Maxwell Lemuel ‘Max’ Roach (10 January 1924 – 16 August 2007) was an American jazz drummer, percussionist and composer.
Generally regarded as one of the most important drummers in history, Roach was a pioneer of bebop, an advocate of the African American civil rights movement, and an innovator in the use of percussion.
He started playing drums as a child and his first professional recording took place in December 1943 when he was 19, supporting Coleman Hawkins.
Roach’s most significant innovations came in the 1940s, when he and fellow jazz drummer Kenny Clarke devised a new concept of musical time. By playing the pulse of standard 4/4 time on the ride cymbal instead of on the bass drum, they developed a flexible, flowing rhythmic pattern that allowed soloists to play freely.
Along with Clarke, Roach was one of the first drummers to play in the bebop style, performing in bands led by Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Coleman Hawkins, Bud Powell and Miles Davis. Roach played on many of Parker’s most important records, including the Savoy November 1945 session, a turning point in recorded jazz.
In the 1950s, he formed a quintet with Clifford Brown, playing in the hard bop style. This collaboration was sadly short-lived due to Brown’s untimely death, but they did record one album in 1955 – the critically acclaimed Clifford Brown & Max Roach.
The 1960s saw Roach compose and record several more important albums:
- We Insist! – Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite in 1960 – with vocals by his then-wife Abbey Lincoln and lyrics by Oscar Brown Jr, a pivotal work in the early 1960s African American protest movement
- Money Jungle in 1962 – a collaboration with Charles Mingus and Duke Ellington, generally regarded as one of the very finest trio albums ever made
- Drums Unlimited in 1966 – an album with several tracks that are entirely drum solos, demonstrating that drums can be a solo instrument able to play theme, variations and rhythmically cohesive phrases
During the 1970s, Roach formed a percussion orchestra called M’Boom, with each member composing and performing on many unusual and non-Western percussion instruments.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Roach continued to demonstrate the versatility of the drum kit in solo concerts, and he also played with many musicians in varied styles, from avant-garde to hip hop.
In 2002, he returned to his musical origins in with his last recording, Friendship, with long-standing friend and trumpet master Clark Terry.
Roach received many awards and accolades throughout his career and was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in 2009.
This 1964 TV recording shows the Max Roach Quintet with Abbey Lincoln perform ‘Triptych (Prayer/Protest/Peace)’ from the protest album We Insist!
As a contrast, and to illustrate Roach’s diverse career, is this 1971 live performance by M’Boom.