Remembering Max: A First-Person Account

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This page is also available in / Cette page est également disponible en: Francais (French)

On Jan. 10, 2024, bebop drummer extraordinaire Max Roach would have turned 100. Having first made his mark as an active participant in the 1940s bebop revolution, he went on to become an outspoken advocate of the ever-changing face of the music and his people for the next 50 years. By the new millennium, however, life had taken its toll on him; the onset of Alzheimer’s disease led to his death in August of 2007. We take the opportunity to celebrate this man’s life and contribution in February, which happens to be Black History month.

When not on the bandstand driving a band as a leader or sideman, he was an able composer who dedicated his life to the causes of music education and social awareness. To set the stage for this issue’s extended feature coinciding with his centennial year, here is some background on the circumstances that allowed this writer a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet the man one-on-one:

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In December 1978, all of 21 years old and far from having found my vocation as a music writer, I was pursuing a major in anthropology at McGill University. In one of my last-year courses on research methods, students were assigned to record someone’s life story in their own words.

At that time, Montreal was home to a jazz club called the Rising Sun. This rather funky dive turned out to be the last venue in town where American headliners and their bands appeared for a full six-night stand. There could not have been a better classroom for the budding jazz fan that I was at that age, having been immersed in the music for barely five years. There are far too many unforgettable three-set evenings to list here, but the appearance of Max Roach and his stellar piano-less quartet remains etched in my mind to this day, the band members being tenorman Billy Harper, trumpeter Calvin Bridgwater and bassist Calvin Hill. Knowing in advance he would be in town, it was pretty much a no-brainer to choose him as my subject. Somewhat unsure of myself, I bit the bullet and approached him during a set break. Lo and behold, he accepted on the spot and invited me to come to his hotel room on a sunny Saturday morning at 11 a.m, Dec. 9 to be exact. With less than 48-hours’ notice, I scrambled to borrow a tape recorder and purchased a 75-minute cassette, showing up right on time. What follows are large excerpts of the conversation—or monologue, should I say—during which I asked him but a few questions, and he filled up both sides of the tape with a gold mine of information and personal insights.

Northward Bound

I was born in the South in a predominantly African-American setting, but by the Great Depression my family migrated northwards to Harlem. All my early memories there were of people like Chick Webb, Duke Ellington and so many others, all so inspiring (to) me. In high school, I started playing drums but wanted to further my education, which led me to enrol at the Manhattan School of Music. I chose the percussion program thinking I would breeze through it, but on my first lesson, I realized that my jazz technique was at odds with the one required for European classical music, so I switched over to a composition major where I earned my degree.”

The Street that Never Sleeps

In that (mid-1940s) era, the city was abuzz with music, but because of the war there was a 20 per cent tax levied on all night clubs and venues booking singers, dancers, or comedians—but not instrumental music. That brought the big-band era to an end, because club owners had to pay state and city taxes, a lease, liquor licenses, staff, plus that 20 per cent out of every dollar made, which was just too much for them to shoulder.

Instrumental music really benefited under those circumstances, thrusting Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Bud Powell onto the scene. They exemplified that period I was really fortunate to be part of. You could see so many great musicians working along that street, virtuosos of the highest order, Art Tatum to name but one of them.

At that time, however, the music industry was in the throes of a recording ban pitting the musicians’ union against the labels. But we still managed to record the new music of the time—bebop, as it came to be known—and thank God for that, otherwise the early stuff of Charlie Parker would have been lost. There were studios set up in back alleys, paying us cash on the spot at scale or a little above it. It was no big secret what was going on there, and nobody ever took us to task for it either.”

What’s in a Name

How the term ‘bebop’ came into being was the result of an accident, or a misunderstanding. Dizzy had actually written a piece with that title. We had come just off the bandstand, totally exhausted after a set, and Leonard Feather (arguably the leading jazz critic of the time) appeared before us wondering what the heck we were doing. Dizzy actually thought he wanted to know the title of the last tune we played, so he said ‘Be-Bop,’ hence the name that came to be for this new music.

But I really resent that word, just as much as I dislike the term ‘jazz.’ You are pigeonholed, and the music is easily reduced to something of a fad—which, as we know, can become passé, or dead for that matter. To me this is just the music of Parker, Gillespie, Powell and so on, and this is what it should be. Labels, for their part, are stigmas, and that in turn explains my critical views on all them.

Same thing for ‘jazz.’ To me, it is synonymous to ‘n*****’, ‘black’, ‘kike’,‘mick’ and the like, when it is for all intents and purposes a music created in the Americas, and cross-fertilized by different cultures. The word ‘jazz’ has to do with the ‘Scottsboro Boys’ case. They were nine Black youths accused of raping a white girl in the South. One of the most famous lawyers of the day actually broke the case after finding a letter the girl wrote to a dear friend in which she said that ‘those boys didn’t jazz me.’”

1953: Massey Hall Summit

In Toronto, there was a jazz society staging concerts who decided to hire five people they believed to be the best representatives of modern jazz, of which I was one. Oscar Pettiford was actually chosen as the bassist, but could not attend because he broke his arm, so they called up Charlie Mingus instead, who had just arrived from the West Coast. It was his idea to record the concert, and he set up an engineer in the rafters of Massey Hall without anyone knowing about it, except me.

Over the years, there has been plenty of gossip and false stories surrounding this event, like the supposed feud between Dizzy and Bird, (which was) totally fabricated by Ross Russell (Charlie Parker’s record producer who went on to pen the controversial biography Bird Lives). Russell wanted to monopolize musicians, and as Bird was under contract with him, he thought he owned Bird. Personally, I think that he was projecting, or that he resented Bird, Diz and the others, because he did not have any talent himself.

Bud (Powell) was one of the real piano geniuses of that time. We had to bring him out of an institution where they were giving him shock therapy. His mental state was brought on by an incident a decade previous. Blacks had been enduring racism in so many ways, like in the army, and that in turn led to discontent among them. In New York, you could not have more than two Blacks hanging out together on the street, and if there were, the police would move in and say: “Break it up, you n******.” This is what happened on one occasion when Bud, a young man of 18 or so at the time, (and we grew up together), was rather oblivious to all of that. He was with a group of friends one night, and when the police came in to break up the gathering, he took exception to one of them touching him and was beaten down to the ground for that. He was clubbed and it damaged his skull, which led to the mental breakdown that plagued him for the rest of this life. But that night, he played beautifully in spite of all of his troubles.”

The Legendary Quintet

I first met Clifford Brown (“Brownie”) in Philadelphia in the early 1950s when I was invited to join a band directed by saxophonist Jimmy Heath. Six months later, I crossed paths with Brownie again, this time at a record store in California. He was playing at that famed L.A. nightclub, the Lighthouse. I went west after having disbanded my group, and the impresario Gene Norman suggested I ought to put a new group together. And so it came to be that I asked Clifford to be part of a quintet that would be billed under both of our names. We went to work immediately and rehearsed at Eric Dolphy’s parents’ home. They had turned their garage into a music room for their son. But that very first band never recorded. Sonny Stitt was our tenorman before Harold Land came into the fold. We worked hard with the sole aim of putting together as solid a band as we could. We just wanted to be part of the larger continuum of the music, never imagining that it would someday write an important page of jazz history.

After about two years together (summer of 1956), we had a date in Chicago, but Clifford was guesting at a Sunday concert series in Philadelphia. He let me know over the phone that he was going to leave right after the gig, drive overnight and make a stop in Elkhart, Ind., by 9 a.m. to endorse a line of trumpets, after which he would continue on to Chicago. That actually was the first, and alas, only time we had not travelled together.

The next morning, Joe Glaser (the band’s manager) phoned me up and told me to brace myself: Clifford was killed that night when the car skidded off the Baltimore turnpike with Richie Powell (the quintet’s pianist, and Bud’s brother) and his wife at the wheel. They were 25, 23 and 21 years old. But once he broke the news to me, Glaser told me in the same breath that both Miles and Roy Eldridge happened to be in Chicago, and I could still make the date. I just couldn’t believe it: this is my agent telling me that!

I was so shattered, I just shut myself in my room and got so high on booze to numb me from the pain. I remember very well the gloom surrounding the funeral and the visits from the respective families. Years later, Bud used to go around wondering where Richie was.”

New Decades New Realities

From that wide open scene I talked about earlier, and the problems that dogged it, more challenges and changes arose in the ensuing years. In the 1950s, a kind of sanctimonious attitude took hold, where you had this good-versus-evil syndrome stemming from that Protestant ethic. You had vigilantes of sorts who wanted to have all those late-night places shut down, and the prostitutes off the streets, and who had laws enacted to enforce their agenda. That was really the final death knell of 52nd Street, which has since become an extension of the Rockefeller Center. Harlem became unsafeeven for the Harlemitesbut there was more hay made on that than anything else.

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In the music business as well, we in jazz and popular music were at a disadvantage with the introduction of LPs. Record companies were just getting away with murder. A royalty was set per track recorded, something like two cents, so you had to record more pieces to get more in return. But as jazzmen wanted to stretch out, they would get less money, which was not the case for classical albums, where it was not required to record a lot of pieces to earn royalties. This was yet another discriminatory practice in the music business. We wanted to be put on an equal footing with those in classical music, and that was a real struggle for us. Things have improved, but we still have to fight for our rights. Music publishing was established ages ago for the benefit of classical composers, and it should be no different in jazz. It took major artists like Miles or Brubeck to take a stand against this.

From the mid-decade through to the late 1960s, our culture was in great flux. The war in Vietnam was an issue for sure, as were racial tensions, and various other social issues. Artists in all fields were very sensitive to this, too, and there is so much to say on this that could make this conversation go on for too long.”

The Europe-America Divide

When you go to Europe, Black musicians enjoy more social freedom and greater peace of mind. They can settle anywhere, and live as long as they can afford it. That means a lot. They also enjoy more artistic freedom which, in some cases, is not always good. Red Mitchell (a white American bassist who lived in Sweden for 23 years) once told me that he was so fed up about the social tension in America stemming from the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war, that he had to get away from it all to reclaim his own artistic freedom as a performer. Another example is Kenny Clarke. He sought freedom from all the politics. He did not want to be obliged to ride in the back of the bus anymore, and it would only be of his choice to sit wherever he pleases, back or front.

Europeans, I believe, accept Americans more out of sympathy, maybe in a patronizing way, more than out of real knowledge or understanding of what is really going. There are hosts of musicians over there unable to really deal with the music on a level equal to what is going on here in the States. They don’t fully grasp what people like Art Tatum and Charlie Parker have given to us, they just pick it up from a given point and proceed from there. There are plenty of people who don’t master the basics, let alone feel the beat, but are still accepted and granted full artistic freedom. Europeans simply do not have the insider’s view on the music, which is created in the States.”

Jazz Democracy

Music is a great force when it comes to dealing with human beings on a sociological level. Jazz as a democratic form began long before bebop, but from its earliest days, those of Buddy Bolden, King Oliver and the like. It unites people around a common cause on the bandstand, allowing everyone to influence others as they play. Jazz Mans listening and respecting others enough to harmonize with them. It is also fluid, and enables each new generation to contribute something of its own. It is not imperialistic like classical music, where a conductor has the last say on everything.”

Coda

Seven years later, at the Montreal Jazz Festival, I handed Max Roach a transcript of the interview on which this piece is based. That evening, I attended his concert, and it left me floored once again. In a 70-minute performance, the band covered three tunes, the opener—Scott Free—clocking in at over three-quarters of an hour. A night to remember! One of many.

Bonus

Filmed interview (undated, probably in the 1980s)

 

 

 

 

This page is also available in / Cette page est également disponible en: Francais (French)

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About Author

Marc Chénard is a Montreal-based multilingual music journalist specialized in jazz and improvised music. In a career now spanning some 30 years, he has published a wide array of articles and essays, mainly in Canada, some in the United States and several in Europe (France, Belgium, Germany and Austria). He has travelled extensively to cover major festivals in cities as varied as Vancouver and Chicago, Paris and Berlin, Vienna and Copenhagen. He has been the jazz editor and a special features writer for La Scena Musicale since 2002; currently, he also contributes to Point of Departure, an American online journal devoted to creative musics. / / Marc Chénard est un journaliste multilingue de métier de Montréal spécialisé en jazz et en musiques improvisées. En plus de 30 ans de carrière, ses reportages, critiques et essais ont été publiés principalement au Canada, parfois aux États-Unis mais également dans plusieurs pays européens (France, Belgique, Allemagne, Autriche). De plus, il a été invité à couvrir plusieurs festivals étrangers de renom, tant en Amérique (Vancouver, Chicago) que Outre-Atlantique (Paris, Berlin, Vienne et Copenhangue). Depuis 2012, il agit comme rédacteur atitré de la section jazz de La Scena Musicale; en 2013, il entame une collabortion auprès de la publication américaine Point of Departure, celle-ci dédiée aux musiques créatives de notre temps.

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