This month, we celebrate the centenary of a jazz luminary and pioneering drummer, Max Roach. Born this month in 1924, Roach enjoyed a career spanning nearly six decades, collaborating with virtually all of the greatest jazz figures of the twentieth century. He performed and recorded with Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Clifford Brown, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Dinah Washington, Stan Getz, Eric Dolphy, and Abbey Lincoln, among countless others.
Just coming into his own as an artist in the early 1940s, Roach became a pivotal figure of the bebop movement. In tandem with drummer Kenny Clarke, Roach was not only a virtuosic drummer but radically reimagined how the drums functioned, first as an individual instrument and ultimately redefining its role in an ensemble. Through the first part of the 20th Century, the drums had been relegated to simple time-keeping, and the steady bass drum pulse – a.k.a. “four on the floor” – defined drummers’ performances in every group from King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band to the great big bands of the Swing era. With the advent of bebop, Roach moved the time-keeping element from the bass drum to the ride cymbal, combining the steady quarter-note pulse with common snare and tom elements, developing the now-ubiquitous swing ride or “spang-a-lang” cymbal pattern. More importantly, shifting the time-keeping to the cymbal enabled Roach to approach the remainder of the drum kit in a totally new way, utilizing its elements to more creatively accompany horn players and opening new soloistic possibilities.
Roach’s developments in the bebop era are the foundation for virtually all drumming heard in jazz and American popular music since. Of course, any straight-ahead jazz ensemble relies on these tenets to continue to iterate and innovate on the standard small group format first pioneered by Roach and others in the 1940s and ‘50s, as heard on Lakecia Benjamin’s Phoenix or Billy Childs’ The Winds of Change, both nominated for this year’s Grammy Award for Best Jazz Album. But Roach’s advancements were also crucial for the development of rock and popular styles, and his music influential on drummers like John Bonham (Led Zeppelin), Neal Peart (Rush), and Steve Smith (Journey), and continues to be relevant to today’s most accomplished groove drummers like Chris “Daddy” Dave (Robert Glasper Experiment) and Nate Smith (Vulfpeck/The Fearless Flyers).
Roach’s influence reaches far beyond jazz music and far beyond drums alone as he continued to explore and reimagine the possibilities of the drum kit and music itself throughout his career. The seismic shifts created by Max Roach also opened new creative opportunities for other artists and other instruments, and Roach’s percussive developments also led to fundamental changes in piano technique, bass functions, and more. With so much to consider, we are grateful to look back on one hundred years of Max Roach, his virtuosic drumming, and his incredible musical vision that continue to shape our favorite music today and into the future, which you can hear all through the year on Jazz 93.5.