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Jazz Legend Max Roach Dies at 83


Jazz pioneer Max Roach has died. He had an innovative way of playing drums. He used the full kit to create a palette of melody and harmony and, of course, rhythm. And that style helped propel jazz through its most important developments - from swing to bebop to the avant-garde.

Max Roach was atypical in more ways than one. He didn't start in a music school or even a regular old jazz band. He got his start at a Coney Island sideshow, as he told WHYY's "Fresh Air" in 1987.

Mr. MAX ROACH (Jazz Musician): We used to do sometimes 12, 14 shows a day and we'd have a barker outside. It was a barker who would say come on in, and the girls would go out and shake a little bit and then the public would come in. We'd do, say, 40 minutes. You have 20 minutes off, and they'd go back out. A real sideshow. I enjoyed it.

In order to master an instrument you have to do everything. I played with the local symphony orchestra. I played the Coney Island sideshows. I played with marching bands, just - I have drums will travel, so to speak.

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MONTAGNE: And he played with Duke Ellington's orchestra. Max Roach was still a teenager when he landed a job with that orchestra, but it was his association with another musician that would launch the drummer's career.

Mr. ROACH: Dizzy Gillespie heard me on a jam session in a place called Monroe's Uptown House. Clark Monroe was the brother-in-law of Billie Holiday's first husband, Jimmy Monroe. He was like a patron for young talent in these after-hour clubs. These after-hour clubs would open up at four in the morning and go until eight, so we could work those places and still go to school. Bud Powell and a crowd of us. Well, he heard me. He was with Cab, he heard me and said, someday when I get my own band, when I leave Cab Calloway, I would like you to play for me.

MONTAGNE: Dizzy Gillespie carried Max Roach into a gathering storm on New York's 52nd Street, a musical maelstrom that the drummer mastered. As Gillespie himself tells it.

Mr. DIZZY GILLESPIE (Jazz Musician): He was one of the originators of the style. Max was a leading delineator of that music.

MONTAGNE: That music was called bebop.

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MONTAGNE: Max Roach stood out from other drummers because of his ability to play multiple rhythms at the same time, and as the late Dizzy Gillespie told NPR in 1989, because of his musicality.

Mr. GILLESPIE: Aside from being a good drummer, he's a good musician. One thing, he didn't say boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom with a base drum. The base drum didn't have a strict four-four beat. It had beats in between, and it's more of a feeling. A feeling of what you do and what you need behind you when you play. He had it. He was just unique.

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MONTAGNE: Max Roach was like a lot of the other musicians of his era in that he struggled with drugs and alcohol. His first wife, singer Abbey Lincoln, helped him overcome those burdens, and together they took on the social issues of the day. One of their albums, "We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite," became one of the benchmarks of 1960s musical activism.

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MONTAGNE: Roach carried his role as activist onto the college campus, not through protests but through teaching. He was one of the pioneers of jazz education. He kept performing, collaborating with Alvin Aily's dance company, and winning an Obie Award for a score to a Sam Shepard play. And as he did throughout his life, Max Roach continued to push the boundaries of music.

Mr. ROACH: You have to change in the business. You cannot repeat yourself if you are - quote - a supposedly creative artist.

MONTAGNE: This most creative drummer made his final appearance last summer when he was honored by Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Max Roach died this week in New York after a long illness. He was 83. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: November 19, 2007 at 10:13 AM EST
The audio version of this story incorrectly said that singer Abbey Lincoln was Max Roach's first wife. She was his second wife.
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