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Pioneering Jazz Drummer Max Roach Dies at 83

Max Roach created new drumming concepts of rhythm and sound.
Getty Images
Max Roach created new drumming concepts of rhythm and sound.
Max doesn't play fundamental drumbeats behind you just to keep the time going, he's making musical statements at all times.

Max Roach was the hottest drummer in New York by the time he was 20 years old. By the time he died at age 83, he was truly one of the giants of jazz.

Roach died early Thursday morning in hospice care in New York after a long illness.

In addition to being a drummer, Roach was also a composer, a bandleader, an activist and a teacher.

He redefined what it meant to be a drummer. Before he arrived, the drum functioned basically as a timepiece. Roach says he made his drums sing solos.

"I felt that the instrument itself could be just as vital as any of the others I could think of," Roach said. "And by virtue of the fact that you deal with that instrument with all four limbs, you have four voices you deal with when you think like that."

In 1989, Roach described the drum kit as an American invention that combines cymbals from the Middle East, tom-toms from Africa and snares from Europe. His band mate Cecil Bridgewater says Roach's genius was in putting those parts together.

"Max doesn't play fundamental drumbeats behind you just to keep the time going," Bridgewater says. "He's making musical statements at all times."

Max Roach was born in a North Carolina town founded by freed slaves, and grew up in a rough Brooklyn neighborhood. His mom gave him drums to keep him off the street. But it was on Manhattan's 52nd Street that Roach started experimenting with harmony and melody alongside Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker.

"We hated to sleep," Roach said. "We'd work 9 'til 9 in two different clubs. We'd spend the day looking for places, working out arrangements on things like [Thelonius Monk's] 'Around Midnight.'"

Before his death in 1993, Dizzy Gillespie commented that Roach was a remarkable innovator.

"He had terrific ideas," Gillespie said. "And he developed them as we went along. He had the lick for the shtick."

Roach founded a seminal quintet in 1953 with trumpeter Clifford Brown. But after just three years, Brown was killed in a late-night car accident. He was only 25. Shocked and grieving, Max Roach buried himself in music, and in the blossoming civil rights movement.

In 1960, he recorded an album called "We Insist--The Freedom Now Suite" that featured, among others, singer Abbey Lincoln. It was Roach's answer to the turmoil of the time.

Roach continued to speak out for social justice and helped launch the field of jazz studies. His magnet for talent led him into lifelong collaborations with dancers, playwrights, filmmakers and musicians of practically every genre and every country.

What seemed to happen whenever Max Roach was around was fearlessness—on the bandstand, in the classroom, and on the streets.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.