The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Max Roach:
Jazz pioneer and fighter for justice

Aug 20, 2007

Jazz drummer Max Roach died August 16 in New York. Roach was a jazz pioneer and an active and outspoken opponent of racism.

Roach was one of the originators of bebop. Bebop was a distinctly new form of jazz developed in the early 1940s, especially in the clubs on 52nd Street in New York. One of the main differences between bebop and earlier jazz lay in the rhythmic patterns created by drummers like Roach and Kenny Clarke.

The New York bop scene was close to home for Roach, who grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Roach had already played in Duke Ellington’s Orchestra as a teenager.

Roach collaborated with other inventors of bop, like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis. He was known for his frequent use of rhythmic “bombs”, and his method of riding the cymbals made his sound easily recognizable.

Roach went on to become a band leader in his own right, including for a period with trumpeter Clifford Brown. Later on, Roach branched out musically collaborating with everyone from the Boston Symphony, to the Alvin Ailey Dance Company to rapper Fab Five Freddy.

Roach was not content to separate his art from his politics. He made it clear that art must express what is happening to the population and take the population’s side. Roach and Charles Mingus in 1958 organized what they called a rebel festival to protest prejudice they saw in the selection of musicians for the Newport Jazz festival.

When asked to contribute to the hundredth anniversary commemoration of the Emancipation Proclamation, Roach composed a suite entitled, “We Insist! – Freedom Now.” Abbey Lincoln, whom he later married, performed the vocals on the suite. Oscar Brown, Jr., who wrote the lyrics for the piece, broke with Roach because Roach favored the ideas of Malcolm X over those of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Roach paid a price for his outspoken politics. So long as he was just one of those “crazy be-boppers,” as bebop musicians were portrayed by the critics at the time, Roach was okay. But using his music to speak out put him on the do-not-play list. Like many jazz musicians, Roach was more well received, both by audiences and critics, in Europe than in the U.S.

The jazz world, and the world in general, has lost one of the greats with the passing of Max Roach.