Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Max Roach R.I.P.

Max Roach: "I always resented the role of a drummer as nothing more than a subservient figure. The people who really got me off were dealing with the musical potential of the instrument..."

Stan Levey : "I came to realize that, because of him, drumming no longer was just time, it was music."

Max Roach: "You have to pursue, pursue, pursue: sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but if you've been around as long as I have, you can afford to take chances."

Legendary jazz drummer Max Roach died last week. He was 83 and had been ill (with dementia/Alzheimer's) for some time. I haven't got round to writing something until now, as I really wanted to justice to his fantastic career and achievements. Still, in a way, I feel that an entry like mine - hopelessly brief, unable to do justice to Roach's huge legacy (huge chunks of which I am not nearly familiar with as I should be) - is not really serving any purpose. But then again, I amin in this blog (somewhat selfishly) to present things that interest and touch me, I also hope that, by doing so, I can say something that will touch someone else, somewhere.

One of jazz's greatest percussionists, Roach's career encompassed a huge variety of styles and collaborators, from his work with Charlie Parker and Miles Davis to MBoom, a percussion orchestra, and duets with avant-garde players Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, and Archie Shepp. In the 1950s, he was one of the prime musicians in the be-bop movement, appearing on legendary recordings with Parker, including the superlative 'Jazz at Massey Hall' from 1953. What made him stand out from earlier styles of jazz drumming was that he didn't just 'keep time' and provide a backdrop/cushion for the 'main men' - the horn players and the piano players - to solo over, but also provided a counterpoint, rhythmic and melodic, to what the soloists were doing, actively interacting with them without ever becoming cluttered or intrusive. As he explained, his experience with the Charlie Parker allowed him greater freedom to develop as more than just a mere time-keeper: "One thing I gloried in, working with people like Charlie Parker, was the built-in rhythm section. You didn't need a drummer or a bass player to know where the time was." But he was not a show-off, grandstanding drummer (as some might have accused Art Blakey of being), acknowledging that "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.” It was not necessary for him to grandstand; those who did might get noticed more, but Roach's more understated approach showed far more subtelty and sensitivity to the collective whole, as Gary Giddins, in his 'Weatherbird' column for The Village Voice, explains:
"Even Buddy Rich, who knew he could paradiddle Roach or anyone else into oblivion, was obliged to consider the limits of supersonic paradiddling...Rich 'ran Roach out of the recording studio' when they recorded together in 1959, but an earlier unspoken contest tells a different story: the records each man made with Parker, where Roach is exalted and Rich frequently at sea."
Peter Breslin, over at his 'Stochasticatus' blog, puts it more explicitly:
"I have nothing against flash. And Roach had plenty of flash himself (his hi hat solos, for but one example). But Roach also made music. Always. He was an artist first and a drummer second. And I can clearly hear that the end result of this sort of priority is that one becomes massively expert on one's instrument. But the technique is in the service of some sort of statement. Roach was always saying something. Some great drummers are sometimes simply saying 'look at how great I am.' "

Roach founded Debut Records with Charles Mingus, one of the first musician-run labels, and co-led a group with trumpeter Clifford Brown - a group, instrumental in the formation of the so-called 'hard bop' style, that was known as one of the greatest in jazz history. Brown's tragically early death in a car crash affected him deeply, but he continued to record and perform in many different contexts: in an excellent quartet with Odean Pope and Cecil Bridgewater; a 10-member drum ensemble, M'Boom; and with gospel choirs, symphony orchestras, brass quintets and Japanese drummers. He also composed music for dance pieces by Alvin Ailey and for plays by Sam Shepard. In the 1980s and '90s, Roach often performed with a string quartet that included his daughter Maxine Roach on viola, played drums in spoken-word concerts with writers Toni Morrison and Amiri Baraka and even accompanied hip-hop artists. His stature as a giant of the music was recognised when, in 1988, he was among the first jazz musicians to receive a MacArthur Fellowship, or so-called "genius grant." He was ill for the last years of his life, and his last recording came 5 years ago: 'Friendship', a collaboration with 82-year old trumpeter Clark Terry.

I was watching videos of Martin Luther King speeches on youtube (there's also a video on there of Roach playing an improvised drum solo as accompaniment to a recording of King's "I have a dream"), and it got me thinking about how distanced jazz has got from the sort of social and political concern of people such as King. So often nowadays, jazz is seen as something rather glib and shallow, an affected style rather than a music of protest and a music expressing real lives, real problems. Wynton Marsalis' work at the Lincoln Centre, however well-intentioned, has a negative effect that, for me, outweighs any of its positive aspects - that of enshrining the work of the masters of the past with scant regard for the fact that they were masters precisely because they were forward-looking, because their music did not rely on cliche. Sure, tradition is a vitally important part of jazz- Andrew Hill understood that, Charles Mingus understood that, Archie Shepp, for all his reputation as avant-garde firebrand, understood that - yet tradition for its own sake, tradition as a endless cycle of recycled music, of other people's music (or your own music, sounding like other people's), is not, for me, what jazz is about. Jazz is about being on the edge - about the excitement, the hint of danger in testing untried waters (as Roach did when he re-formulated the role of the dummer in his be-bop work with Charlie Parker - be-bop may now seem almost old hat, but back then it was something fresh and wild, something that could make Jack Kerouac "popeyed with awe"). By way of comparison, just imagine if classical music had never moved on from the baroque...The be-bop pioneers, I'm sure, did not think that their style would become entrenched, with minor variations, as what jazz is, fifty years on.

And so Roach, despite his role in some of the greatest jazz groups ever assembled, he never once rested on his laurels, playing with string quartet and orchestra, the avant-garde, MBoom, etc: "You can’t write the same book twice. Though I’ve been in historic musical situations, I can’t go back and do that again. And though I run into artistic crises, they keep my life interesting." As he told Mike Zwerin in a 1999 interview, he was asked by the self-appointed guardians of jazz's past, the fetishisers of tradition -
"You used to play with Charlie Parker. How can you work with these guys [Shepp, Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton]?"
"I answered this way," Roach said. "A person like an Anthony Braxton is more like Charlie Parker than a person who plays like Charlie Parker. Bird was creative and different and looked inside himself. He knew what Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter and the rest of them had laid down. That was the foundation. Bird built on that foundation.
"Now you have people like Phil Woods who preserve the tradition. And then there are people who push forward, who perpetuate the continuum by trying out things. Cecil Taylor is more like Art Tatum than a guy who plays like Tatum. It may not always come off, but that's what creativity's about. Anyway, by now people accept me for what I am."
('From Hip Hop to Be Bop: An Interview' [Interviewer - Mike Zwerin, 14 January 1999]

KRIS TINER at 'Stop the Play and Watch the Audience' makes a lovely point that it's important not to miss in the flood of tributes.
"If only so many of those who will be lauding Roach from the lofty edifice of jazz education would recognize that he didn't just help to create a style, but that he continued to push the music, and continued to recognize and support others who were pushing the music, far past the crystallization point of bebop in the 1950s."

It's something that it will be very easy to miss in the flood of tributes and nostalgia that Max's death will bring, but a point that is incredibly important. Jazz has to be appreciated not as a style, an idiom - 'I like jazz, I like be-bop' - but for what it can do, for whether it's good music or not. (Though of course the question of 'good music' is a minefield!) So, repeating be-bop cliches now may be less relevant than what Cecil or Braxton are doing - be-bop was the revolutionary jazz of its day, after all.

Roach was not just progressive, or non-passive, in musical terms, but in political and social ones as well - in fact, for him, as for many of the 1960s free jazz players, the music and the politics were intimately connected. He put it this way: "art is a powerful weapon that society, or the powers that be, use to control or direct the way people think. Culture is used to perpetuate the status quo of a society. Even though I'm involved in music for the sake of entertainment, I always hope to offer some kind of enlightenment."

Perhaps his most famous recording as a leader was 'Freedom Now!', recorded for Blue Note records with his then-wife, vocalist Abbey Lincoln. With track titles like 'Freedom Day' and 'Tears for Johhannesburg', and a cover depicting a sit-in strike was released, it was obvious from just looking at the record sleeve that this was a politically engaged and concious mode of jazz, and the music itself, with Lincoln's extraordinary, passionate vocals, more than confirmed this imrpession. After the album's release, Roach told Down Beat: "I will never again play anything that does not have social significance. 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.”

Free jazz saxophonist Archie Shepp was another man who, like Roach, stressed the political messages that lay behind his music, and who, also like Roach, often straddled a line between the avant-garde and more traditional, conventional forms of jazz. The duo albums they released, 'The Long March' (Parts 1 and 2) and 'Force' are long out of print, but should be required listening for admirers of both men. But it was perhaps Roach's collaboration with another free jazz titan that really set the sparks flying - pianist Cecil Taylor.

The duets with Taylor were, as one critic puts it, encounters between the most musical of drummers and the most percussive of pianists, and they saw a true meeting of minds, with the explosive Taylor pushed for sheer stamina and ferociousness of concentration and sound-production by Roach. Gary Giddins in his 'Weather Bird' column for The Village Voice, reviewing a concert Roach gave with Taylor at Columbia University in 2000, gives an example of the spirit in which this muic was made:
"Roach, who leaned heavily on a tuned tom that suggested a tenor timpani, never flinched. Au contraire: After 50 minutes or so, Taylor began what seemed a negotiation for closure; he looked up at the drummer and offered a possible clearing space, to which Roach responded with a furious fusillade that brought the pianist back to the front line. That happened several times, I think—Taylor working toward an exit and Roach slamming all the doors. Finally, at the hour mark, they agreed to desist, or at least ventured enough of a pause for Taylor to walk away from the piano, at which point Roach embarked on a drum solo. These guys, 71 and 76..."

Well, Cecil Taylor still soldiers on, as evidenced by his performance with Anthony Braxton at the Royal Festival Hall earlier this year, but Max Roach's boundless energy and exquisite musical sensitivity and good taste are no more. Rest in peace.


david_grundy said...

For an excellent list of all the tributes and reminiscenses that are pouring in, you could do worse than go here:

euskir said...

I think you're doing a good job, your article is a ripple in an ocean of mediocrity, and that little movement will be enough to spread a little more the great work from Max Roach, forever with us.