Max Roach: Bebop Pioneer

Max Roach: Bebop Pioneer

Written by Anne E. Johnson

Born in North Carolina swamp country in either 1924 or 1925 (he wasn’t sure himself) and raised in Brooklyn, Max Roach listened to his mother sing gospel music and was inspired to start playing bugle and drums. By the time he was 18, he was subbing on drums in the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

Roach is one of bebop’s original pioneers. He contributed his innovative rhythms to recordings and performances led by the likes of Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker. One of his early projects was the co-founding of a bebop record label, Debut, with Charles Mingus, which was supposed to give artists an alternative to the unfavorable contracts from major labels. But the pull of the giants was too strong, and the label lasted only five years.

Besides the various bop and hard bop ensembles he formed in the late 1950s and 1960s, Roach was also involved in the Civil Rights movement. From 1962 – 1970 he was married to singer and activist Abbey Lincoln and often accompanied her performances, supporting her work toward racial justice both personally and musically.

Believing that jazz drums were an orchestra unto themselves, in the 1980s Roach performed a series of solo concerts to demonstrate this. He also wrote incidental music for many dance and theater pieces, including a play by Sam Shepard, and used his flair for dramatic timing to create a percussive accompaniment track to be played under the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. His career continued through the 1990s, until illness forced him to retire; he died in 2007.

Enjoy these eight great tracks by Max Roach.

  1. Track: “I’ll Take Romance”
    Album: Jazz in 3/4 Time
    Label: EmArcy
    Year: 1957

Jazz in 3/4 Time was a strong statement by Roach that the rhythmic norms of swing – and even of bebop – could be questioned and rebuilt. It’s not that nobody had ever played jazz in a waltz meter before (Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz” dates from 1942), but turning triple time into the default through an entire album was new and daring.

Several of the tracks are jazz arrangements of Broadway and Hollywood musical standards, including “I’ll Take Romance.” This 1937 number, with music by Ben Oakland and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein III, was composed for the film of the same name. Here Kenny Dorham is on trumpet, Bill Wallace on piano, and Sonny Rollins on tenor sax. What starts as a sweet, lyrical swing deconstructs quickly into a laid-back bebop cubism of the tune.


  1. Track: “Rounder’s Mood”
    Album: The Defiant Ones
    Label: United Artists
    Year: 1958

This duo album with trumpeter Booker Little was also released under the title Booker Little 4 and Max Roach. Joining the ensemble were George Coleman on tenor sax, Tommy Flanagan on piano, and Art Davis on bass.

Little wrote the intense bebop tune “Rounder’s Mood.” Roach’s playing defies the logic of the apparent meter while making perfect sense in its own syncopated stratosphere. His brushwork is exquisite, changing coloration for each instrument’s solo.


  1. Track: “Moon Faced, Starry Eyed”
    Album: Moon Faced and Starry Eyed
    Label: Mercury
    Year: 1959

This album is exceptional for many reasons, including its imaginative track list. Abbey Lincoln (a few years before she married Roach) adds a couple of vocals, but there are also some great instrumental interpretations of songs that originally had lyrics.

One of those is the title track, “Moon Faced, Starry Eyed,” with music that Kurt Weill wrote for the musical Street Scene, with lyrics by Langston Hughes. While we don’t get to hear the words, Roach’s brush-on-cymbal patterns are well worth a listen, not to mention Ray Bryant’s piano work.


  1. Track: “Garvey’s Ghost”
    Album: Percussion Bitter Sweet
    Label: Impulse!
    Year: 1961

Lincoln can be heard contributing a wordless vocalise at the opening of the stunning “Garvey’s Ghost,” a track that combines African-inspired rhythms with the angular dissonances of cutting-edge post-bop.

Even the earnest, almost angry solos by Clifford Jordan on tenor saxophone and Booker Little on trumpet (one of his last recordings before his untimely death) can’t overshadow the percussive sounds. Eugenio Arango plays the cowbell in a thrilling trio with drum kit (Roach) and congas (Carlos Valdés) leading up to the track’s climax.


  1. Track: “Pay Not, Play Not”
    Album: The Max Roach Trio Featuring the Legendary Hasaan
    Label: Atlantic
    Year: 1964

Incredibly, this is the only recording ever released by Hasaan Ibn Ali, an American jazz pianist who played with and impressed many of the greats of bebop, but somehow didn’t end up in the studio. The third member of this temporary configuration labeled the Max Roach Trio is Roach’s longtime bassist, Art Davis.

Hasaan also composed all the tracks on the album. On “Pay Not, Play Not,” his piano virtuosity is matched by Roach’s on the drums. The completely original approach to meter and style make it clear that the failure to capture more of Hasaan’s playing on record is quite a tragedy.


  1. Track: “Equipoise”
    Album: Members, Don’t Git Weary
    Label: Atlantic
    Year: 1968

Although Members, Don’t Git Weary was marketed as a Roach album, all its tracks are by piano/keyboard player Stanley Cowell, who also plays in the record’s five-man team. One change for Roach is that Jymie Merritt is on electric bass rather than the upright acoustic that one finds on the earlier albums.

“Equipoise” features the duo sounds of Charles Tolliver on trumpet and Gary Bartz on alto sax. Roach’s triplet figures hold down the compound meter, even when the horns seem to float away in duple time.


  1. Track: “Acclamation”
    Album: Streams of Consciousness
    Label: Baystate Records
    Year: 1977

Streams of Consciousness is a duet album with South African pianist Dollar Brand (also known as Abdullah Ibrahim). Roach produced the record himself. Reportedly, the four-track album was largely improvised in the studio, including the 21-minute title track takes up all of Side A. Yet the music has a complexity and sense of internal organization that gives it a composed quality.

“Acclamation” is all about that famous Roach cymbal touch. Brand plays a walking bassline and bluesy barrelhouse chords, the perfect companion to the high-frequency percussive symphony rolling off Roach’s kit. At about the nine-minute mark, Brand changes course and starts quoting from African-American spirituals while Roach creates a frantic, train-like rhythmic pattern.


  1. Track: “One in Two- Two in One: Part 1”
    Album: One in Two – Two in One
    Label: Hathut
    Year: 1979

Another of Roach’s duo albums, One in Two – Two in One is a collaboration with saxophonist Anthony Braxton. It was recorded live in Switzerland at the Willisau Jazz Festival.

The gifted Braxton is equally at home on any size saxophone, flute, or clarinet. He uses the soprano sax here in ethereal swirls against the Japanese-flavored chimes and gongs that Roach explores.

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/The Library of Congress @ Flickr Commons, cropped to fit format.

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