Max Roach, who was born in North Carolina on Jan. 10, 1924, moved with his parents to the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn when he was about 4 years old.
His first musical experience was singing in the children’s choir of the Concord Baptist Church, where his mother was a gospel singer. Later he played both drums and bugle in a drum-and-bugle corps organized by the church. An aunt taught him the rudiments of piano-playing when he was 8. A player piano that fortune sent his way absorbed many of his childhood hours.
“We moved into a fourth-floor walk-up in which the previous tenants had left a player piano behind,” he recalled to an interviewer for the New Yorker in 1981. “It had all these Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller rolls, and my brother and I would put our fingers over the notes and learn the melodies.”
Roach told the interviewer, “There was a lot of music in the community — the church, of course, family bands, and W.P.A.-subsidized music lessons for 25 cents an hour. I got my first trap set when I was 12 or 13, for a Christmas present. All the kids would buy Jimmie Lunceford and Count Basie arrangements for 50 or 75 cents. We’d study the scores, learn a little about how to write. And for a nickel I could travel from my neighborhood, Bedford-Stuyvesant, to Harlem, and listen to all this wonderful music pouring out of the clubs and the apartment windows.”
At Boys High School in Brooklyn, Roach played in black student bands that vied with white bands during half-time at basketball games. One of Roach’s models was Jo Jones, whose playing he heard on Count Basie’s radio shows.
Roach also admired Baby Dodds, Chick Webb and Sid Catlett, all of whom “brought the drummer forward, took him out of a subservient position.”
In an interview for the Village Voice in 1979, Roach said, “… Everybody was working his tail off to bring himself up to the level of his idols … We dressed well, we were punctual, we studied all the time, spent hours playing records over and over, practicing licks over and over.”
Roach frequented the Apollo Theatre and the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. Because he was a minor, he was unable to enter many nightclubs as a spectator, but as a precocious drummer, he sat in on jam sessions at some clubs in Harlem. While still in high school he met Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, among other jazz greats.
In 1942, Roach graduated with honors from Boys High School and began drumming full time. He was a sideman for Dizzy Gillespie and his first recording was the initial bop record with Gillespie and Coleman Hawkins in 1944.
Meanwhile Max’s mother was making “all the musicians feel welcome” at the Roach apartment in Brooklyn, as he recalled in the New Yorker interview. “The house was always full of musicians. Charlie Parker had a favorite chair. When George Russell got sick and I replaced him as Benny Carter’s drummer, he went to convalesce at my house.”
After being Carter’s drummer, Roach worked and recorded with J.J. Johnson, Allen Eager, Dexter Gordon and others. After studying composition at the Manhattan School of Music, Roach had his own band, which became known as one of the finest small groups in jazz history. He was called “a drummer’s drummer.”
Max Roach passed away on Aug. 16, 2007.
This article was written by Vernon Parker (1923-2004)
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