Drummer, composer, bandleader, educator, social activist and jazz icon, Max Roach has sojourned on the vanguard of jazz for over six decades. One of the founding fathers of bebop, Roach later joined with trumpeter Clifford Brown to form one of the most influential hard-bop units of the ’50s, the renowned Brown-Roach Quintet. In 1960, Roach, an outspoken civil rights supporter, brought a new level of political engagement to jazz with his landmark social-protest album We Insist! Freedom Now Suite. A restless innovator, Roach has experimented over the years with countless musical configurations, from solo drum performances to orchestral collaborations to his historic duo concerts with the avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor. In 1970 he formed M‘Boom, an all-percussion ensemble, and in 1988 he became one of the first jazz musicians to be awarded a MacArthur ”genius“ grant. In addition, Roach, now 77, has composed for the theater, collaborated on dance, performance art and other mixed- media pieces, and early on embraced rap as a legitimate musical form. His longtime quartet, with saxophonist Odean Pope, trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater and bassist Tyrone Brown, continues to be one of the finest working. Roach spoke with the Weekly recently by telephone from his Manhattan home.
L.A. WEEKLY: Looking back over your extraordinary career, what’s perhaps most remarkable is your need to keep looking for new ways to make music. Where does that come from?
MAX ROACH: Necessity. Survival, actually. As an artist, you have to keep growing to keep both yourself and your audience interested. My instrument allows me the luxury of working in so many different musical situations. And as a composer, I‘ve had the opportunity to spend time with some of the great musical minds in America.
The world of improvisation has always been wide-open to those of us who are interested. I went to [the Manhattan School of Music], and composition was always a major interest of mine, and the fact that I’ve shared the stage with people like Charlie Parker, Miles, Dizzy . . . well, I‘ve been very fortunate. So I just stretch it out and take it to wherever I possibly can.
Your degree in music composition and theory is exceptional for a musician of your generation, particularly since you were already working professionally at the time.
The thing that I didn’t deal with [at Manhattan] was the history of music. I was interested in the techniques of composition and the history of that world, but the history of music didn‘t interest me. It talks about the early creative people in the world of sound — which is a great world — but today, this is another time, another space, sociologically, politically, economically, and you can only work with things that affect you in your lifetime. So when I was going to Manhattan, I dealt mainly with the technique of writing — really, the history of composers of my time. And I was in school with people like John Lewis, and Miles was here, he was in Juilliard at the time. And we all felt about the same way — we had the notion that historically, and as far as the instruments and music in general was concerned, our peers were the [improvisational musicians] who preceded us. They did all the things that you would probably deal with if you went to a conservatory to study. The only thing that was different was that you went [to listen to your peers at the clubs] for your own ideas. You could close your eyes — you used your ears and not your eyes, necessarily. It was like that at that time, and it still exists with players like Ornette Coleman, they bring new ways of dealing with composition and spontaneity and style. It just moves on and on.
You’re known to dislike terms like ”bebop“ and ”modern jazz.“
I‘ll tell you an interesting story. When Charlie Parker was asked in an interview just what you said, ”You don’t like this terminology, ‘bebop’ and so forth and so on,“ he said, ”That‘s right.“ ”So what should we call it?“ And Charlie Parker said, ”Music.“ Now that was, like, so inclusive, because it’s like you drop a pebble in a little puddle of water, you know, it just goes out and out and out. Because music is music, nothing more, nothing less. It doesn‘t have a color, it doesn’t have a nation. It was just so, so clear . . . That was a revelation to me, especially coming from Charlie Parker, who was to us like no one we had ever heard. When I listen to his music today, I‘m still overwhelmed.
It’s often said that your contemporary, drummer Kenny Clarke, was the first to move the music‘s main pulse from the bass drum to the high-hat, but that you were the one who picked up and ran with that.
The trap-drum set is an instrument that you use all four limbs on, that you have to think four ways on. And it’s been going on a long time — it goes back to the earliest players I remember. It‘s been expanded upon, but the notion that you have to think four ways all the time is part of the instrument, and you can go back to before Kenny Clarke.
[As a trap drummer,] you have to train yourself to think four ways at the same time, each part of your body doing different things. And you’ve got to know your instrument in and out, and you‘ve got to know what it can do. That goes for any instrument you play. You have to be like that so you can sit down and literally create music, like Charlie Parker and the great improvisers did. What you’re doing, you‘re composing spontaneously, and even though you may play the same piece over and over again, each time it’s different.
You were quite young when you started playing with Parker.
Yes, and . . . well, he was still quite young when he went to the happy hunting grounds, too. And he left a legacy that the great improvisers are still dealing with, like Sonny Rollins. Of course, they bring their own sensibilities and techniques to the whole thing. It‘s not something that you write down. They’re master instrumentalists, and they‘re also well-versed in the theories of music, in harmony and everything else.
Did Parker have a strong influence on you when you were young?
Well, when I met Charlie Parker I had already been working. I had already been involved with people like Coleman Hawkins . . .
Right, you recorded with him in ’43.
And when I was in high school we made it a point to listen to all the things that were going on, especially here in New York, in the Village. We were allowed to go in some of the clubs during the period of segregation — we were allowed because we were working in another club around the corner — and so we would stand in the back and politely listen. We didn‘t go to the clubs to socialize, any of the musicians, we were there seriously just checking out the heavyweights. We could stand there and listen to Bud Powell, we could listen to Teddy Wilson. And Art Tatum, of course, who was a total monster.
It’s the way it is today as well. When these young people today come around, it‘s the same thing. They might ask questions, and they might not, but you know they’re there, and you‘re teaching.
What do you feel the state of jazz — of improvised music — is today?
It’s becoming more universal, I think — the techniques of learning this music. Because there are improvisers in every place I‘ve been, from the Far East to down in South America. These people are great instrumentalists, and they’re also well-versed in the theory of music. I use that language, because that‘s exactly what it involves. You should learn everything technically you can about creating music. But when you get to this music — improvised music — what’s important is that you make people feel, and that they know you‘re into something.
The Max Roach Quartet performs at the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl on Saturday, June 16.