In the world of jazz, few names resonate as powerfully as Max Roach. A legendary drummer, composer, and bandleader, Roach was a key player of the bebop era of the 1940s and ’50s and is largely credited for elevating the role of the drummer from timekeeper and accompanist to an equal partner in the collective improvisations of modern jazz. Roach also established a new standard of sophistication for solo drumset compositions (Drums Unlimited), and his commitment to social justice (We Insist! Freedom Now Suite) made him a true pioneer of modern art.
Born on January 10th, 1924, in Newland, North Carolina, Maxwell Lemuel Roach discovered his love for music at an early age from his gospel singer mother Cressie Roach. He moved with his
family to Brooklyn, New York, at age four, and began playing drums in gospel bands by the time he was ten. His first break in jazz occurred in 1942 when a teenage Roach was asked to fill in for legendary big band drummer Sonny Greer with the Duke Ellington Orchestra at the Paramount Theater in Manhattan. His first professional recording session occurred in 1943 with legendary saxophonist Coleman Hawkins (Coleman Hawkins and His All Stars).
It was during the 1940s when Roach became a fixture on the vibrant jazz scene throughout New York, collaborating often with visionary artists Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus,
Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, and many more. Together, they paved the way for the bebop movement, redefining jazz and catapulting it into uncharted territories.
Roach’s drumming style featured an innovative mix of intricate patterns and polyrhythms, seamlessly fusing syncopated African and Latin rhythms with the relentless drive and flow
of modern jazz. His compositions brought a new dimension to jazz, and his dynamic performances, whether as a soloist or leading his ensembles, were a perfect mix of elegance, sophistication, passion, and innovation.
— Excerpt form DRUMSET Magazine, by Mike Dawson
Dave Stanoch, member of the PAS Drumset Committee and a drummer with the great privilege to know and study with Max Roach, compiled this playlist on Spotify and wrote the detailed track notes below. We are sharing it today to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Max Roach’s birth — a day that changed drumming forever.
- “Conversation” – from Deeds, Not Words, 1958
Eight years before the release of “Drums Unlimited” in 1966, which showcased Max’s lyrical, compositional, melodic, storytelling approach to the art of the drum solo, “Conversation” appears, setting the stage for what will be a forever impactful influence on drummers and drumming.
- “Caravan” – from Money Jungle, 1962
When Max was a teenager, he was called to cover as a substitute for Duke Ellington’s drummer, Sonny Greer, for a theatre engagement in New York City. Max said it was that experience that focused the direction he would devote his life’s work to. Years later, Duke, Max, and bassist Charles Mingus collaborated on this epic recording and this tune was always the drum feature in Duke’s orchestra.
- “Koko” – originally released as a 78-rpm single, 1945
Considered by many to be the first recorded performance of artists leading the movement in modern jazz at the time which came to be known as bebop, “Koko” features the groundbreaking genius of alto saxophonist Charlie Parker who was the spearhead of this new direction in music and, along with Max, another chief architect of the style, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. The song is an original melody based on the chord changes of “Cherokee” written by Ray Noble; a common device used in bebop composition as well as improvisation. The bright tempo, propelled by a 21-year-old Max, also set a new standard for the genre — the beginning of what would come to be known (even faster) as “Max Roach tempos.”
- “Pent-Up House” – from Sonny Rollins Plus 4, 1956
This classic composition by Sonny Rollins is a masterclass by Max in the art of comping behind soloists and exhibits the type of four-way coordination Max advanced on the drumset for improvising over a steady cymbal beat and, like Art Blakey, keeping the backbeat going on with the hi-hat foot on 2 & 4. Some stellar examples of trading 4s here as well, and dig, especially, Max’s bass drum foot on the turnaround break at the end of the head going into the first solo.
- “Nommo” – from Drums Unlimited, 1966
In 1957 Max released the LP Jazz in 3/4 Time, a collection of waltzes that was new and innovative at that time. Max began exploring odd meters two years before the Dave Brubeck Quartet released their LP Time Out, which featured drummer Joe Morello on the hit, “Take Five.” Max continued his innovative exploration of odd meters throughout his career. Check out this hard swinging and funky riff tune in 7/4, time – a rare gem!
- “Sandu” – from Study in Brown, 1956
The ensemble Max led from 1954-1956 was the most celebrated of his career, featuring George Morrow on bass, Richie Powell on piano (pianist Bud Powell’s brother), either Harold Land or Sonny Rollins on tenor sax, and Clifford Brown on trumpet. The group, which became referred to as Brown & Roach, Inc., was one of the most popular of the era and contributed many compositions that have become jazz standards, like this blues by Clifford Brown. Dig how smooth the groove is and how little comping Max does compared to “Pent-Up House,” focusing mainly on the swing. And check out the very relaxed, melodic solo he plays over the form, which you can also see in the first issue of DRUMSET Magazine, transcribed by Steve Fidyk for you to learn and enjoy!
- “Move” – from Birth of the Cool, 1957
Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool LP was a seminal recording his career — a move towards a richer, orchestrated ensemble sound but different than a big band. This had an emphasis on a smoother, less intense drive than the hallmark of the bebop style Davis and Max developed in Charlie Parker’s band. This recording of “Move,” composed by drummer Denzil Best, was originally released as a single in 1945, and features Max driving the band in a very smooth up-tempo swing, playing some classic breaks as well.
- “A Night in Tunisia” – from The Quintet: Jazz at Massey Hall, 1953
For a concert that was a summit meeting of the five most popular pioneers at the time of America’s first true musical art form, it’s perhaps ironic that the only recorded meeting of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, and Max onstage took place in Canada. This classic composition by Gillespie was the most popular of his innovations in combining American Jazz and Cuban music sometimes referred to as salsa. Dig how Max adapts the Afro-Cuban rhythms to the drumset, which was new at the time. This became something he would continue to develop throughout his career, but always through the filter of his own American musical culture as an improviser.
- “Un Poco Loco” – originally released as a 78-rpm single, 1951
This title, “A bit crazy,” as translated from Spanish, suggests some irony from its composer, the brilliant pianist Bud Powell, whom at age of 20, was brazenly and brutally beaten by police in an incident noted as far beyond the call of duty. Afterwards he suffered with mental health struggles for the rest of his life. Max plays an innovative variation on the cowbell over the Cuban-influenced rhythm of the melody. As legend has it, Max played a more traditional cascara-type rhythm as they ran the tune down, but Powell admonished him saying, “You’re the great Max Roach, can’t you play something more original than that?” Not unlike the 3-2 cascara pattern, Max plays a 5-note grouping three times, rounded out with an additional 8th note (totalling 16 8th notes over two bars) that breaks down like this: RRLRL RRLRL RRLRLL — a device that became part of his vocabulary forever after.
- “St. Thomas” – from Saxophone Colossus, 1957
Nestled in one of the most classic jazz albums of all time, this tune was the “hit,” becoming a standard still played around the globe. Rollins was born in NYC, but his parents were from the Virgin Islands, which is where Saint Thomas is located. Max kicks this off with a calypso rhythm variation that sets the mood for the piece. In our lessons, Max mentioned he loved learning drumming from other cultures in his world travels and enjoyed melding ideas with his own approach vs copying them verbatim. He said he found that everywhere he went, drummers from other cultures were as turned on by what he was doing as he was by what they were doing. He had identity in his style!
- “Bemsha Swing” – from Brilliant Corners, 1957
From this classic recording by Thelonious Monk comes another tune that became a jazz standard. Notable here is an example of Max stretching the boundaries of the music, as he often did, by adding (before John Bonham, but not Sonny Greer) tympani to his drumset. This gave him a truly melodic voice of “determinate pitch” in concert with his melodic, but “indeterminate pitch,” stylings on the “multiple percussion instrument,” which is how Max often referred to the drumset. All terms here in quotations are ones he often used. Max recorded again with tympani on his drumset on the track “Tympanalli” on the 1964 album, The Many Sides of Max Roach, and then in later years sported a “tymp-tom” floor tom as a regular staple of his drumset.
- “Epistrophy” – from M’Boom, 1980.
A highly appropriate inclusion, given the Percussive Arts Society is the host of this playlist. M’Boom was the name of the All-Star percussion ensemble Max Roach put together joining the forces of many of the finest drummers on the East Coast to perform classic and original jazz and world music compositions and improvise on them. The name of the group is a play on African names, like Senegalese M’Balax music or the original spelling of D’jembe. This selection, also written by Monk and fellow bop drum pioneer Kenny Clarke, also features tympani — notably used here in the melody and solos like an African talking drum. A spellbinding performance.
- “Daahoud” – from Study in Brown, 1956
Hard Bop, aka Funky Hard Bop was a subgenre of the bebop style of jazz that rose to prominence in the mid-1950s, Brown & Roach, Inc., along with Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Charles Mingus, and others were the purveyors of a new sound that was soulful with gospel influences, but also edgy and hard driving. “Daahoud” is a classic example of this energy. It is an amazing “take” from this recording session – the entire band is hitting on all cylinders and Max is grooving hard throughout and delivers an incredible drum solo that is a masterwork of form and feel.
- “Quiet as It’s Kept” – from Quiet as It’s Kept, 1960
If you’re learning how to play this music or teaching anyone to play this music, don’t miss this track. The bass drum in the post-swing era is often misunderstood, in our lessons Max told me he always played it, but it was rarely recorded properly so historians think he was one who discarded the role of the bass drum and only “dropped bombs” with it, “but that’s inaccurate,” he said. You can hear his bass drum timekeeping here beautifully recorded and sitting in the mix where he is playing it inter-dynamically. Dig what that does for the feel on this track. Be sure to also check out his articulation when playing time on the hi-hat — something else often taught incorrectly. The roots are all on display in a sweet groove all the way through.
- “It’s Time” – from It’s Time, 1962
Max never shied away from his stature as an artist to reflect how he saw the world. By 1962, as a composer and arranger he was speaking to his audience around the world through his music about the social injustices the Civil Rights movement in the United States would seek to correct. The title track here also showcases Max’s innovations in putting the drumset up front with a choir. And dig his vocal arrangement, especially the bridge in the melody where the wordless voices sound like a squadron of sirens arriving at a crime scene. It’s Time, as an album title, has a timely social meaning as did the titles of many of Max’s recordings, like, As Quiet as It’s Kept, Deeds Not Words, Members Don’t Get Weary, Chattahoochee Red, and We Insist: Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite.
- “Triptych: Prayer/Protest/Peace” – from We Insist: Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite, 1960
Easily the most controversial of all his recordings, this recording was a crucial work in the Civil Rights movement during the 1960s. This selection is a series of duets between Max and his then wife, singer Abbey Lincoln. If it disturbs you to listen to this, then you get it. Noted historian Nat Hentoff, present at the recording session wrote, “Triptcyh” is the “final, uncontrollable unleashing of rage and anger… compressed in fear for so long that the only catharsis can be the extremely painful tearing out of all the accumulating fury.”
- “Garvey’s Ghost” – from Percussion Bitter Sweet, 1960
This tribute to the work of the highly influential Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey, who pushed for Black Nationalism through the celebration of African history and culture beginning in the 1920s until his passing in 1940 evokes images of the struggles he faced. The track teams Max with legendary percussionists Carlos “Patato” Valdés on congas and Carlos “Totico” Eugenio on cowbell locking into and African 6/8 groove that is as deep as it gets. A tour de force.
- “Drums Unlimited” – from Drums Unlimited, 1965
Max Roach believed in the promise of a United States of America as one nation with liberty and justice for all, and fought through his music and social activism to realize that dream. He did not like the word “jazz” but he was proud that the music was America’s first original art form and that it was a music founded conceptually in democratic principles. He also believed in the liberation of his instrument, the drumset, beyond its traditional role as an ensemble accompaniment instrument and furthered its place, through his own innovations, to stand with any other instrument as a solo voice as prominent in the front line just as musically as any other. In other words, Drums Unlimited.
- “Pies of Quincy” – from Award-Winning Drummer, 1959
The title is a reference to the Avedis Zildjian cymbals, manufactured in Quincy, Massachusetts, Max played and contributed to the development of throughout his career. A unique feature of Max’s drumset were his hi-hat cymbals. He preferred a larger 14” bottom cymbal under a smaller 13” top cymbal to avoid any possible airlock. Additionally, he used no felts under his bottom cymbal or on either side of his top cymbal inside the clutch. It was strictly metal-on-metal for maximum cut and projection. On this selection, as you might expect, he makes the most featuring the cymbals in ways rarely heard, except by Max Roach.
- “Lotus Blossom” – from Quiet as It’s Kept, 1960
Max’s version of this Kenny Dorham standard showcases his talent as arranger for his quintet (with three horns and no piano) as well as his depth as an orchestrator on his drumset. Dig his voicings when interpreting the melody – very different than catching figures in a typical big band approach. And check out his melodic comping work using the toms – a very trendsetting idea!
- “Cherokee” – from Study in Brown, 1956
Another amazing “take” from Study in Brown, and the definitive version of this oft-recorded classic. The obvious takeaway here has always been the fast tempo — this was a tune that followed Max in different ways throughout his career. Consider how adept he was handling this tempo on “KoKo” in 1945 when the whole style of playing the drums that way was brand new. Eleven years later, on this recording, he is now flawlessly refined. Listen deeply. Check out the comping, the lightness of the ride and snare, the bass drum work, and where the hi-hat sits in the mix. At the beginning of his solo, he is playing very on-the-beat patterns in 4/4 while, his feet are playing a pattern in 3/4… The fast tempo is the icing but there are layers underneath that are quite revealing regarding Max’s genius and stamina.
- “B. Quick” – from Tour De Force, 1956
Max’s work with Sonny Rollins over the years produced many great results. The album Tour De Force is quite aptly named – these men were on a mission. “B. Quick” was, like “Cherokee” also recorded in 1956 and based on the same form and chord changes. This tune along with its companion on the LP, “B. Swift,” are possibly the fastest tempos played by humans ever recorded, clocking in at quarter note = over 400 bpm, making it even faster than Brown & Roach, Inc.’s recording of “Cherokee.”
- “Ghost Dance” – from Max Roach with the New Orchestra of Boston and So What Brass Quintet, 1996
Max considered himself a composer first and a percussionist second. Most of his own recordings as a leader feature his own compositions or arrangements. His composition, “Ghost Dance,” performed here with the So What Brass Quintet echoes the fallen in the struggle for Civil Rights in ways both melancholy and festive, like the Second Line of a New Orleans Brass Band would in procession after a funeral. Listen at 6:49 to how he adapts the same 5-note sticking he used with Bud Powell on “Un Poco Loco” into 6/8 time behind Steve Turre’s trombone solo.
- “Brushes and Brass” – from Friendship, 2003
Max’s final recording was this album of duets with trumpeter Clark Terry and this track features the two playing beautifully together in a musical conversation over a 12-bar blues. The interaction is flawless, as one would expect from these two veterans, communicating joyfully through a language they helped create. At age 79, already suffering from the illness that would end his life in 2007, Max is deft and sharp with his tremendous brushwork, staying focused and inventive until the very end.
- “Figure Eights” – from Rich vs. Roach, 1959
What better encore to this collection that to take it out than with the legendary titans of speed, Buddy Rich and Max Roach, guaranteed to get your adrenaline pumping. Blazing together at near light speed tempo-wise, this a fun and interesting matchup. Buddy and Max were both rivals and friends. What is not widely known about this recording is that it was Max’s idea to showcase Buddy in a more modern jazz small group setting. In 1959, Buddy was in a grey area career-wise, after attempting to front his first big band as a leader upon his release from the Marine Corps in World War II at a time where the big band sound was not as popular as it had been during the war, and before his resurgence with his modern big band in the 1960s. The two had fun playing up their rivalry and that is certainly on display in this drum battle. Rich is on point with his clean precision and speed but mostly “stays in his lane” working off the snare drum. Max certainly has no problems with the tempo and offers a variety of contrasting and melodic colors around the entire kit. One for the ages.
David Stanoch is an international touring/recording artist, drumset educator/clinician, and award-winning author who was on the faculty of McNally Smith College of Music for 27 years and has guest taught at Berklee College of Music. He can be contacted at davistanochschoolofdrumming.com.