Maxwell Lemuel Roach (January 10, 1924 – August 16, 2007) was an American jazz percussionist, drummer, and composer.
A pioneer of bebop, Roach went on to work in many other styles of music, and is generally considered one of the most important drummers in history. He worked with many of the greatest jazz musicians, including Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins and Clifford Brown.
Roach also led his own groups, and made numerous musical statements relating to the civil rights movement of African-Americans.
Roach was born in the Township of Newland Pasquotank County, North Carolina, which borders the southern edge of the Great Dismal Swamp, to Alphonse and Cressie Roach. Many confuse this with Newland Town in Avery County. Although Max's birth record lists his birth date as January 10, 1924, (Max has been quoted] by Phil Schaap as stating that his family believes he was born on January 8, 1924. His family moved to Brooklyn, New York when he was 4 years old. He grew up in a musical home, his mother being a gospel singer. He started to play bugle in parade orchestras at a young age. At the age of 10, he was already playing drums in some gospel bands. As an eighteen year-old fresh out of Boys' High School, Brooklyn, NY, (1942) he was called to fill in for Sonny Greer, and play with the Duke Ellington Orchestra performing at the NY Paramount Theatre.
In 1942, Roach started to go out in the jazz clubs of the 52nd Street and at 78th Street & Broadway for Georgie Jay's Taproom (playing with schoolmate Cecil Payne).
Roach's most significant innovations came in the 1940s, when he and jazz drummer, Kenny Clarke, devised a new concept of musical time. By playing the beat-by-beat pulse of standard 4/4 time on the "ride" cymbal instead of on the thudding bass drum, Roach and Clarke developed a flexible, flowing rhythmic pattern that allowed soloists to play freely. The new approach also left space for the drummer to insert dramatic accents on the snare drum, "crash" cymbal and other components of the trap set.
By matching his rhythmic attack with a tune's melody, Mr. Roach brought a newfound subtlety of expression to his instrument. He often shifted the dynamic emphasis from one part of his drum kit to another within a single phrase, creating a sense of tonal color and rhythmic surprise. The idea was to shatter musical conventions and take full advantage of the drummer's unique position. "In no other society", Roach once observed, "do they have one person play with all four limbs."
Virtually every jazz drummer plays in that manner today, but when Clarke and Mr. Roach introduced the new style in the 1940s, it was a revolutionary musical advance. "When Max Roach's first records with Charlie Parker were released by Savoy in 1945," jazz historian Burt Korall wrote in the "Oxford Companion to Jazz," "drummers experienced awe and puzzlement and even fear." One of those awed drummers, Stan Levey, summed up Mr. Roach's importance: "I came to realize that, because of him, drumming no longer was just time, it was music."
He was one of the first drummers (along with Kenny Clarke) to play in the bebop style, and performed in bands led by Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Coleman Hawkins, Bud Powell, and Miles Davis. Roach played on many of Parker's most important records, including the Savoy 1945 session, a turning point in recorded jazz.
He was given a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant in 1988, cited as a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters in France, twice awarded the French Grand Prix du Disque, elected to the International Percussive Art Society's Hall of Fame and the Downbeat Magazine Hall of Fame, awarded Harvard Jazz Master, celebrated by Aaron Davis Hall, given eight honorary doctorate degrees, including degrees awarded by Medgar Evers College, CUNY, the University of Bologna, Italy and Columbia University[ While spending the later years of his life at the Mill Basin Sunrise assisted living home, in Brooklyn, Max was honored with a proclamation honoring his musical achievements by Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz.
There is a park in the Lambeth borough of London named after him.