Max Roach

Max Roach Biography

Composer, Musician, Drummer (1924–2007)
A pioneer of the bebop style, drummer Max Roach spent decades creating innovative jazz.


Max Roach was born on January 10, 1924, in New Land, North Carolina. He was raised in Brooklyn and studied at the Manhattan School of Music. One of the great jazz drummers and a pioneer of bebop, he worked with Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, Charlie Parker and Clifford Brown. Roach was also a composer and a professor of music at the University of Massachusetts. He died in New York City in 2007.

Early Life

Maxwell Lemuel Roach, generally known as Max Roach, was born on January 10, 1924, in New Land, North Carolina. He was raised in Brooklyn and played in gospel groups as a child. Though he started on the piano, Roach found his instrument when he began playing the drums at age 10.

Jazz Success

Growing up in New York City exposed Roach to an exuberant jazz scene. In 1940, 16-year-old Roach filled in with Duke Ellington's orchestra. During the 1940s, he played with jazz greats like Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Benny Carter and Stan Getz. Roach further developed his skills by studying at the Manhattan School of Music.

Roach joined with Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and others to help bebop—a form of jazz that featured more intense rhythms and sophisticated musicality—come into being. He soon gained a reputation as a virtuoso bebop drummer, one who could enhance a song with his musical choices. From 1947 to 1949, Roach was part of Parker's trailblazing quintet.

Roach's drumming could be heard on many recordings, starting with his debut with Hawkins in 1943. His other albums include Woody 'n' You (1944)—considered one of the first bebop records—and Davis's Birth of the Cool sessions in 1949-50. In 1952, Roach co-founded Debut Records with Charles Mingus. The label released a recording of a seminal jazz concert held at Massey Hall in 1953, where Roach performed with Mingus, Parker, Gillespie and Bud Powell.

In 1954, Roach and Clifford Brown formed a quintet that became one of the most highly regarded groups in modern jazz. Unfortunately, their collaboration ended when Brown and another member of the group were killed in a 1956 car accident. The loss was a depressing blow for Roach; he began drinking heavily, but eventually sought professional help to regain his footing. He also continued creating music, taking on projects with Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins.

Evolving Career

With We Insist! Freedom Now Suite (1960), Roach used music to address the need for racial equality. Despite the risks that taking an outspoken political stance posed to his career, Roach continued to support the Civil Rights Movement. He later created a drum accompaniment for Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.

In 1972, Roach was named as a professor of music at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. His career accomplishments were further recognized when Roach was inducted into the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame in 1982, and when he was selected as a 1984 Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1988, Roach received a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant," the first given to a jazz musician.

Roach's adaptability and inventiveness spurred him to work on an increasingly diverse list of projects. In 1970, he founded M'Boom, an all-percussion group. Roach also composed for choreographer Alvin Ailey and created music for plays written by Sam Shepard (his work with Shepard garnered Roach an Obie Award). His other collaborators include hip-hop artists Fab Five Freddy, writer Toni Morrison (Roach provided musical accompaniment at her spoken word concerts), Japanese taiko drummers and avant-garde instrumentalists Cecil Taylor and Anthony Braxton.

Later Years

Roach gave his last concert in 2000 and made his final recording in 2002.He suffered from a neurological disorder for an extended period before his death in New York City on August 16, 2007, at the age of 83. All three of Roach's marriages ended in divorce, but he was survived by two sons and three daughters.

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