baystate. One of his solo
concerts is available on video, which also includes video of a recording date for Chattahoochee Red, featuring his working quartet, Odean Pope, Cecil Bridgewater, and Calvin Hill.
Roach also embarked on a series of duet recordings. Departing from the style he was best known for, most of the music on these recordings is
free improvisation, created with Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, Archie Shepp, and Abdullah Ibrahim. Roach created duets with other performers, including: a recorded duet
with oration by Martin Luther King, "I Have a Dream"; a duet with video
artist Kit Fitzgerald, who improvised video imagery while Roach created the music; a duet with his lifelong friend and associate Gillespie; and a duet concert recording with Mal
During the 1980s Roach also wrote music for theater, including plays by Sam Shepard. He was composer and musical
director for a festival of Shepard plays, called "ShepardSets", at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club in 1984. The festival
included productions of Back Bog Beast Bait, Angel City, and Suicide
in B Flat. In 1985, George Ferencz directed "Max Roach Live at La MaMa: A Multimedia Collaboration".
Roach found new contexts for performance, creating unique musical ensembles. One of these groups was "The Double Quartet", featuring his regular performing quartet with the same
personnel as above, except Tyrone Brown replaced Hill. This quartet joined "The Uptown String Quartet", led by his daughter Maxine Roach and featuring Diane Monroe, Lesa Terry, and Eileen
Another ensemble was the "So What Brass Quintet", a group comprising five brass instrumentalists and Roach, with no chordal instrument and
no bass player. Much of the performance consisted of drums and horn duets. The ensemble consisted of two trumpets, trombone, French horn, and tuba. Personnel included Cecil Bridgewater, Frank Gordon, Eddie Henderson, Rod McGaha, Steve Turre, Delfeayo Marsalis, Robert
Stewart, Tony Underwood, Marshall Sealy, Mark Taylor, and Dennis Jeter.
Not content to expand on the music he was already known for, Roach spent the 1980s and 1990s finding new forms of musical expression and performance. He performed a concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He wrote for and performed with
the Walter White gospel choir and the John Motley Singers. He also performed with dance companies, including the Alvin Ailey American
Dance Theater, the Dianne McIntyre Dance Company, and the Bill
T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. He surprised his fans by performing in a hip hop concert featuring the Fab
Five Freddy and the New York Break Dancers. Roach expressed the insight that there was a strong kinship between the work of these young black artists and the art he had pursued all his life.
Though Roach played with many types of ensembles, he always continued to play jazz. He performed with the Beijing Trio, with pianist Jon Jang and erhu player Jeibing Chen. His final recording, Friendship, was with trumpeter Clark Terry. The two
were longtime friends and collaborators in duet and quartet. Roach's final performance was at the 50th anniversary celebration of the original Massey Hall concert, with Roach
performing solo on the hi-hat.
In 1994, Roach appeared on Rush drummer Neil Peart's Burning For Buddy, performing "The Drum Also Waltzes" Parts 1 and 2 on Volume
1 of the 2-volume tribute albumduring the 1994 All-Star recording sessions.
In the early 2000s, Roach became less active due to the onset of hydrocephalus-related complications.
Roach died in Manhattan in the early morning of August 16, 2007. He
was survived by five children: sons Daryl and Raoul, and daughters Maxine, Ayo, and Dara. Over 1,900 people attended his funeral at Riverside Church on August 24,
2007. He was interred at the Woodlawn Cemetery in The
In a funeral tribute to Roach, then-Lieutenant Governor of New York David
Paterson compared the musician's courage to that of Paul Robeson, Harriet Tubman,
and Malcolm X, saying that "No one ever wrote a bad thing about Max Roach's music or his aura until 1960, when he and Charlie Mingus protested the practices of the Newport Jazz Festival."
Two children, son Daryl Keith and daughter Maxine, were born from Roach's first marriage with Mildred Roach in 1949. In 1956, he met singer Barbara Jai (Johnson) and fathered another son, Raoul Jordu. During the period 1961–1970,
Roach was married to singer Abbey Lincoln, who had performed on several of his albums. In 1971, twin daughters, Ayodele Nieyela and Dara Rashida, were born to Roach and his
third wife, Janus Adams Roach.
He had four grandchildren: Kyle Maxwell Roach, Kadar Elijah Roach, Maxe Samiko Hinds, and Skye Sophia Sheffield.
On June 25, 2019, The
New York Times Magazine listed Max Roach among hundreds of artists whose material was reportedly destroyed in the 2008 Universal
Roach started as a traditional
grip player but used matched grip as well as his career progressed.
Roach's most significant innovations came in the 1940s, when he and Kenny Clarke devised a new concept of musical time. By playing the beat-by-beat pulse of standard
4/4 time on the ride cymbal instead of on the thudding bass drum, Roach and Clarke developed
a flexible, flowing rhythmic pattern that allowed soloists to play freely. This also created space for the drummer to insert dramatic accents on the snare drum, crash cymbal, and other components of the trap set.
By matching his rhythmic attack with a tune's melody, Roach brought
a newfound subtlety of expression to the drums. He often shifted the dynamic emphasis from one part of his drum kit to another within a single phrase, creating a sense of tonal
color and rhythmic surprise. The concept was to shatter musical convention and take advantage of the drummer's
unique position. "In no other society", Roach once observed, "do they have one person play with all four limbs."
While this is common
today, when Clarke and Roach introduced the concept in the 1940s it was revolutionary. "When Max Roach's first records with Charlie Parker were released by Savoy in 1945", jazz historian Burt Korall wrote in the Oxford Companion to Jazz, "drummers
experienced awe and puzzlement and even fear." One of those drummers, Stan Levey, summed up Roach's importance: "I came to realize that, because of him, drumming no longer was just
time, it was music."
In 1966, with his album Drums
Unlimited (which includes several tracks that are entirely drum solos) he demonstrated that drums can be a solo instrument able to play theme, variations, and rhythmically cohesive phrases. Roach described his approach to music as "the creation
of organized sound." The track "The Drum Also Waltzes" was often quoted by John
Bonham in his Moby Dick drum solo and revisited by other drummers, including Neil
Peart and Steve Smith. Bill Bruford performed a cover of the track on the 1985
Roach was given a MacArthur
Genius Grant in 1988 and cited as a Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France in 1989. He was twice awarded the French Grand Prix du Disque, was elected to the International
Percussive Art Society's Hall of Fame and the DownBeat Hall of Fame, and was awarded Harvard Jazz Master. He was celebrated by Aaron
Davis Hall and was given eight honorary doctorate degrees, including degrees awarded by Medgar Evers College, CUNY, the University
of Bologna, and Columbia University, in addition to his alma mater, the Manhattan School of Music.
the London borough of Lambeth named a
park in Brixton after Roach. Roach was able to officially open the park when he visited London in March of that year by invitation from the Greater
London Council. During that trip, he performed at a concert at the Royal
Albert Hall along with Ghanaian master drummer Ghanaba and others.
Roach spent his later years living at
the Mill Basin Sunrise assisted living home in Brooklyn, and was honored with a proclamation honoring his musical achievements by Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz. Roach was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in 2009.