Maxwell Lemuel Roach was born on January 10, 1924 in the Township of Newland, North Carolina and moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn when he was four years old. Roach’s mother was a gospel singer and passed her love of music to Max as he began playing bugle at a young age and was playing drums with gospel groups by the time he was ten years old. When max was sixteen years old he played his first big jazz gig with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, subbing for Sonny Greer. In 1942 Roach began frequenting jams sessions on 52nd street and 78th and Broadway in Manhattan where bebop was born. Roach along with fellow drummer Kenny Clarke completely changed the way the drum set was approached in music as well as introducing the idea of the drum set as a musical instrument and not just a means to keep time. During this period Roach played with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Coleman Hawkins, Bud Powell and Miles Davis.
In 1950 Max enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music while continuing to perform and even started a record company with Charles Mingus in 1952 called Debut Records. In ’55 he formed one of his many popular groups with Clifford Brown, Sonny Rollins, Richie Powell and George Morrow continuing to push forward into hard-bop. Sadly Brown and Powell died in a car accident just a year later and the group broke up as a result. Max formed a new group with George Coleman, Kenny Dorham and Ray Bryant and recorded the album ‘Jazz in ¾ time’, combining waltz rhythms and modality with hard-bop. In the 1960s Roach took his political and social activism to new levels and would be one of the things that defined his career.
Max was invited to perform at the hundredth anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and composed ‘We Insist! - Freedom Now’ to mark the occasion. Max says, “I will never again play anything that does not have social significance,” he told Down Beat magazine after the album’s release. “We American jazz musicians of African descent have proved beyond all doubt that we’re master musicians of our instruments. Now what we have to do is employ our skill to tell the dramatic story of our people and what we’ve been through.” As a result of using his music as a tool in brining about awareness of life for the African-American community, Roach was actually black listed by the recording industry in this country in the early 1960s. Roach continued on regardless and recorded the great album ‘Money Jungle’ in 1962 with Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus in a trio setting. He also continued to push forward the idea of the drums as a musical instrument by recording the album ‘Drums Unlimited’ in 1966 which featured several tracks of just Max on drums and later formed the group M’BOOM, an all percussion orchestra. In the 1980s Roach would perform solo concerts showing that any instrument in the hands of a master is enough to entertain an audience for an evening.
In the 1980s Roach also made several avant-garde albums with such musicians as Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, Archie Shepp, Abdullah Ibrahim and Connie Crothers. Roach also composed music for theater and formed a group consisting of only him and five brass instruments. Roach continued to push the boundaries of music, himself and well out dated social and political norms until his passing in 2007. Some of the awards Roach received in his career include a MacArthur Foundation genius grant, Downbeat Magazine Hall of Fame, Harvard Jazz Master, eight honorary doctorates and even has a park named after him in London.
“My point is that we much decolonize our minds and re-name and re-define ourselves . . . In all respects, culturally, politically, socially, we must re-define ourselves and our lives, in our own terms.”
“Jazz is a very democratic musical form. It comes out of a communal experience. We take our respective instruments and collectively create a thing of beauty.”
“The American drummer is a one-man percussion orchestra.” – Max Roach.