I had the privilege to meet Max Roach at a Percussive Arts Society convention in the late 1980’s. To say he was innovative and inspirational is an understatement. He was a force to be reckoned with in drumming. Not only did Max play with some of the jazz greats like, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles, Davis, Duke Ellington, and Sonny Rollins, but he also co-founded the short lived label, Debut Records, with bassist Charles Mingus.
Max was born in North Carolina and later moved to Brooklyn, New York, when he was 4 years old. Growing up in a musical home, Max was playing drums in a gospel band at the age of 10. When he was 18 years old he was asked to play with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. That same year, Max started hanging out in jazz clubs, where he met and played with Dizzy Gillespie.
In 1966, his innovation album, Drums Unlimited, was proof that the drum set could be a solo instrument. Max called it, “the creation of organized sound” as he evoked rhythms, phrases, and themes through finesse playing.
Not content to expand on the musical territory he had already become known for, Roach spent the decades of the 1980’s and 1990’s continually finding new forms of musical expression and presentation. During all these years, while he ventured into new territory during a lifetime of innovation, he kept his contact with his musical point of origin. He performed with the Beijing Trio, with pianist Jon Jang and erhu player Jeibing Chen. His last recording, Friendship, was with trumpet master Clark Terry, the two long-standing friends in duet and quartet. His last performance was at the 50th anniversary celebration of the original Massey Hall concert, in Toronto, where he performed solo on the hi-hat.
In 1994, Roach also appeared on Rush drummer Neil Peart‘s Burning For Buddy performing “The Drum Also Waltzes”, Part 1 and 2 on Volume 1 of the Volume 2 series during the 1994 All-Star recording sessions.
Max died August 16 in Manhattan. He was survived by his five children — sons Daryl and Raoul, and daughters Maxine, Ayo and Dara. Over 1900 people attended his funeral at Riverside Church in Manhattan, New York City on August 24, 2007.
A legend has passed. He will be missed.