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Photo by Ruth Morgan


Legendary Innovator

“We American jazz musicians of African descent have proved beyond all doubt that we’re master musicians of our instruments.”

—Max Roach

Early on drummers took a back seat to the rhythmic frontline conversations filled with explosive improvisational tidbits.

Max Roach propelled himself into the frontline with his ferocious but subtle playing style. Roach defined the

concept of modern drumming. Roach was born in New Land, North Carolina on January 10, 1924 and raised in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. Before he graduated from Boys High School in 1942, he worked briefly with Duke Ellington’s orchestra at the Paramount Theater and with Charlie Parker at Monroe’s Uptown House in Harlem where he took part in jam sessions that helped lay the groundwork for bebop. Later he played regularly at Minton’s in Harlem, following in the footsteps of Kenny Clarke, with Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk, the architects of bebop. 


Roach’s house on Monroe Street in Brooklyn became a jam hangout for Charlie Parker, Milt Jackson, Miles Davis, Randy

Weston, and Cecil Payne. 


He partnered with bassist Charles Mingus to establish one of the first musician-run record companies, Debut, in 1952. Eight years later, they organized a “rebel” festival in Newport, Rhode Island to protest the Newport Jazz Festival’s treatment of performers. That same year, Roach, a committed political activist, collaborated with the singer/lyricist Oscar Brown, Jr. on “We Insist! Freedom Now Suite,” which expressed their adamant social commentary on the injustices of black America.


“We American jazz musicians of African descent have proved beyond all doubt that we’re master musicians of our instruments,” Roach said to Down Beat Magazine following the album’s release. “Now what we have to do is employ our skill to tell the dramatic story of our people and what we’ve been through.” He led a “double quartet” consisting of his working group and the Uptown String Quartet led by his violinist daughter Maxine. He led an ensemble M’Boom consisting entirely of percussionists. He wrote music for plays by Sam Shepard and dance pieces by Alvin Ailey. He collaborated with video artists, gospel choirs and hip-hop performers with their onstage entourage of dancers, spoken word lyricists and DJ’s before it became hip. He was also a guest drum instructor at Harlem School of the Arts.

Max Roach died on August 15, 2007, at the age of 83. During the Grammy Awards 50th Celebration he was posthumously honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1988 he was the first jazz musician to receive the “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation. In 1989 he was named Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters in France. He taught at the Lenox School of Jazz and was a professor of music at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. 

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