Bird that Sings

November 29, 2007

Max Roach: first among equals

Filed under: Music&Culture,Uncategorized — admin @ 2:10 pm


Sonny Rollins lives! Clark Terry, Yusef Lateef, Horace Silver and Roy Haynes are, remarkably, still active. But there are very few musicians remaining from the generation that forged the creation of modern Jazz.

They’ve been called the “Last Masters” and of this group, Max Roach was a first among equals.

Max would, perhaps, want to be remembered that way. “A people’s man”, “a race man”, since the 1940’s, Max viewed Jazz as definitively democratic; a collectively improvised music that mirrored the way a truly democratic society— ie., not this one—would operate.

But for many, Max Roach was not so much a first among equals as a prince among men.

His accomplishments are legendary. As a teenager in the 1940’s he played drums with the iconic Charlie Parker/Dizzy Gillespie Quintet that created Be-Bop, the genius music of the 20th Century. He went on to become one of the main forces in Fifties Jazz, and along with trumpeter Clifford Brown and saxophonist Sonny Rollins, helped create one of the two “schools” of Jazz in the Fifties, so called “hard bop.”

As the Sixties dawned, Max began to call for–and proclaim in his work–a new black consciousness in jazz and art. This was a consciousness that demanded society recognize the key contributions of black art and artists as well as the ongoing crime against humanity being perpetrated on black America at large.

Max also demanded that his fellow musicians recognize their implicit role in the freedom struggle and make it manifest. And so they did. Following the lead of Max Roach and others, jazz musicians of that era made “the music” a frontline of the black freedom and consciousness movement for the next two decades.

I met Max Roach over thirty years ago. I was part of a self-described “cultural workers collective” that ran a club in Philadelphia called the New Foxhole Cafe. I was barely more than a kid at the time and most of my fellow collectivists weren’t much older. We were thrilled when the great Max Roach agreed to play our club, but Max really like playing the Foxhole and understood what we trying to do. More to the point he understood it as part of what he was trying to do.

Max came back to play the club many times over the next several years. Though we were always in awe of him, Max never treated us like kids, but as comrades, as brothers, as men. Max Roach tried to lead by example. For many of us he still does. In many hearts Max Roach will never die.

The following is an excerpt of a poem by the late Etheridge Knight.


has fire and steel in hands

rides high,

is a Makabele warrior,

tastes death of his lips, beats babies

from worn out wombs,

grins with grace

and cries in the middle of his eyes.


thumps the big circle in bare feet

opens wide the big arms,

and like the sea

calls us all.

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