Early one morning years ago, I was at the Blues Alley jazz club in Washington, D.C., to do a television interview with Max Roach. As always, I was early. There was no one in the club except Max, alone at the drums, practicing for the night’s gig. He played with as much intensity—and as many surprises—as if he were before hundreds of listeners.
Like Roy Eldridge and Phil Woods, Max always played as if it were his last gig on earth. With Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and another drummer—Kenny “Klook” Clarke—Max changed the direction of jazz as Louis Armstrong had decades before.
Washington Post jazz critic Matt Schudel distills how Max liberated jazz drumming: “By playing the beat-by-beat pulse of standard 4/4 time on the ‘ride’ cymbal instead of on the thudding bass drum, [he] developed a flexible, flowing rhythmic pattern that allowed soloists to play freely, [and] by matching his rhythmic attack with a tune’s melody, Mr. Roach brought a newfound subtlety of expression to his instrument.”
Off the stand, however, Max was one of the few musicians to publicly speak out, with no subtlety, about Jim Crow in and out of the music business: “We invented, we created the music. . . . Hell, man, this is black classical music. [Compared to the money we get], so much of that European classical stuff is on relief, subsidized by foundations.”
Max once instructed me on the correlation between jazz as free expression and the Constitution: “Ours are individual voices,” he said, “listening intently to all the other voices, and creating a whole from all of these personal voices.
Since then, when I hear a debate on whether ours is a “living Constitution,” Max comes to mind.
Also a composer, the drummer created a work titled We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite in 1960, as the civil-rights movement was gathering momentum and controversy. It helped spur other jazz musicians to bring those national polyphonic protest rhythms into their music.
I was privileged, to say the least, to produce the incandescent Freedom Now Suite performances for the Candid label. By “produce,” I mean only that I wrote down the length of each section and made sure Max was present to decide on the final cut. It was his byline, not mine.
Everyone on the session, including the engineer, was swept up in the cascade of emotions that Max and lyricist Oscar Brown Jr. propelled into motion. The magisterial tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins—with a sound that never needed a microphone—actually seemed to fill the building. And that very afternoon, Abbey Lincoln was being transformed, because of Max, from a supper-club singer into the utterly singular and penetrating storyteller who has since resounded around the world.
From slavery (the bitterly sardonic “Driva Man”) to “Freedom Day” and “Tears for Johannesburg,” to the beatings of black students going on at Southern lunch counters, the Freedom Now Suite created such a surge of rebellion that it was soon banned in South Africa, to the pleasure of everyone who had been in the studio that day.
As he continued to lead influential groups—nurturing such hard-swinging and also lyrically searching younger musicians as the late, great trumpet player Clifford Brown—Max himself was so deepening his mastery that, as Michael Bourne of jazz radio station WGBO said to the Daily News‘s David Hinckley the day after Max died: “He could play a whole concert on just the drums.”
That’s what I was hearing on that afternoon long ago at the Blues Alley in Washington, D.C.
In his extraordinarily illuminating memoir Jazz Odyssey (Continuum), the prodigious pianist Oscar Peterson speaks of Max not only as a drummer who could rivet an audience all by himself, but also as a virtuoso accompanist:
“Max . . . has a flair for ‘floating’—playing patterns between the soloist’s phrases without interfering or disrupting them. This kind of ‘sensitive intrusion’ is a very special gift. Only a handful of percussionists can separate themselves bodily from the time in order to add another separate linear, yet rhythmic string of improvisational phrases—without altogether shredding the musical fiber of the performance.”
Max didn’t like the term “jazz,” regarding it as too limiting because he could not be limited. With his music certain to endure as long as there is civilization (itself not an entirely safe bet), Max exemplifies what Duke Ellington told me long ago about not heeding transient definitions like “modern,” “postmodern,” or “cutting edge.”
During a break in the recording of the Freedom Now Suite, Coleman Hawkins— himself an imposing individualist—was marveling at Max’s strong, bold, often towering melodies. He kept asking Max, “Did you really write this, Max?” Max just smiled. “My, my,” was all Hawkins could say.
And in the erupting protest section, Abbey Lincoln startled us with fierce yet musical roars and screams of rage that, in Max’s composition, told of the centuries-old black roots that led to what A. Phillip Randolph, architect of the 1963 March on Washington with Martin Luther King, called “America’s unfinished revolution.”
“I’ve learned a lot from Max Roach in recent months,” Abbey told me that afternoon, “about being me when I sing.”
Max had what Oscar Peterson calls the “will to perfection” in continuing to find out through his music who he was. Oscar says that will is a prevailing force among jazz musicians, explaining that “it requires you to collect all your senses, emotions, physical strength, and mental power, and focus them entirely onto the performance, with utter dedication, every time you play.
“And if that is scary, it is also uniquely exciting . . . you never get rid of it. Nor do you want to, for you come to believe that if you get it all right, you will be capable of virtually anything.”
But Max also knew, as did Coleman Hawkins, that it’s essentially the striving that keeps musicians and the rest of us going. During one of Hawkins’s best solos in the Freedom Now Suite, there was a squeak. “Don’t splice that!” Hawkins told me. “When it’s all perfect in a piece like this, there’s something very wrong.”
What Max had created was in real, raw time—for all time.