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Jazz Master Max Roach Dies at 83

National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, bebop pioneer, and one of the pillars of the jazz drum tradition, Max Roach has passed away at 83 after a lengthy battle with Alzheimer's. One of only four drummers among the N.E.A. list of greats--he is joined by Kenny Clarke, Louis Bellson and Elvin Jones--Roach enjoyed a career that began with the Ellington Orchestra, flowered in the company of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and went on to embrace several of the music's later generations. His work as a drummer was imbued with a profoundly melodic sense, along with a rare mastery of polyrhythms, and an openness to innovation, without ever losing touch with the roots of the tradition. Above all, his approach to the drums was intensely musical rather than merely rhythmic or percussive.

Born January 10, 1924 in Newland, North Carolina, Roach moved to Brooklyn with his family at age four. His introduction to music came from a player piano left by the previous tenants, and then from singing with the children's choir at the Concord Baptist Church. But by eighth grade Roach had discovered the drums, and from then on he knew exactly what he wanted to do. His father bought him his first full drum set, and Roach was working professionally before he graduated from high school. The Apollo Theater and the Savoy Ballroom are not far from Brooklyn, and it was not long before he befriended saxophonist Charlie Parker, trumpeter Dizzie Gillespie, and other members of the early bebop movement. By 1942 he was playing regularly behind Parker and, two years later, Roach joined Gillespie and Coleman Hawkins in one of the first bebop recording sessions. It was among the first of many classic recordings that were to feature the drummer. Not the least of these was the 1953 concert in Toronto's Massey Hall, featuring Roach, Charles Mingus, Parker, Gillespie and pianist Bud Powell.

The Hard Bop movement of the 1950s saw Roach again at the forefront, with another classic quintet under the leadership of Roach and trumpet genius Clifford Brown along with Harold Land, and later Sonny Rollins. Other musicians who worked in subsequent Roach bands during that time included George Coleman, Stanley Turrentine and his brother Tommy, bassist George Morrow, and trumpeters Kenny Dorham and Booker Little. Yet personal tragedy came along with musical triumphs. His early quintet collapsed when Brown and pianist Ritchie Powell were killed in a 1956 auto accident. Later he lost another dear friend and close collaborator, the brilliant Booker Little, who looked set to inherit the mantle of Clifford Brown, but who succumbed to uremia at the tragically early age of 23. All of this, of course, followed his observing first hand the self-destruction and death of Charlie Parker.

All of this took its toll on Max Roach, and personal problems threatened to derail his career. His recovery was greatly aided by his first wife, singer Abbey Lincoln, whom he married in 1962. They were together for eight years. His re-emergence coincided with the free jazz era which, as always, Roach joined on his own terms. Focusing as much on the political as the musical aspects of the movement, he became one of jazz's loudest voices for civil rights, expressed in Albums such as We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite. But this was but one phase in a multi-faceted career lasting over half a century, during which he constantly sought new challenges. He taught at the University of Massachusetts, traveled to Ghana in search of new music, and performed with groups from Japan and Cuba. Roach formed an all-percussion ensemble known as M'Boom, an ensemble of eight percussionists; a quartet that performed with a 22-member gospel choir; and a double quartet--his band, plus a string quartet--that included his daughter Maxine Roach on viola. Roach was elected to the Downbeat magazine Hall of Fame in 1980, and the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1995. In 1988, he became the first jazz musician ever honored with a MacArthur Fellowship, receiving a $372,000 "genius grant." At one point, a panel of 100 jazz musicians voted Roach the greatest jazz drummer ever.

"Max was one of the founders and original members of the A-Team of bebop," said fellow music legend Quincy Jones. "Outside of losing a giant and an innovator, I've lost a great, great friend. Thank God he left a piece of his soul on his recordings so that we'll always have a part of him with us."

Max Roach is survived by his five children: Daryl Keith, Maxine, Raoul, Ayo, and Dara. The family issued the following statement:

"We are deeply saddened by our beloved father's passing. We wish to convey our sincere thanks and appreciation for all the blessings and condolences we have received at this time. As his family we are fortunate to have been a part of his life and we will continue to share his legacy as a musician, educator and social activist with the world."

Roach's public viewing will be held on Friday, August 24 at Riverside Church, 490 Riverside Drive in Manhattan, from 9:00 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. with a public funeral service from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. The legendary drummer will subsequently be buried in a private ceremony at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Max Roach
  • Subtitle: One of Last Pioneers of Bebop Era
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