Max Roach, one of the giants of modern jazz, a guy who belongs right up there with the greatest of the great but isn’t nearly as well known, died Wednesday at the ripe age of 83. Considering the odds against him, that long life was a signal achievement all its own.
No modern drummer – and maybe no jazz drummer ever – has had such an enormous effect on the future course of his art. Max changed forever the way we think about drummers and to an extent the way we think about rhythm. He was the first to blend traditional African drumming with the quirky time signatures and signature changes of Stravinsky and Bartok, and one of the first (along with Mingus and Monk) to see jazz as the potential equal of the deepest and most complex music being written by modern classical composers.
Gene Krupa, it’s said, made the drums a solo instrument in jazz. If he did, it was Max Roach who made them sing and proved they could be the core of serious music, not just the driving beat behind it.
I was a trumpet player, so it’s natural, I suppose, that I came to jazz through people like Miles and Bix, and it would follow that I came to other instrumentalists through them as well. In Max’s case, my first exposure to him was through his time with Clifford Brown in what may have been one of the Top Ten Best combos in the history of jazz: Brownie on trumpet, Max on drums, Richie Powell on piano, and Sonny Rollins on tenor sax. Despite its short life span (Brown and Powell were killed in a car accident barely two years after the group was formed), the Brown-Roach Quintet broke new ground and set new standards almost every time they played.
By the time my trumpet teacher turned me on to Brownie, he’d been dead eight years. But Max and Sonny were still around, and I set myself to collecting every album of theirs I could find – which in the hinterlands of rural New Hampshire was a near-Herculean task. I lived in a small town with no record store – with no store of any kind that sold records, in fact. The nearest one was 7 miles away (I didn’t have a car) and specialized in country/western – which I couldn’t stand then and still can’t. Musically, I’ll listen to almost anything but CW is where I draw a firm line.
Turned out Max had had his own quartet for a couple of years before joining up with Brownie. I found one of the albums they’d cut in a bargain bin at Woolworth’s in Haverhill, Mass, and just about wore it out. OK, I didn’t know much about jazz drumming at that point, but even I could recognize that Max was unique, and the entry point for me was…silence.
Max was the first drummer I’d ever heard who used silence in his solos like Harold Pinter used it in his dialogue. It punctuated his complex rhythms, gave them depth and a certain urgency that arose from the tension they created. They were as much a part of the beat as any combination of lightning strokes or 5/4 taradiddles, and they were both surprising in themselves and surprisingly emotive. Periodic silences during jazz solos had been around for awhile (even Bird used them from time to time to great effect, and Miles, of course, was the master of the long, tense silence that set up the next burst of emotional energy) but Max found a way to bring them into drumming and make them work.
An emotional drummer, a drummer who wasn’t just about drive and fills and a background tonal foundation. It was a revelation, and not just to me. I doubt there’s a single jazz drummer born after WW II who hasn’t been heavily influenced by Max’s approach and technique. What Miles is to modern trumpeters, Max is to modern drummers. He can’t be ignored or minimized, and you can’t get anywhere without him.
Max Roach, 1924-2007