Composer, drummer, civil rights activist and jazz titan Maxwell Lemuel “Max” Roach passed away in his sleep from complications of dementia/Alzheimers Disease Wednesday night at his New York City apartment. His daughters Maxine and Dara were at his bedside, according to family spokesperson, Terrie M. Williams. He was 83 years old.
Roach grew up in Brooklyn and was playing drums in gospel bands there before he reached his teens. By the time he was 18, he was frequenting the jazz clubs at 52nd Street and helping to create, along with drummer Kenny Clarke, what became known as the bebop drum style. A largely self-taught musician, Roach astonished other players with his fast hands, polyrhythmic control and melodic approach to playing cymbals—all trademarks that would influence scores of jazz drummers to follow.
Throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s, Roach performed and recorded with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis, among many others. In 1954, he founded an influential quintet with trumpeter Clifford Brown the group was instantly lauded as one of the leading proponents of the emerging “hard bop” sound, but their partnership was tragically cut short in 1956 when Brown and pianist Richie Powell were killed in a car accident. A devastated Roach pressed on with a new configuration of the group and recorded Max Roach Plus Four the same year.
At the dawn of the civil rights era, Roach became an outspoken advocate for racial equality. In 1960, he recorded We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite—a seven-part protest suite featuring vocalist Abbey Lincoln that addressed slavery and racism in America. “I will never again play anything that does not have social significance,” he told Down Beat magazine at the time. “We American jazz musicians of African descent have proved beyond all doubt that we’re master musicians of our instruments. Now what we have to do is employ our skill to tell the dramatic story of our people and what we’ve been through.”
Roach and Lincoln were married in 1962: they divorced eight years later. By then, Roach was beginning to expand his musical scope into more experimental areas. He founded the all-percussionist group M’Boom in 1970, and later in the decade formed a new group with Cecil Bridgewater, Odean Pope and Calvin Hill that pushed the avant-garde limits of the quartet format well into the 1980s. At the same time, Roach aligned himself with hip-hop music’s message of urgency, even performing with rapper Fab Five Freddy and a crew of break dancers. He also conceived what was probably his most ambitious project of all: the Max Roach Double Quartet, which brought his own group together with the Uptown String Quartet (founded by his daughter Maxine on viola).
Roach continued to record and tour well into his 70s before he was diagnosed with hydrocephalus in 2004. He attended the funeral of actor Ossie Davis on February 12, 2005—one of his last public appearances. Max Roach is survived by five children—sons Raoul and Darryl, and daughters Maxine, Ayo and Dara.
A public viewing will be held on Friday, August 24 at Riverside Church, 490 Riverside Drive in Manhattan, from 9:00 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. with a public funeral service from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. The legendary drummer will subsequently be buried in a private ceremony at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.
The family issued the following statement: “We are deeply saddened by our beloved father's passing. We wish to convey our sincere thanks and appreciation for all the blessings and condolences we have received at this time. As his family we are fortunate to have been a part of his life and we will continue to share his legacy as a musician, educator and social activist with the world.”
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be sent to the Alzheimer's Association, 225 N. Michigan Ave., Fl. 17, Chicago, IL 6