Max was one of the founders of modern jazz, a man who rewrote the rules of drumming in the 1940s and spent the rest of his life breaking musical barriers.
I feel very fortunate and honoured to have met and interviewed the man on several occasions. My first introduction didn’t go well. I called him to arrange an interview and told him I wanted to ask him questions about his life, the civil rights movement and jazz music. “Stop right there,” he said. “This interview ends right now.” He hung up. I had no idea what I had done wrong. I plucked up the courage and called him back. He picked up the receiver and laughed, saying, “I admire your balls for phoning back. I want to make one thing clear. I don’t play jazz music – I play black American music.”
I finally got to meet Max several months later. The more we discussed his music and his life the more I began to realise what he meant. This was a man trying to escape the artistic pigeonhole of jazz.
He was born in Newland, North Carolina, on 10 January 1924, but was raised in Brooklyn, New York from the age of four. He began studying piano at a neighbourhood Baptist church when he was eight and took up the drums. He told me, “I have been blessed to have shared my music with the finest musicians in the business. I began early enough to play with Coleman Hawkins and then Louis Armstrong, then through Duke [Ellington], Bird [Charlie Parker] and Dizzy [Gillespie]. I have been lucky to be in the right place at the right time to meet and work with these people, and they always had a way of teaching and sharing their knowledge.”
Max was definitely in the right place at the right time. He began his musical apprenticeship in a city that was going through a musical revolution. A number of young musicians including Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Kenny Clarke were tired of the musical constraints of big band jazz. They created a new school of jazz called bebop. Bebop revolutionised jazz.
Max proudly told me, “Bird and Dizz were years ahead of their times. Their attitude was an affirmation of their musical confidence, an early form of black pride. They were my heroes and I wanted to be just like them.”
By the age of 20 Max had worked with every major figure involved in bebop but within a few years he had made his own unique contribution. He was broadening both the cultural and creative reach of his work – he encouraged other jazz artists to attend Camp Unity, a racially integrated holiday camp set up by the US Communist Party. This was a pathbreaking attempt to undermine the “colour bar”.
In 1960 Max went into the studio and recorded one of the most important political musical recordings of all time – We Insist! Freedom Now Suite. This was originally composed for the centennial of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. But the lunch counter sit-ins by student civil rights activists in Greensboro inspired him to rush the album out.
This was a record rooted in the civil rights movement. The LP cover was a picture of the sit-in. The sleeve notes begin: ” A revolution is unfurling – America’s unfinished revolution. It is unfurling in lunch counters, buses, libraries and schools.” The musicians appearing alongside Max included Coleman Hawkins, the African percussionist Babatunde Olatunji and the singer and Max’s future wife Abbey Lincoln.
After the release of We Insist! Max declared, “I will never again play anything that does not have social significance.” He then went on to produce a series of powerful albums dedicated to the struggle for black emancipation – Members Don’t Get Weary, It’s Time, Speak Brother Speak and Lift Every Voice and Sing. Max alongside Lincoln performed a number of benefit concerts for Malcolm X, the NAACP and Martin Luther King’s SCLC.
Musically Max never stood still. He explained his philosophy to the New York Times in 1990: “You can’t write the same book twice. Though I’ve been in historic musical situations, I can’t go back and do that again. And though I run into artistic crises, they keep my life interesting.”
Over the last 20 years I saw Max live many times – each would be a unique experience. He played with straight ahead jazz bands, duos, gospel choirs, full orchestras and the last time with a Chinese chamber ensemble. Yet he always ended each show with a jaw dropping solo performance on the high hat.
Max Roach’s life should be celebrated. He was a musician who used his art to support the struggles against racism and for social justice. But he should also be remembered as one of the great black American Artists.
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