“…the community was just fraught with music. You could walk down the street; You heard people singing; you heard people playin’. Duke Ellington says a wonderful thing about a Harlem airshaft. An airshaft was a dumbwaiter. You open up your airshaft and you heard people singing and playing saxophone. You know it was just in the air…” — Max Roach
On January 10, 1924, Maxwell Lemuel “Max” Roach, hall of fame jazz percussionist and composer, was born in Newland, North Carolina. At the age of 4, Roach’s parents moved to the Bed Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.
At the age of 10, Roach was playing drums in gospel bands and by 18 was playing in jazz clubs. Roach’s most significant innovations came in the 1940s when he devised a new concept of musical time. He studied classical percussion at the Manhattan School of Music from 1950 to 1953, eventually earning his Bachelor of Arts degree in music composition.
In 1952, Roach co-founded Debut Records with bassist Charles Mingus. This 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 Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Mingus and Roach. Also released on this label was the groundbreaking bass-and-drum free improvisation, Percussion Discussion.
In 1954, he 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, though Land left the following year and Sonny Rollins soon replaced him. The group was a prime example of the hard bop style also played by Art Blakey and Horace Silver.
A pioneer of Bebop, in 1960 Roach composed the “We Insist! – Freedom Now” suite to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. The project featured vocals by his then-wife Abbey Lincoln. He worked with many famous jazz musicians, including Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Billy Eckstine, Stan Getz, Eric Dolphy and Booker Little.
Roach spent the 1980s and 1990s continually finding new forms of musical expression and presentation. Roach was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1980, the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame in 1982, and in 1984 was designated a NEA Jazz Master, the highest honor the nation bestows on a jazz artist, by the National Endowment for the Arts.
In 1986, a park in London was named in his honor and Roach was recognized with a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 1988. Roach died August 16, 2007 and in 2008 posthumously received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
The Akosua Report: Facts on The African Diaspora, is written by Akosua Lowery. Follow her on Twitter @AkosuaLowery.