Max Roach Biography

Max Roach
Name: Max Roach Drums: Gretsch
Born: January 10, 1924 Cymbals: Zildjian
Origin: Newland, North Carolina Sticks: Unknown

Who Is Max Roach?

Max Roach is regarded as one of the most important drummers in the history of jazz. His contributions to jazz music and modern drumming are invaluable. Max Roach, along with guys like Kenny Clarke, shaped what is now regarded as the standard vocabulary of modern jazz drumming with the invention of bebop.

Maxwell “Max” Lemuel Roach was born to Alphonse and Cressie Roach in the small town of Newland, Pasquotank County, North Carolina. His parents were part of an enclave of black farmers who’d harvest and sell their goods collectively. At the time, black farmers could sell their goods only when the white farmers’ had sold out. This was troublesome for Max Roach’s parents, because when it came their time to sell, the prices had to go down if they wanted to earn any money. This also meant insufficient earnings to cover the costs of their farming activities.

Therefore, Max Roach, his parents and his older brother moved to Brooklyn, New York in 1928 to better their social conditions. They lived in the neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant (Bed-Stuy). Although poor, Max Roach had high regards for Bed-Stuy’s inhabitants.

Although the crash came a year later (1929), and although the people were poor and disenfranchised, they had a lot of pride. Nobody was slick, everybody was honest. People went to church.” – Max Roach

Max Roach’s first experiences with musical instruments began in elementary school. The public school he went to had music teachers who taught him and his classmates how to play instruments, allowing them to take musical instruments home.

Max Roach and his family spent most of their time at a neighborhood Baptist church, where his mother sang with the choir. It was in that church that Max Roach’s family was exposed to the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA). FERA’s philosophy was to put the unemployed back to work in jobs which would serve the public good and conserve the skills and the self-esteem of workers throughout the United States (U.S.) during the crisis.

Amongst other things, FERA provided classes in rural areas and urban neighborhoods with music instruction every week. So Max Roach’s parents would leave their kids in church to learn how to play musical instruments, while they were out working. An 8 years old Max Roach began his musical journey behind a piano. Since Max Roach enjoyed doing everything his older brother did, when his brother decided to learn how to play bugle, Max Roach followed on his footsteps. Seeing he couldn’t deal with the bugle that well, Max Roach’s mother advised him to chose a different instrument. Max Roach returned the bugle to his teacher and decided to take a snare drum home instead.

Max Roach’s first experiences with a drum set came at house rent parties. Those social events were organized by tenants to raise money to pay their rent and food, and featured hired musicians. Max Roach’s first band experiences were as the drummer for a couple of gospel bands, at the tender age of 10.

Even before graduating from high school in 1942, Max Roach was already a well known drummer in the New York jazz music scene. Max Roach performed his first big gig in New York City at the age of 16, substituting for Sonny Greer in a performance with the Duke Ellington Orchestra at the Paramount Theater.

In 1942, Max Roach began venturing into jazz clubs of the 52nd Street. He also played at 78th Street & Broadway for Georgie Jay’s “Taproom”, where he could be found performing alongside schoolmate and jazz baritone saxophonist Cecil Payne. Max Roach played with Charlie Parker at Clark Monroe’s “Uptown House” in Harlem, New York as well. As the a house drummer for the Uptown House, Max Roach took part in late night jam sessions that helped lay the groundwork for bebop.

Bebop is Max Roach and Kenny Clark’s most significant innovation and contribution to music. Bebop was a new form of jazz, a new concept of playing time musically. By moving the time-keeping function from the bass drum to the ride cymbal, Max Roach and Kenny Clarke allowed soloists to play freely. This new approach freed the drummer as well, leaving him enough space to insert dramatic accents on any other instrument on the drum set. Bebop was also a great way of taking full advantage of the drummer’s unique position – a musician who plays music with his four limbs.

Career Highlights And Musical Projects?

Besides his work with Charlie Parker, within a few years, Max Roach would be found playing in bands led by Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Coleman Hawkins, and Bud Powell. Still in his twenties, Max Roach contributed with his extreme musicality to such seminal recordings as Charlie Parker’s The Complete Savoy Studio Recordings (1945 – 1948) and Miles Davis’s Birth Of The Cool, recorded between 1949 and 1950 and released in 1956. This album is the sole responsible for the cool-jazz movement.

In 1952, Max Roach co-founded Debut Records with bassist Charles Mingus and his wife at the time, Celia Mingus. Debut Records was the label on which the classic live album Jazz at Massey Hall, featuring Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus and Max Roach was first issued. In that same year, Max Roach graduated from the Manhattan School of Music with a major in Music Composition. In 1957, Max Roach made another important contribution to the world of jazz music with the album Jazz in 3/4 Time, where he expanded on the standard form of bebop using 3/4 odd-time signature.

In 1960, Max Roach composed “We Insist!”. This album was Mas Roach’s contribution to the celebrations of the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. In 1962, Max Roach released Money Jungle, one of the best trio-based bands’ albums ever made. The year of 1966 saw the release of the album Drums Unlimited, which unveiled the drum set as a solo instrument capable of creating very musical statements.

In 1970, Max Roach formed a jazz percussion ensemble called M’Boom. The intention behind the project was that of exploring the sound of unconventional and non-Western percussion instruments. Over the years, M’Boom featured percussionists like Roy Brooks, Joe Chambers, Omar Clay, Warren Smith, and Freddie Waits in its ranks. M’Boom released three albums: Re: Percussion (1973); M’Boom (1979); Collage (1984); Live at S.O.B.’s New York (1992). The ensemble disbanded in 1992. In 1972, Max Roach became one of the first jazz musicians to teach full-time at a college, when he was hired as a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Max Roach’s tenure with the university ended in 1979.

In 1983, Max Roach broke new ground when he was joined in concert by a rapper, two DJs and a team of break dancers. In 1984, Max Roach composed music for a couple of Sam Shepard’s Off-Broadway productions. In 1986, a park in Brixton, London was named after Max Roach. In 1988, Max Roach was given a prestigious MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. The following year, Max Roach was cited as a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters in France.

Max Roach’s long list of awards includes two French “Grand Prix du Disque” and the “Harvard Jazz Master”. Max Roach was awarded eight honorary doctorate degrees and was inducted into the International Percussive Art Society’s and the Downbeat magazine’s Hall of Fame. In his later years of life, Max Roach’s musical achievements were honored with a proclamation by Brooklyn’s president Marty Markowitz.

Max Roach died on August 16, 2007 in Manhattan. He was survived by his six children: sons Daryl and Raoul, daughters Maxine, Ayo and Dara, and bebop.

What Can We Learn From Max Roach?

Max Roach was one of the most musical drummers to ever grace our planet. A good way to sum up his drumming abilities on the drum set is to look at his improvisational skills and ability to create exquisite sounding drum solos.

Max Roach’s approached improvisation as free as possible. He didn’t spend any time prepping his improvisational sections beforehand. Max Roach enjoyed dealing with his musical thoughts on the spot, allowing the moment to create itself. This enabled him to take more enjoyment out of what he was playing on the drum set, since it was a natural response to the moment he was in. Having a lot of technique at his disposal, like high levels of independence, hand technique, and foot technique enabled him to do so. However, Max Roach’s incredible set of tools served only his ability to communicate different ideas.

Although Max Roach enjoyed coming up with new patterns within a single piece, he made sure he returned to ideas that were still within the structure of his drum solos. He would do so by repeating those ideas throughout certain sections of the solo. This concept of design within solos and improvisational pieces were more important to Max Roach than melodic or harmonic content. This concept is an integral part of his very popular drum solos, like “Big-Sid” for instance, which he wrote in honor of Big Sid Catlett, one his favorite drummers. This also gave his drum solos and improvisational pieces an awesome sense of musicality and theme.

Another one of Max Roach’s cool concepts when it came down to soloing, was his use of feet-ostinato vamps. Drum solos like “The Third Eye” and “Drum Waltz” are great examples of that. While keeping a steady ostinato going with his feet, Max Roach played the main statements and themes on top of the vamps.

Max Roach’s approach to improvisation can teach us quite a lot of things. First, Max Roach shows us that technique is paramount for artistic expression on the drum set. The more things you’re able to play, the better you’ll be at expressing yourself on the drum set. This is, of course, a direct result of the bebop style he enjoyed playing so much, which demanded high levels of independence, hand technique and foot technique. So working on drum set independence, hand technique, drum rudiments, and foot technique can, and will make you a lot more expressive during solos and help you write cooler sounding and original drum beats and drum fills.

Second, the way Max Roach approached soloing pretty much took drum solos in a whole new direction. Instead of bashing and unleashing a series of notes on the drum set just for the sake of it, Max Roach worked on different themes and ideas. That, coupled with the names he baptized them with, gave his solos a strong identity, almost like if they were songs. This way of approaching soloing is very interesting and original, resembling the way stories are written for books and movies. Max Roach builds on the emotion of his drum solos as he goes along, using different textures, rhythms, and dynamic levels.

Incorporating this type of concepts to your drum solos will make you a better listener, since you’ll have to remember the main themes of your solos as you go along. This will also have you working in an more organized framework. Max Roach’s soloing concepts are way different what a lot of drummer do when told to solo, like unleashing loud and fast strokes around the kit. This comes to show how creative one can be with drum solos.




  • ron lewis says:


  • Yanan says:

    why is programming drum beats so hard using the drum manhice? do you need to be a drummer to be able to do that? it’s sohard to timing with the metronome and the hardest part is sometimes you don’t press the pad hrd enough and then you miss a beat. is it really a tedious process to do that?

  • Evson says:

    do the stick twirl!!! its really not hard, you just hold the stick beetwen your pointer and middle fingers, then twirl it around. if you do it right, it looks like youre actually spinning it around your hand. or, just toss a stick up in the air and catch it during any part where you have a 2-4 beat rest. maybe throw a sweet, but simple solo in there. in general, people dont know how to play drums. so as long as it sounds decent, people will be mroe than happy. hehe good luck! and relax, and have fun!

  • David Nebhut says:

    I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Roach in 1993. My son, who was about 9 at the time, and I had just started taking lessons together, and he was playing a concert for children *with his daughter’s ensemble)at the Kennedy Center as part of the inaugural festivities. Our drum teacher told us to be sure to talk to him after the show. He was one of the most gracious gentlemen I have eve met. He asked us about our what we were working on, and actually assessed our hand technique. What an inspiration!