Maxwell Lemuel "Max" Roach (January 10, 1924 – August 16, 2007) was an American jazz percussionist, drummer, and composer.
A pioneer of bebop, Roach went on to work in many other styles of music, and is generally considered alongside the most important drummers in history. He worked with many famous jazz musicians, including Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Billy Eckstine, Stan Getz, Sonny Rollins, Clifford Brown, Eric Dolphy and Booker Little.
Roach also led his own groups, and made numerous musical statements relating to the civil rights movement of African Americans.
Roach was born in the Township of Newland, Pasquotank County, North Carolina, which borders the southern edge of the Great Dismal Swamp, to Alphonse and Cressie Roach. Many confuse this with Newland Town in Avery County. Although Roach's 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 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. As an eighteen year-old fresh out of Boys High School in Brooklyn, (1942) he was called to fill in for Sonny Greer, and play with the Duke Ellington Orchestra performing at the Paramount Theater.
In 1942, Roach started to go out in the jazz clubs of the 52nd Street and at 78th Street & Broadway for Georgie Jay's Taproom (playing with schoolmate Cecil Payne).
Roach's most significant innovations came in the 1940s, when he and jazz drummer 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. The new approach also left 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 his instrument. 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 idea was to shatter musical conventions and take full 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 that approach is common today, when Clarke and Roach introduced the new style in the 1940s it was a revolutio
nary musical advance. "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 awed 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."
He was one of the first drummers (along with Kenny Clarke) to play in the bebop style, and performed in bands led by Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Coleman Hawkins, Bud Powell, and Miles Davis. Roach played on many of Parker's most important records, including the Savoy November 1945 session, a turning point in recorded jazz.
Max Roach died in the early morning on August 16, 2007 in Manhattan. 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 in Manhattan, New York City on August 24, 2007. Max Roach was interred at the Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, NY.
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