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Celebrating 30 Years Of 'Fresh Air': Drummer And Composer Max Roach


I'm Terry Gross. This week we're marking our 30th anniversary as a daily NPR program with a collection of interviews from our first couple of years. I was lucky enough to have been conducting interviews while some of the icons of bebop and the big band era were still alive. We're going to hear three of those interviews today.

First we go back to 1987 for an interview with Max Roach, one of the inventors of modern jazz drumming. Together with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, Roach helped formulate the language of bebop. In the mid-'50s, Roach teamed up with trumpeter Clifford Brown to form what many jazz fans regarded as the quintessential bop group of the time. In the early '60s, Roach recorded the album "We Insist!," the "Freedom Now Suite," some of the first jazz music inspired by the civil rights movement. We started with this 1954 Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet recording of "Daahoud."


GROSS: Max Roach, welcome to FRESH AIR.

MAX ROACH: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: How did you first meet some of the people who you became very close with and made now-classic music together with? I'm thinking of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Did they find you? Did you find them?

ROACH: Well, Dizzy Gillespie heard me at 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. And he was, like, kind of a patron for young talent. And these after-hour clubs - these after-hour clubs would open up at 4 in the morning and go until 8. So we could work those places and still go to school, Bud Powell and a crowd of us. Well, he heard me. He was at Cab Calloway. He heard me. He says, someday, when I get my own band and when I leave Cab Calloway, I would like you to play for me. That's how I met Dizzy, and Dizzy got - introduced me to the Coleman Hawkins, and I got my first record date.

And Dizzy was kind of, like, the catalyst of that whole movement that we called bebop. You know, he brought Charlie Parker to New York and Bud Powell and all these wonderful people. He kind of had a group around him, you know, and I was just fortunate enough to be part of that. But that's how I really got started.

GROSS: You were one of the first drummers to play bebop, and you were one of the first people to figure out how to drum in the kind of fiery sessions that were being played. What were some of the challenges that that presented to you?

ROACH: Well, when they played fast, they played very fast. Instrumental virtuosity prevailed because during the War, you know, we had an extra - the Second World War - we had an extra 20 percent cabaret taxes, very complex. To put it very simply, it was if an entrepreneur hired, he had to pay for, say, he had to pay a city tax - like in New York, he had to pay a state tax and a federal tax - on top of that he had to pay a 20 percent government tax called entertainment tax. If he had a singer, if he had public dancing or dancing on a stage or a comedian, this really heralded the demise of big bands during that time. This tax was just awful, you know?

So the people who really got the jobs were the virtuoso instrumentalists. And everybody went home and practiced, practiced, practiced. And then that was the beginning of bebop, like, the people who - so Charlie Parker and Dizzy, and hearing the virtuoso players were the ones who people would come and sit down. Everybody began to sit and listen to the music rather than get up and dance to it. That was the beginning of it.

GROSS: What rhythms had you been playing before, and what rhythms did you shift into playing once you started playing bop 'cause you really had to - you had to invent new rhythms and you had to invent new styles.

ROACH: Well, I also - I had help, too. I had a lot of help. My mentors were people like Big Sidney Catlett and Chick Webb, Joe Jones with the Count Basie band, for folks who don't know these. These were people who played with Louis Armstrong and Sidney Catlett did and later went with Benny Goodman. Sidney Catlett took Gene Krupa's place when Krupa started his own band.

But all these folks, they were doing pretty much the same thing but only in large band contexts. When you played in a small band, you had to do more. More was - more was required of you because there were less people. It was like playing in a string quartet is vis-a-vis symphony orchestras. It's much more interesting for the individual players. Of course an orchestra's interesting for the composer the conductor and the soloist. But when you play in a smaller context, everybody has to do more to fill up the sound.

So this was required of us. I don't think we were aware of it excepting that that first small band I worked in - the first one was Dizzy's. I worked in small bands, of course, all around the city at that time, but Dizzy was the one that his band with Charlie Parker and Oscar Pettiford and Bud Powell or Charles Mingus, that was real. All the virtuoso people got together, and that's - and we knew that everybody had to be kind of busy so consequently, there were - you heard more drums, you heard more piano, you heard more this then that and the other to fill it out. That's to put it very simply, of course (laughter).

GROSS: Right. Well, to put it less simply, we'll hear some of what you were playing then. (Laughter). This is from the mid-1940s, and this is my guest Max Roach as recorded with Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. And we're going to hear "Ko Ko."


GROSS: That was "Ko Ko." It was recorded in 1945 with my guest, Max Roach, on drums and Miles Davis on trumpet, Charlie Parker on alto saxophone. Does it bring back memories for you? Do you listen back to that much?

ROACH: It sure does. And it'd be Charlie Parker at that time as well as Dizzy. The music was very, very fresh. And I guess you would equate it with what we hear today from people like Anthony Braxton, at least they treated us that way. We were the new breed on the scene.

And they would say things, well, like - the critics would say Dizzy sounds like he's playing with a mouth full of marbles, and Charlie Parker was playing scales from a saxophone book - just only scales. And Max Roach dropped bombs. I don't know (laughter). What is (unintelligible). But Powell had no left hand. And it was - you know, we were criticized. But it was - some of it was valid, I thought, you know? We had...

GROSS: Really?

ROACH: We had a long way to go, You know?

GROSS: We're listening back to my 1987 interview with the late drummer Max Roach. We'll hear more as our 30th anniversary retrospective continues after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my 1987 interview with Max Roach who, along with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, helped formulate the language of bebop.


GROSS: Was this the life you had planned on when you wanted to become a jazz musician? Because you started playing at a time when the big bands were still around and being a jazz musician meant going on tour with Earl Hines or Cab Calloway - one of the - Duke Ellington - one of the big bands. But you actually came of age, you know, you grew - right after that, you came of age in a time when it was small groups, as you were saying before, and the life just became very different.

ROACH: It did. Well, I hadn't planned on really becoming - taking jazz music that seriously at the time. But the war and all the things that did happen - and then while I was in my senior year at Boys High, I said I had been - I met this gentleman Clark Monroe (ph) and worked in his after hour club. Well, Sonny Greer, Duke's great drummer, was ill. And most of the great drummers were in the Army, like Joe Jones, Sidney Catlett, et cetera. I could read music. So, you know, Clark - in those after-hours spots you played, as I said before, for shig (ph) dancers, usually, a catchy (unintelligible). You did all kinds of things.

And when Sonny Greer got sick, Duke Ellington called Mr. Monroe up for - did he know a drummer who could play a show? Duke was at the New York paramount. He said, I got a kid who works at my club that plays a show. And I went down to the New York Paramount. Make a long story short - got on the stage and looked at Mr. Greer's music stand. There was no music stand and no music. And I couldn't play by ear at that time. You know, I was about 17. So everything was by ear.

So Mr. Ellington see - before the curtain came up, he looked at me and saw the fright of fear in my face and said keep one eye on me and one eye on the acts on the stage. And I made it through. But then I made up my mind I wanted to be in this area of music because Duke had - all the theater and the drama and the pageantry was just surrounding him when he presented a show. And that's when I really decided that that was what I wanted to do.

GROSS: In the 1960s - in the early 1960s, you started to play music inspired by the civil rights movement. Had you become an activist then?

ROACH: Well, I guess we always have been, you know? People ask me that quite often. But I go back to Bessie Smith with "Black Mountain Blues" and then to Duke Ellington with his "Black, Brown And Beige." It's always been there. Had Lead Belly always spoke about the issues and the times that existed. And many of the old black folk singers from the south to street musicians dealt with it.

And so, to me, it wasn't - it was just I had an opportunity to say something. And I used - in fact, the suite was commissioned by the youth movement of the NAACP. And we premiered it here in Philadelphia at one of their conventions. That's was it was - we - in 1960. It was - we were originally commissioned to do something for the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation. And so that's how it came about.

GROSS: Was it at all risky for you to do politically-inspired music? Were you going to - did you run into any trouble in getting recording dates afterwards or club dates because of your involvement in the civil rights movement? And, you know - I don't know how...

ROACH: No, I don't think so. I'll tell you what did happen that was very positive. It sneaked into South Africa. Or rather, it was - it went into South Africa - didn't sneak in it. It was taken into South Africa as a jazz musician's album until people read the liner notes put out by Nat Hentoff. And the pieces were a comment because Oscar Brown Jr., of course, was a lyricist on the work. It was a comment on the things that happened in Charlottesville, Damascus and things like that.

So when the authorities in South Africa realized that this was not just simply a jazz album, they banned it. It hit the UPI and AP. And it became a celebrity record. And it sold more records, I guess, than anything else - anything I had ever made at that time. So something came out of it because of that. And the musicians from South Africa, like Hugh Masekela and doll Brandy, were listening and buying it and taping it and things like that. But it's amazing how things turn around, see?

So the Freedom Now Suite - that wasn't - but I've always been an activist. I've got - at that time, of course, my children were young. But you're always thinking about, you know, their future as well. And there has to be - if they're going to come up and be responsible human beings, they have to have education and the things like everyone else has. And the society has to accommodate that. So I guess I've always been activist because of them.

GROSS: I want to thank you very much for joining us today and talking with us. Thank you for being here.

ROACH: Thank you, Terry. It's a pleasure.

GROSS: Max Roach recorded in 1987. He died 20 years later at the age of 83. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.