Friday, August 17, 2007


I haven't always been successful in seeing my musical heroes in the flesh, before they pass into dust and artistic immortality. I missed Miles Davis' last-ever appearance in London - so never witnessed him play live. I sadly never got to see Shostakovitch, Zappa or The Smiths, either. I caught Ligeti, Copland and Tal Farlowe, but missed out on Messaien - a huge lode star in my sonic firmament.

So I am thankful this evening, having heard the sad news of Max Roach's demise, that I got to see the ground-breaking jazz drummer in action, aged well into his 70s, along with pianist Cecil Taylor at London's Royal Festival Hall. It is a night I wont forget. Roach wasn't walking that easily and looked petty frail. But when he sat on the drum riser he was a man transfigured, and his deftness of touch, tome and rhythmic sensitivity never lost him. There were even signs of the controlled muscularity which he applied in such a customary way -- in the service of a greater musical cause, rather than for its own sake.

The BBC gives a pithy summary of what he was and what he bought to jazz "Born in North Carolina in 1924, Roach became the house drummer at the legendary New York club Monroe's Uptown House in his teens. He helped develop the bebop style while playing with the likes of Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie at Monroe's and another influential New York venue, Minton's Playhouse. Before bebop, jazz was primarily swing music played in dance halls, and drummers served to keep time for the band, Blue Note spokesman Cem Kurosman said. Roach, along with fellow-drummer Kenny Clarke, changed that by shifting the time-keeping function to the cymbal, allowing the drums to play a more expressive and melodic role.

"Roach began drumming before the age of 10In the process, he contributed to the shift of jazz from popular dance music to an art form that fans appreciated sitting in clubs, Kurosman added.
The self-trained percussionist also took part in sessions with Miles Davis, which were later released as The Birth Of Cool. The quintet he co-founded with Clifford Brown in 1954 is considered one of the classic ensembles in jazz. After Brown's death in a car crash with bandmate Richie Powell in 1956, Roach led a series of bands that included a who's who of jazz associates."

He was also a stalwart campaigner for human dignity and civil rights.

There is more on the BBC Radio 3 Profile - which adds: "Some of his duo performances are masterpieces of improvisation, notably his 1989 Paris collaboration with Dizzy Gillespie and a long-lived partnership with pianist Cecil Taylor both on record and in a series of occasional concerts. In the 1980s Roach formed a regular group which included Odean Pope on saxophones and Cecil Bridgewater on trumpet. In addition he worked in an amazing variety of contexts from all star jazz groups to the Beijing Trio, which explored Asian-American links."

See also: Art Taylor: 'Max Roach' in Notes and Tones (New York, USA, Da Capo, 1993); Drummerworld: Max Roach; Max Roach: The Hard Bop Homepage; Max Roach - Wikipedia; Max Roach - Verve Records.

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