Like trumpet visionary Miles Davis, drummer Max Roach helped ignite several revolutions in jazz.
From the bebop eruptions of the 1940s to the “cool jazz” style of the `50s, from the black nationalism of the `60s to rap experiments in the `80s, Roach relentlessly reinvented his approach to jazz improvisation. For all the stylistic experimentation of his music, however, the artistic content proved so striking and artistically persuasive that it influenced generations of musicians.
Roach - who died Wednesday night in New York at age 83 after a long but undisclosed illness - was widely recognized for his contributions. Among his many honors, in 1988 he became the first jazz artist to win a MacArthur Fellowship, or “genius award.”
“He changed the art of drumming,” said trumpeter Clark Terry, a contemporary of Roach’s who followed the drummer’s career nearly from its start in the 1940s.
“I consider him one of the finest in the field of modern jazz - not just drumming,” added Terry.
“He just changed everything,” said veteran Chicago impresario Joe Segal, who first heard Roach performing with bebop icon Charlie Parker, a partnership that placed Roach very near to the birth of bop.
Before the emergence of drummers Roach and Kenny Clarke in the 1940s, the jazz drummer’s role had been to telegraph swing rhythm and keep it pressing inexorably forward. Clarke and Mr. Roach shattered that strategy, fracturing time with offbeat accents, unexpected silences and other seismic quakes.
Suddenly, the jazz drummer no longer was confined to the dual roles of keeping time and, on occasion, offering exhibitionistic solos. Instead, thanks to Clarke and Roach’s contributions, drummers began dropping “bombs” and other explosive devices that profoundly disturbed the beat.
The approach was ideally suited to the then-radical idiom of 1940s bebop, which brought new layers of harmonic complexity and rhythmic volatility to jazz.
“The two of them - Kenny and Max - opened the door to all those people who came later, like Tony Williams and Elvin (Jones),” said jazz composer David Baker.
But if Clarke played aggressively against the rhythms of the other players, Roach ingeniously interacted with them - and this was his first great contribution to jazz.
“He was the one who began to think of the drums as part of the conversation,” said Baker. “I think that Max was the poet of the drums.”
That became increasingly apparent in the late 1940s and `50s, first with Roach’s exquisitely subtle contributions to Davis’ elegiac “Birth of the Cool” recording sessions. Then, in the mid-‘50s, Roach formed a celebrated but tragically short-lived partnership with trumpeter Clifford Brown, their quintet helping to forge the “hard-bop” language of the decade.
But Brown’s death in an auto accident in 1956 ended what was poised to become one of the most iconic bands in jazz. It also sent Roach into a tailspin of depression.
Nevertheless, by 1960 Roach again was placing himself at the forefront of the music, creating “We Insist! Freedom Now Suite” with Chicago songwriter Oscar Brown Jr. and singer Abbey Lincoln (to whom Roach would be married from 1962 to 1970). The piece, in which Lincoln sometimes shrieked, gave radical voice to the rising civil rights and black nationalist movements.
In the 1970s, Roach teamed with several percussionists to create M’Boom, a characteristically adventurous band that created hitherto unheard sonic textures.
And in the 1980s, he shocked jazz purists by partnering with rapper Fab Five Freddy, long before the two genres seriously began to align. At the same time, Roach broke new ground in jazz-classical mergers by creating a double quartet with the Uptown String Quartet (which included his daughter Maxine, a violist).
Roach’s extraordinary journey in music began after his family left New Land, N.C., where he was born on Jan. 10, 1924. Arriving in Brooklyn, New York, when he was 4, Mr. Roach began toying with a player piano that the previous tenant had left behind.
After he failed to coax sound out of a bugle, “my mother suggested that I bring home something I could deal with,” he told The Independent newspaper in London in 1998. “So I brought home a drum. That’s why I started, because you just hit it, and you got a sound.”
By age 12, he received his first drum set, and as a teenager, he subbed for an ailing drummer in Duke Ellington’s band at the Paramount Theater, in New York. Schooled in bebop in storied New York hangouts such as Minton’s Playhouse and Monroe’s Uptown House, Roach in the 1940s befriended Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and other bebop innovators, carrying their revolutionary spirit forward through the decades .
Roach is survived by five children: sons Daryl and Raoul, and daughters Maxine, Ayl and Dara.
Max Roach with Abbey Lincoln