Jazz drummer Max Roach was fearlessly creative: he began his career laying down the beats for bebop, and continued to innovate all his life. He saw his role as essential to music, not as background time-keeper, and he sought throughout his long career to use his instrument in new and unexpected ways. He played powerfully yet with subtlety at an amazing tempo, with a contrapuntal, polyrhythmic style that responded to the rhythm and melody of his fellow musicians.
Roach was born in 1924 and grew up in Brooklyn. Like many young black people at that time, he first learned music at church; he began with piano but soon switched to drums. As a teenager he was already working with greats like Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker, ensuring that when he graduated high school he was well-known in jazz circles. While studying composition at the Manhattan School of Music he played in nightclubs and took part in groundbreaking recordings such as Miles Davis's "Birth of the Cool".
In 1954 he became a band leader when he formed the Brown-Roach quintet with trumpeter Clifford Brown, pianist Richie Powell, saxophonist Sonny Rollins, and bassist George Morrow. This hot quintet pioneered hard bop and seemed set to take the jazz world by storm. until, sadly, in 1956 Brown and Powell were killed in a car accident. Roach, distressed, turned to alcohol for solace; he would wrestle with the demons depression and drink for years.
In spite of this, he continued working with important musicians such as Rollins, Morrow, saxophonists Eric Dolphy, Stanley Turrentine and George Coleman and the trumpeters Donald Byrd, Kenny Dorham and Booker Little. He preferred to play in ensembles which had no piano, creating a sound in which his drums were prominent.
Roach was more politically active than many of his peers. With Charles Mingus he established Debut, one of the first musician-run record companies, Debut, in 1952. In 1960 the two organized a "rebel festival" in Newport, as a protest against how the Newport Jazz Festival treated performers. In the same year, he wrote (with lyricist Oscar Brown Jr.) "We Insist! Freedom Now Suite," about black people's struggles for equality, with vocals by Abbey Lincoln (a frequent collaborator and Roach's wife from 1962 to 1970).
Roach was restlessly creative, and began to broaden his horizons to collaborations with choreographers, filmmakers and playwrights; one project was an Off Broadway production of "We Insist!" In 1972, he became a faculty member at the University of Massachusetts. Around this time he formed M'Boom with seven other percussionists; they used various percussion instruments, including xylophone, chimes, and steel drums in their explorations of melody and tone. In 1983 he appeared in concert with a rapper, two DJs, and several breakdancers; in 1984, the composed music for three Sam Shepard plays; in 1985 he was part of a multimedia event with video artist Kit Fitzgerald and the stage director George Ferencz. He also formed the Max Roach Double Quartet, a combination of his own quartet and the Uptown String Quartet, whose founder and viola player was his daughter Maxine. (He had two other daughters and two sons from his three marriages.) As recently as 2000 he was appearing in concert with avant garde musicians like Cecil Taylor.
After some years of illness, Max Roach died last week, aged 83. Wilth his death the music world lost the last surviving member of a small circle of adventurous musicians - among them Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk - who changed jazz forever with their virtuosic and unpredictable playing.