On July 14, 1988, Professor Max Roach, who has been called the
Duke Ellington of the drums, stopped by his office during a lunch
break while conducting his summer Jazz Studies Program for the
University of Massachusetts in Amherst. He found a telephone message
from a certain Dr. Hope in Chicago.
Roach did not know
anybody named Hope in Chicago. He had been negotiating to appear at
the Chicago Jazz Festival and he thought that it must have been
something to do with that. But Dr. Hope said: "Professor Roach,
you have been awarded a $372,000 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. All
we need is your Social security number."
in a state of shock," Roach said a month later in his upper West
Side apartment overlooking Central Park. "I didn't even apply.
There was no warning. They don't tell you why they chose you. And they
won't say who was on the committee."
The John D. and
Catherine T. Mac Arthur Foundation awarded 31 fellowships that year.
The smallest was $150,000. Roach's figure was close to the biggest.
Former recipients included the composer Milton Babbitt, choreographer
Merce Cunningham, poet John Ashbery and writer Irving Howe.
award is paid over five years and passed on the recipient's heirs
should he or she die before the period is over. No reports or projects
are required. Nominees, according to the foundation brochure, should "meet
rigorous standards of excellence in their work, well beyond
professional competence, even if such work is in its earliest stages.
They must show great promise for future work. Although committee
evaluation has to be based on achievement, the fellowship is not
intended to be a reward but rather to foster new accomplishment... to
provide hitherto unavailable opportunities."
extraordinarily fit 64, Roach had been creating his own opportunities
with remarkable resourcefulness. Building on the innovations of Kenny
Clarke, he became the measure of excellence for bebop drumming. He
worked with Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Miles
Davis, and co-led a legendary quartet with the trumpeter Clifford
He rendered obsolete the old joke about a jazz
quartet being "three musicians and a drummer." The critic
Rafi Zabor wrote: "Over no other instrument has the influence of
one man been as decisive as Roach's over drums for the past 30-odd
Roach explains the philosophy behind it: "I
always resented the role of a drummer as nothing more than a
subservient figure. The people who really got me off were dealing with
the musical potential of the instrument."
In recent years he had worked solo, in duo, with his quartet,
with a "double quartet" (four strings added) and with his
percussion ensemble, M'Boom, and he wrote for and performed with
Since he had already managed to do all
this within, or despite, the capitalist system, you could wonder what
kind of five-year plan he had for the additional $75,000 a year.
explained by way of a brief biography: "My family moved from
South Carolina to Bed-Stuy [the Bedford-Stuyvesant ghetto in Brooklyn]
in 1928. Although the crash came a year later, and although the people
were poor and disenfranchised, they had a lot of pride. Nobody was
slick, everybody was honest. People went to church.
used to take musical instruments home from elementary school. There
were some music teachers there - we all learned instruments. A lot of
us got started in public schools. Charlie Parker and Bud Powell, for
example. But now there are no more music teachers in public elementary
schools. It's like (Senator) Moynihan said, 'benign neglect.' Just let
it rot and fester.
"I'd like to use some of the
MacArthur prestige and money to at least begin some of the statistical
research necessary to present a plan to the city fathers to build a
kind of cultural complex in Bed-Stuy. I'd like to build what I call an
'oasis.' It should be a pleasure to look at and to be in. I'd like to
give something back to that community. Also, I'd like to have the time
to work on my autobiography."
Roach is many things
besides a great drummer: Civil, civic-minded, generous, healthy,
intelligent, literate are appropriate adjectives. He said: "I've
been through the whole mill. I've done everything everybody else did.
I don't know if it was my parents prayers or what, but I gave up
everything a long time ago. I don't smoke. I don't drink. I'm trying
to take care of myself in my old age."
There was an
ironic twist to the last sentence because in no way could he be
described as old. There was also a hint of an unconscious plea not to
be considered corny because he does not smoke or drink. You wondered
if there wasn't somebody somewhere who wanted to make a film about a
jazz giant who has not died some sort of tragic early death? He just
came into a great deal of money - that might grab a producer
After Roach had taught full time in Amherst from
1973 to 1979, Bruce Lundvall, president of CBS Records, who had just
signed Dexter Gordon and Freddie Hubbard, called Roach and told him, "The
water looks pretty good in New York now." So Roach went there and
recorded two albums for CBS, both of which, unfortunately, "fell
flat on their faces."
But he was weary of only relating
to students, no matter how talented; he wanted to deal with his
professional peers and they were in New York. He became an "adjunct
professor" and proceeded to horrify the sort of people who hold
on to the past for dear life when he recorded duos with the
avant-garde musicians Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor and Anthony Braxton.
used to play with Charlie Parker. How can you work with those guys?"
he was asked by those who should know better.
answered this way," Roach said. "A person like an Anthony
Braxton is more like Charlie Parker than a person who plays like
Charlie Parker. Bird was creative and different and looked inside
himself. He knew what Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter and the rest of
them had laid down. That was the foundation. Bird built on that
"Now you have people like Phil Woods who
preserve the tradition. And then there are people who push forward,
who perpetuate the continuum by trying out things. Cecil Taylor is
more like Art Tatum than a guy who plays like Tatum. It may not always
come off, but that's what creativity's about. Anyway, by now people
accept me for what I am."
In 1985, Roach won an Obie
award for his music written for three Sam Shepard plays revived at New
York's La Mama theater. After that Roach collaborated with the
choreographer Alvin Ailey on "Survivors," a tribute to
Winnie and Nelson Mandela.
Roach was preparing to record with
the son of an old friend from Bed-Stuy, a young rapper by the name of
Fab V Freddie. Roach considered rap "what took place after they
removed the cultural enrichment programs from all the Bed-Stuys of the
country." Through rap he began to putter with electronics, and he
has bought a computer. He wanted to call the record "From Hip-Hop
Or was it the other way around? It can be
hard to keep track of Max Roach and that's not only his charm but his