Thursday, August 16, 2007

Max Roach (1924-2007)

Max Roach, the jazz drummer, composer, bandleader and educator whose approach to rhythm had a profound effect on music in the second half of the 20th century, died of an unspecified illness at his home in New York last night. He was 83 years old.

Born in Newland, North Carolina in 1924, Roach and his family settled in Brooklyn in the late 1920s. An early interest in music was encouraged, and he was drumming with bands by the age of ten. Roach is one of the last surviving members of the generation of musicians who came to prominence in New York in the 1940s and set in motion the influential jazz style that came to be known as bebop. Both Roach and fellow drummer Kenny Clarke were ubiquitous on the scene, which also included saxophonist Charlie Parker, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, and pianists Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, among others.

With its faster tempos and adventurous use of harmony, bebop was arguably the first jazz movement to position itself as art rather than entertainment. Roach, building on the innovations of Clarke, strove to free his instrument from its timekeeping role, establishing the drums as an improvisational voice and exploring the textural properties of percussion.

Roach continued to be identified with the first wave of bebop musicians his entire life, an association that peaked upon the release of the landmark Jazz at Massey Hall, a 1953 album featuring Parker, Gillespie, Powell, and bassist Charles Mingus (the album was released on the Debut label, an artist-run imprint started by Roach and Mingus). But he never stayed in one place for long and his music continued to evolve.

During the 50s and 60s, Roach became involved in the civil rights movement, and his activism was reflected in his work. His controversial and ambitious 1960 album We Insist! Freedom Now Suite, which directly addressed oppression in the United States and Africa, became a classic of both jazz and political art.

Roach was a relentless experimenter, working in virtually every setting, from solo to percussion ensembles to duets to big bands. He joined the faculty at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst as a professor in the early 70s and taught at the Lenox School of Jazz. In 1988, he was the recipient of a MacArthur foundation "genius grant," the first jazz musician to receive the award. An outspoken commentator and intellectual who could give a great interview, Roach occasionally drew connections between jazz and the rhythmic innovations and political consciousness of hip-hop (he appeared onstage with Fab Five Freddy and a team of breakdancers at a concert in the early 80s).

(article swiped from Pitchfork Media)

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