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Master DrummerCopyright © 2007
Master drummer Max Roach -- one of a handful of musicians who could justifiably be credited with changing the sound of an established instrument -- died of complications from Alzheimer's disease at the age of 83 in his New York City home.
Roach cemented his reputation in the 1940s, when he became the favorite drummer for Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, but he continued to create ground-breaking music throughout the rest of his career.
After moving with his family to the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn at the age of four, he studied piano at his neighborhood church and switched to drums at 10. He began working professionally while still a student at Brooklyn's Boys High School, and briefly replaced Sonny Greer in the Duke Ellington Orchestra when he was 17. A year later, he was the house drummer at Monroe's Uptown House, where his light touch and dexterity with poly-rhythms made him the ideal partner for Parker, Gillespie, and the other young musicians who were pushing the boundaries of improvised music. Roach made his recording debut in 1943 with Coleman Hawkins, and by the end of WW II had firmly established himself as one of the leaders of the nascent bebop movement.
In his autobiography, Miles Davis wrote of Roach: "I learned so much about drums from Max Roach when we were playing together with Bird (Charlie Parker) and living together on the road.... He taught me that the drummer is always supposed to protect the rhythm, have a beat inside, protect the groove."
Davis' Birth Of The Cool was just one of the influential recordings Roach was featured on while still in his twenties. He was also present at Toronto's Massey Hall in 1953 for the renowned concert recording featuring Parker, Gillespie, Bud Powell and Charles Mingus. That year also saw him relocate briefly to Los Angeles to replace Shelly Manne in the Lighthouse All-Stars.
A year later, Roach co-founded an influential quintet with the brilliant young trumpeter Clifford Brown, featuring Powell's brother Richie, Harold Land and George Morrow. The group seemed marked for long-term greatness when Sonny Rollins replaced Land in 1955, but Roach was devastated when Brown and Powell were killed in a car accident in June 1956.
Roach eventually returned to work with Rollins, including the saxophonist's landmark recording Saxophone Colossus. While battling depression over the loss of Brown, Roach continued to lead bands that featured top-flight sidemen like Eric Dolphy, Stanley Turrentine, Donald Byrd and Booker Little, and he became increasingly engaged with social and political causes.
In 1960, in collaboration with Mingus, he organized an alternative festival in Newport, Rhode Island, to protest the treatment of performers by the Newport Jazz Festival. He also recorded an influential album, We Insist! Freedom Now Suite, which highlighted the continuing plight of African-Americans a century after the Emancipation Proclamation. He broadened his scope to collaborate with radical playwrights, choreographers and filmmakers, and became an active participant in the Civil Rights Movement.
In 1972, he joined the faculty of the University of Massachusetts, but continued to be an active performer, co-founding the group M'Boom -- a 10-piece percussion ensemble -- and working with his Double Quartet, a small combo, and the Uptown String Quartet.
At an age when many musicians have settled into a familiar pattern, Roach continued to push himself into new areas, working with avant-gardists like Anthony Braxton and Cecil Taylor, and accompanying rap artists, dj's and break dancers. He won an Obie Award for the music he composed for a set of Sam Shepard plays, and he wrote pieces for choreographer Alvin Ailey and plays by Eugene O'Neill and Amiri Baraka.
In 1988, Roach became the first jazz musician to receive the MacArthur Foundation's so-called genius grant, and he was later named an NEA Jazz Master, along with receiving numerous other awards.
He is survived by daughters Maxine, Ayo and Dara, and sons Raoul and Darryl.