It’s hard to believe that Max Roach, who died today, was only 83; he seemed much older, as if he’d been around forever. The jazz drummer’s career spanned seven decades, and he was influential in launching numerous new movements in modern music, from bebop to hard bop to acid jazz. He never stopped innovating or experimenting with new sounds and instrumentation.
Roach wasn’t the first drummer to play bebop (that would be Kenny Clarke), but he was the first to explore its full rhythmic and harmonic potential, which is why he’s recognized today, along with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and saxophonist Charlie Parker, as one of the architects of that 1940s musical revolution. His ability to layer rhythm upon rhythm, and his gift for bringing out the tonal qualities of his drums and cymbals, made the drummer a full partner with the horn players in bebop’s dynamic, high-flying musical conversation. A few years later, Roach joined Miles Davis and others for the lush, orchestral response to bebop known as the “Birth of the Cool” sessions. In the ’50s, the quintet he led with trumpeter Clifford Brown helped define hard bop, whose blues and gospel elements smoothed out some of bop’s thorny harmonic and rhythmic complexities. The 1960s saw his professional (and marital) partnership with singer Abbey Lincoln, who helped him record the album-length We Insist! Freedom Now Suite, one of jazz’s most overtly political works at the height of the Civil Rights era.
In his later decades, Roach continued to work as a scholar,teacher, and bandleader, looking for new ways to bring percussion to the forefront. It’s no wonder that he was one of the first of jazz’s old guard to embrace hip-hop. But maybe that appellation “old guard” didn’t really suit Roach, a rebel who never stopped challenging the formal boundaries of jazz. Forget what I wrote a couple paragraphs ago; Max Roach never grew old.