A MASTER’S PASSING: Max Roach‘s recent passing-on August 16 at the age of 83-was duly noted in circles wherever jazz has any influence. But in the larger context of American culture, not nearly enough respect has been paid to the man, master, social activist, and architect of music as we know it. As composer, bandleader, genre-crossing visionary, and maker of his own kind of meta-swing in life and music, Roach was much more than just a drummer, to the extent that he illustrated the folly of the common, diminutive phrase “just a drummer.”
For one thing, the drum kit has been a crucible of musical culture-high, low, and middling-and also the heartbeat of American music, and Roach was one of a handful of drummers who truly showed us “how it goes.” He was a key creator of the revolutionary vocabulary and attitude of bebop in the 1940s, with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie et al. Roach worked with Charles Mingus, co-creating the Debut label, became the solid-yet-fluid drummer with youngsters Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins, and then co-led a legendary band with the great trumpeter Clifford Brown, whose premature death in a car crash put an end to what would have been a major jazz ensemble.
In the 1960s, Roach dared to blend music with political and social concerns on classic recordings like We Insist! Freedom Now Suite, with text by Oscar Brown, Jr. and memorable vocals by his soon-to-be wife Abbey Lincoln. He also championed the innate musicality of drumming as an expressive force unto itself in his all-percussion band M’Boom. He had no problem turning left into the avant-garde, either, playing passionate duets with such figures as Archie Shepp and Cecil Taylor while continuing to create in more conventional settings.
In 1990, after the release of a live duet recording with his old friend Gillespie, Paris 1989 (A&M), I spoke with Roach, who was-not at all surprisingly-articulate in conversation as well as from behind varied configurations of drums. I asked him about the collaborative essence of jazz, and he offered a thumbnail history of the art form: “As far as I can hear, it [collaboration] always had been the staple of this music, whether we call it jazz or whatever, this area of instrumental music that came out of America. From New Orleans down there with Sidney Bechet, you can hear it. Eventually it settled down into a form or a style. We heard it from Louis Armstrong and those earlier musicians down there. People found parts that would add to the music that created that kind of linear, contrapuntal way of dealing with things that they had in New Orleans-tailgating and whatnot.
“I believe it’s been a staple even up to the free musicians. The other day I heard Lester Bowie and some of the M-Base folks out there in Brooklyn. They were doing things in another way-wide open, but you could see that they were all relating. They were all on the same wavelength. I’ll never forget the first time I heard Cecil Taylor and Sunny Murray in the Village. It sat me right down. Everybody seemed to be on the same wavelength. With me, and many other folks, the important things are breaking down barriers and crossing over.”
Roach is missed, and yet he’s in our collective bloodstream, for good.
TO-DOINGS: High on the list of Santa Barbara musicians with a presence in the outside musical world is drummer-composer Luis Mu±oz. In the last several years, he has garnered broad acclaim for his unique Costa Rican variations on the Latin jazz theme, not to mention his imaginative compositional voice. Now comes Mu±oz’s newly released Of Soul and Shadow (Pelin Music), another dazzler deserving attention far and wide, a set by turns hot and cold, lyrical and charged up with tautly choreographed Latin jazz energy. Guests include the ever-engaging alto saxophonist David Binney and chromatic harmonica player Ron Kalina. Hear Mu±oz and his band at a CD release gig tonight at SOhO. (Got e? firstname.lastname@example.org.)