“Where Kenny Clarke's bombs occurred every few measures, Roach's fall every two to four beats ... Where Clarke played just an occasional snare-drum fill to supplement his ride-cymbal pattern, Roach played so many that his snare drum often was more active than his cymbal ... Roach's ride cymbal sounded different from Clarke's, partly because its tone quality was clearer and more bell-like, and partly because of a different accentuation pattern. [Each of these assertions is accompanied by a musical example in the book.]
[But] the most dramatic difference between these two bebop pioneers was in their respective solos. Roach soloed far more frequently, both as a sideman and as a leader or co-leader, than Clarke did. Musicians use the term 'melodic drummer' to describe someone who develops rhythmic ideas throughout a solo instead of simply showing off technique.
In that sense, Roach is a supremely melodic drummer; his solo in 'Stompin' at the Savoy' is a striking case in point. He often starts his solos with simple patterns and gradually increases the complexity, as in Parker's 'Cosmic Rays'. He is a master of motivic developments and sometimes uses rhythmic motives drawn from the theme of the piece. He also plays solo pieces, including, since the late 1950s, solo pieces in asymmetric meters.”
- Thomas Owens, Bebop: The Music and its Players (1995).
- Thomas Owens, Bebop: The Music and its Players (1995).
“I was going to the Manhattan School of Music and...paying for my tuition by
playing on 52nd Street with Bird and Coleman Hawkins. The percussion
teacher asked me to play as a percussion major and told me the technique
I used was incorrect...(His) technique would have been fine if I had intended to
pursue a career in a large orchestra playing European music, but it wouldn't have
worked on 52nd Street where I was making a living.
On the one hand, I was playing with people like Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Parker and emulating people like Jo Jones of Count Basie fame, Sydney Catlett, Chick Webb and Kenny Clarke… the technique I was using then, that I use today, that I was trying to learn and am still learning about today, couldn't be used in European music.”
— Max Roach
“What young drummers had been studying in challenging drum instruction books by Edward B. Straight and George Lawrence Stone began to make sense after we heard Max Roach. The great teachers laid out the raw materials. But we didn't know how to apply them —until we heard Max. When we got into his coordination, the way he used cymbals, the snare and bass drum, the answers to the puzzle began to fall in place.”
- Vernel Fournier
“... Until we heard Max” pretty much sums it up for a lot of aspiring Jazz drummers who came of age in the fast and furious World of Bebop.
Max created a logic, a structure, a formula through which drumming rudiments and techniques could become the rhythmic pulse that would drive modern Jazz in all of its manifestations.
And he did it on such a broad scale for not only was Max the drummer on the Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie recordings that introduced the bebop style of Jazz, but he also played on the Miles Davis-Gerry Mulligan Birth of the Cool albums.
“Max played so well on the sessions that I fell in love with his work. He understood just what we were doing and just laid things in that made them perfect. He viewed the pieces as compositions. What Max did was melodic and quite incredible.” [Gerry Mulligan]
As Burt Korall asserts in Drummin’ Men: The Heartbeat of Jazz - The Bebop Years:
“In many ways, Max Roach lived a great success story, almost movielike in its positive progression. He—and certainly Kenny Clarke before him— changed the manner in which drums were used in jazz and popular music. Soon, everyone yielded to the obvious. Roach was the defining figure on drums—certainly in modern jazz. He had an explosive, wide-ranging effect. …
Max Roach's alliance with Charlie Parker was one of the most fortunate and meaningful in the history of the music. The Bird-Max pairing, on records, tells a story of great mutual creativity.
The twenty-one-year-old drummer had developed a declarative, expanded language on the instrument that, in many ways, was quite new. Kenny Clarke and Roach broke up the rhythm around the drums, particularly on the brutally fast tempi. The ride cymbals and the hi-hat served as time sources. A linear, unimpeded pulse was established in the timekeeping hand—generally the right. The left hand and both feet provided counterpoint and accents—rhythmical ideas to support and play against the primary pulse, the ensembles, and the soloists. Because of Roach's increasing technique, dexterity, and independent usage of hands and feet, the drums assumed multilevel musicality.
The drums no longer played just a limited, circumscribed, timekeeping role in the rhythm section. The drummer became a major participant, much more of a partner in what was done in the small group and big band. Expressing time and a variety of rhythms, color, and personality, Roach and Kenny Clarke before him related more directly to the music and musicians than their predecessors. The instrument was reborn.
Not only did Roach understand the needs of Parker and Gillespie and bebop, he had the technical resources and the vision to make the music work. As he plays, you sense the structure of the tune, its inner and outer movement, its drama, the unfolding of the developmental process. He inventively embroiders material, playing surprising fills and rhythmic combinations, adding to the quality of the music and its sense of thrust.
Unlike some others, who don't really understand music, drum set function, and liberation, Roach never turns his back on the time foundation of all jazz drumming. Nor does he encumber a band or soloist with overwhelming detail. Balance in his performances is very important to him. While moving through a performance, he takes chances with ideas and techniques that can upset and offset the time and continuity, if not well placed and played correctly. But he seldom fails in his responsibility to the music and himself. Roach is simultaneously dangerous and very much in command. …
Parker's Savoy, Dial, and Verve recordings make clear that Roach played a significant role in making the music work. He enhanced the thematic material. His time, manner of accentuation, ideas, and solo commentary were certainly central to increasing the rhythmic substance of this music. He simultaneously was a leading player, setting the pace, and a character actor, bringing background color and dimension to the music.
The new music made certain demands on the drummer that were not a factor in earlier forms of jazz. One of the most notable was using both hands and feet with equal ease and having the capacity to dexterously play different rhythms in each of the hands and feet.
Parker was conscious of the importance of "independence." Only with this kind of facility—well applied—could the modern drummer bring multiple rhythms and levels to music that openly asked for this sort of treatment. He sat Roach down one early evening in the Three Deuces on 5ind Street and demonstrated on drums what he was talking about. He played a different rhythm with each hand and foot and then put them together. He looked up at his drummer, giving him that insinuating smile of his, and asked if Roach could do that.
Roach had been intuitively simulating in performance what Parker illustrated. It was, in fact, a characteristic of bebop to play one rhythm against another. Later he achieved complete independence by studying and practicing exercises—much like the ones in Jim Chapin's book [Advanced Technique for the Modern Drummer] — that made it possible to achieve this sort of dexterity.
In the early years of bebop, young drummers were both challenged and mystified by Roach's performances. When he dropped in his little rhythmic gifts—behind Parker or Davis, or in breathing spaces during ensembles— he made everyone wonder: ''Where did he get that idea? How did he do that? Why did he do that?" What he played could be as uncomplicated as a revised rudiment, broken up between his hands and the bass drum foot, or something a bit more complicated.
While enlarging jazz's general rhythmic base, Roach revised how the drum set and cymbals were used. He gave each drum, each cymbal, and the hi-hat expanded functions and more subtle treatment. He introduced new or revised sounds and textures suitable to the music played. ...
Roach had still another major virtue. He knew when to be relatively silent and allow the music to take itself forward. He might subtly help move things along but essentially would stay out of the way.
What Roach brings to all three is a deep groove—the sort of feel more characteristic of Kenny Clarke and Art Blakey. Intense without being loud, l£ suggests "2-and-4" accentuation, in the manner in which he plays the top cymbal, or directly defines it, closing the hi-hat on those beats of each measure. The time takes on clarity and a stronger sense of swing.
Soon this means of giving the beat heat and more of an edge would be widely adopted by jazz drummers, particularly after Art Blakey began doing it and made the hi-hat a primary center of his volcanic energy. This technique ultimately permeated jazz percussion to such a degree that it became almost a cliche’. …
Because of "Ko Ko" and other key Parker-Roach and Gillespie recordings, good-time primitivism in jazz, latter-day minstrelsy, and other elements of black show business no longer seemed at all feasible or possible. Because of these innovative musicians, jazz had become a thinking man's music. Things would never be the same again.”
Max Roach is arguably the greatest drummer of the century, and not just in jazz. He is a master musician of the first rank whose ability to lift a band with the propulsive surge of his drumming marked him out as the cream of the handful of truly great modern jazz percussionists. Even when simply playing fills behind a soloist in any of the many settings in which he has worked, his remarkably subtle and intricate drumming can set the music flowing and floating on a complex wave of polyrhythmic activity and rich tonal and timbral colouration. Equally, his solo performances have elevated the art of playing the jazz drum-set to a new level of musical achievement.
In his Giant Steps: Bebop and the Creators of Modern Jazz, 1945-1965, Kenny Mathieson explains Max’s significance this way:
“Max Roach is arguably the greatest drummer of the century, and not just in jazz. He is a master musician of the first rank whose ability to lift a band with the propulsive surge of his drumming marked him out as the cream of the handful of truly great modern jazz percussionists. Even when simply playing fills behind a soloist in any of the many settings in which he has worked, his remarkably subtle and intricate drumming can set the music flowing and floating on a complex wave of polyrhythmic activity and rich tonal and timbral colouration. Equally, his solo performances have elevated the art of playing the jazz drum-set to a new level of musical achievement. …
Roach took the supposed limitations of the standard jazz drum-kit, typically made up of bass drum, snare drum, large and small tom-toms, ride cymbal, snare cymbal and hi-hat, and turned them into an intricate vehicle for expression. Interestingly, Roy Haynes, another of the great bebop drummers, has recalled that Roach had no tom-tom when he first heard him play and while he admits he was not sure whether this was dictated by musical or financial considerations, he promptly took the tom-tom out of his own kit!
The old four-to-the-bar bass drum accompaniment of traditional and swing-jazz styles gave way in the bebop era to a more fluid style characterised by a shift away from the bass drum as an audible steady time-keeper towards a greater development of the concept of shifting the pulse on to the the cymbals. In turn, this created a flow or wash of sound/time behind and around the ensemble and soloists, something which had demonstrably already begun in the swing era with players like Jo Jones, Cozy Cole, Dave Tough and Buddy Rich, but was taken much further by the bebop drummers.
The increased fluidity and additional responsiveness of this approach, with accents placed in less regimented and predictable fashion and dictated in response to the specifics of what the soloist or the ensemble played rather than a programmatic rhythmic scheme, was crucial to the emergence of the new music. With it came an expansion of the importance of the idea of 'co-ordinated independence', an expression which refers to the less inhibited way the drummer combines and manipulates the rhythmic layers created from the different facets of his kit, with the primary emphasis being on bass drum, snare drum, ride cymbal and hi-hat.
There is, too, the matter of the actual sound of Roach's drums. In the booklet accompanying Verve's very useful Clifford Brown - Max Roach two-CD compilation Alone Together: The Best of the Mercury Years, drummer Kenny Washington relates a story about how he physically destroyed his first juvenile drum-kit in a desperate attempt to tune the drums to capture Roach's sound. What had caught his ear in particular was the fact that 'the high-pitched tom-tom tuning was so musical and gave each drum its own identity'. To this day, Washington concludes, ‘I still tune my drums like that'.”
Later in his career, Max would take his distinctive drumming “voice” into a variety of Jazz contexts, among them the brilliant recordings that he made with Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins, co-leading the Debut Records label with bassist Charles Mingus from 1952-1955, tour Europe with Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic, spend time as a member of bassist Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All-Stars in Hermosa Beach, CA and, along with Art Blakey, go on to become one of the few drummers to successfully lead their own combos, the most notable of these being the quintet he co-led with trumpeter Clifford Brown.
The editorial staff at JazzProfiles is in the process of developing future features on various aspects of Max’s exciting career.