That was the first word Charlie Parker ever said to me.
We were standing in the men’s room in the long-forgotten Argyle Show Lounge way back in 1947—maybe ’48—where Bird was playing with his classic quintet featuring Miles Davis and Max Roach on drums.
Bird had finished a solo, turned it over to Miles and headed for the john, where I was standing doing my business. (On another night Bird didn’t get to the john—in one of the more notorious episodes of his life he pissed in the phone booth.)
Anyway, suddenly came this roaring drum solo—a crackling explosion of percussive sound—that took my breath away. Bird’s, too, apparently. He burst into a smile, tilted his head toward the door, shook it in admiration and uttered the name of his drummer.
I do not remember my response; I was shaking with awe at the very fact that I was standing next to the god of my times and he actually spoke to this 17-year old kid who snuck into the Argyle on a false ID—along with a dozen other local musicians come to hear the remarkable Parker for the first time live.
It was during those nights I managed to get past the bouncer that I made friends with both Bird and Max—more importantly learned more and more of their musical life together. I not only sat dazzled by the incessant flow of creative lines from Bird, but came to realize that this amazing drummer was not only pulsating with the energy of the sun, but he was actually making melodies on that set of traps, counterpointing as well as driving the lines of Parker and Davis. (About 14 years later I would name my first-born Max—who grew up to be a tenor player rather than a drummer.)
Max Roach brought a new understanding of the role of the drummer to me and the rest of the musical world—an understanding beyond my initial admiration of his work on records such as “KoKo,” “Billie’s Bounce” and “Now’s the Time,” which were recorded late in 1945 and issued during the next few years. These were the triumphant icons of the bebop revolution. To understand Roach’s incredible contribution all you had to do was compare these sides to the first battle cries of Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.
Only a few months before the KoKo session, Bird and Dizzy went into the studio together twice, once with Cozy Cole on drums, the next time with Sidney Catlett—one of the great drummers of the swing era—and made sides such as “Groovin’ High,” “Hot House,” “Salt Peanuts” and “Shaw’Nuff.” Their solos were instant classics, issued over a fine chunk-chunk-chunk-chunk modern swing rhythm.
Ah but!– KoKo and the rest of the later session was something altogether new: those long, magnificent Parker lines and harmonies played off of a rushing, oceanic flow of the top cymbal, punctuated by trap and tom-tom rolls and bass-drum bombs that pushed ever forward, emerging from the earth seemingly without a pause.
As the great pianist Herbie Nichols analyzed it years later, “Each bomb created a newly rich and wholly unexpected series of overtones beginning in the lower registers. These rich syncopations were fitting accompaniment to the supplemental overtones played by the horns in the higher registers.”
This was totally and completely a new idiom that would turn the world around and influence almost everything that was called jazz for the rest of the century. This was the difference Max made, completing the house that Bird and Diz built.
Max never stopped making a difference. Almost instantly he was acknowledged as the greatest bebop drummer—later and to many, the greatest drummer of all time. (Yes, yes, Kenny Clarke preceded Max as a bebopper and in later years many believe the crown was passed to Elvin Jones, but that’s not the point.)
Max Roach was present at the creation—and continued on most all of the Parker classics and went on to underpin classsics in every phase of jazz music to come. His drums are heard on the Miles Davis nonet sessions of the late ‘40s that came to be known as “The Birth of the Cool.” He was there for Bud Powell’s swirling, hypnotic introspection on “Un Poco Loco.” He was ubiquitous on major sessions from Blue Note and Prestige, mainstays of modern jazz. Though Art Blakey was largely viewed as Thelonius Monk’s ideal drummer—and perhaps he was—Max was there for many of Monk’s earliest Blue Note sessions and later the exceptional “Brilliant Corners.”
Bird, Diz, Miles, Bud, Monk—and Max: the Mount Rushmore figures of the new age of jazz music.
Then, as newer figures emerged, he was with them, too, “playing compositionally” as Ben Ratliff put it in a New York Times appreciation. Driving, compelling first with his own co-leader Clifford Brown on those landmark sides that placed trumpeter Brown alongside Diz and Miles in the Pantheon.
One of the great bands of all time, the Brown-Roach quintet played the Bee Hive in Hyde Park for numerous gigs—often with Sonny Rollins. It was the last place Brown worked in Chicago before the tragic accident that took his life and that of pianist Richie Powell, Bud’s younger brother. I recall sitting around my old apartment listening to records with Max and Richie late, late the night of that last gig. It took a long time for Max to get over the loss of Brownie.
But soon Max was underpinning the many rhythms of one of the greatest discs of all time, Sonny Rollins’s “Saxophone Colossus.” Later he was the driving force on Rollins’s “Freedom Suite.” Later still he would play with the rising avant garde—Cecil Taylor and Archie Shepp among them.
In 1960, as the civil rights movement was tooling up, with the late Chicagoan Oscar Brown Jr., he created “We Insist!: Freedom Now Suite,” a musical political statement with his then-wife Abbey Lincoln singing and the elder statesman Coleman Hawkins on tenor. Dismissed once as too didactically political, today the suite is given a crown—the highest rating—in the Penguin Guide to Jazz.”
Max and I converged in a social-political direction in the ‘60s—I was active in the civil rights movement, serving as press secretary to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Chicago, and Max was among the leading activists in the entertainment world. He once actually led a sit-in on a Carnegie Hall stage where Miles Davis was playing because he felt Miles and his band were not sufficiently involved in the movement.
But Max, unlike other activist musicians of that era, never played the black-white dozens. He did, however, organize demonstrations at the Newport Jazz Festival protesting the treatment of the musicians.
His social action—and later professorial work at the University of Massachusetts in the early ‘70s—did not distract from his musical commitment and his continual experimentation. I once heard him perform a 15-minute long solo using only his sticks and high-hat cymbal. He created an all-percussion group and recorded “M’Boom” displaying a wide range of percussive sound that expanded the content of those early melodic drum solos into a total chamber orchestra effect with temple locks, chimes, cymbals, tympani, marimbas and xylophones.
He composed music for an off-Broadway Sam Shepard play and won an Obie for the effort. He was also the first jazz master to receive a MacArthur “genius grant.”
He never stopped experimenting—working with rappers and disc jockeys and ultimately melding his quarter with his daughter’s Uptown String Quartet into the widely heralded Max Roach Double Quartet. I regret I never heard the double quartet live. I did, however, get to hear his last band featuring Odean Pope on tenor and Cecil Bridgewater on trumpet—a group that rivaled in some sense the band with Clifford Brown.
The last time I spent time with Max was in Kansas City in 1999. We were panelists at the Charlie Parker symposium at the jazz museum there. I recall a wonderful story he told on himself:
His mother loved Charlie Parker–but was apparently unaware of Bird’s drug problems. She did, however, discover that Max had been experimenting with junk and admonished him, “Why don’t you behave like that nice Charlie Parker?”
Max replied, “That’s what I was trying to do, Mom.”
He played marvelously well at the concert sessions of the symposium but at several points during the panels I noted a little slipping—a little forgetfulness. Not enough to give cause for immediate alarm, but worth noting. I had heard periodic reports that he was developing more problems in the past few years, but could never pin anything down.
Then, on August 16th a friend in KC e-mailed me that Max died that morning. He was 83. For some reason I was not surprised—just saddened in a nostalgic way.
Bird, Diz, Bud, Miles, Monk. Max outlasted them all. Now he is fully with them on that Mount Rushmore of the mind.