July 12, 2024

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Max Roach at 100: Part 2 – Notes on Max’s concepts and the earliest recorded bebop: Video, Photos

Lewis Porter graciously shared three choruses of a 1938 performance of “After You’ve Gone” played by tenor saxophonist Lester Young with Jo Jones on drums on his wonderful Substack. Follow this link and hear a few minutes of magic.

At the top of the second chorus, Jones switches from the hi hat to the ride cymbal. And there it is: state-of- the-art, ultra-modern jazz drumming. Played in an older style, sure, but don’t be fooled: nothing Jones does is easy to play, and his concept of interacting with the soloist is the exact concept I was using at my gig tonight with Ember.

Every drummer today, regardless of style or context, is playing a modern version of this.

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Max Roach, one of the crucial artists of the 20th century, born 100 years ago this month, took Jo Jones’ concepts and made them his own. In Roach’s version, the right hand swings on the ride cymbal, the bass drum softly taps out quarter notes, the hi-hat claps on 2 and 4, and the left hand comments on the music as it unfolds with bits of clavè, polyrhythms, and shuffles.

Prior to Max, drummers only played like this sometimes: maybe at a jam session (the Lester Young and Jo Jones we just heard is from a jam session) or for a chorus behind a virtuosic horn solo in a big band. On the records Max made with Charlie Parker in the Forties—the original bebop recordings— Roach played like this all the time. In his hands, it was high art, and all followed in his wake.

Bebop, as a set of ideas— an emphasis on individuality, expectation of a unique technical accomplishment, an awareness of music around the world, and probably some others— is central to jazz’s identity. As a sound, it keeps changing; its meaning refuses to be fixed, frozen, or settled. Like all great music, bebop can speak to anybody, anytime.

I’m currently on the quixotic mission of learning to play a few Charlie Parker solos on the piano, and I walk around the city listening over and over to “Now’s The Time” from 1945, “Yardbird Suite” from 1946, and “Scrapple From The Apple” from 1948, quietly humming along at half-speed via the Amazing Slow Downer.

And the solos keep changing, always hitting me differently. Sometimes Charlie Parkers sounds like a militant revolutionary, anarchic and impatient, other times the solos seem romantic, wistful, and folk-like, or they sound experimental and argumentative, a researcher showing the results of experiments.

The same solos, over and over, different every time: this is why I love jazz.

There’s Max Roach the cultural innovator, Civil Rights activist, and experimental pan-African jazz musician. There’s also Max Roach the jazz drummer. Nate Chinen, in his beautiful piece about Roach, writes lovingly about Max playing “Cherokee” with Clifford Brown; like Chinen, sometimes when I hear this track, all I can hear is Max’s right hand on the ride cymbal.

When asked about his mastery of rapid tempos, Roach would reply that it was a matter of staying relaxed, and letting the tempo take care of itself. Indeed, there’s something of the championship boxer or the chess master on “Cherokee”, as Roach refuses to go all in until absolutely necessary. His solo is a knockout punch— one chorus, 64 rapid bars that meticulously parallel and outline the form of the tune. This is devastating: after playing cool and flowing for four minutes, he ends the match.

On “Cherokee”, Roach is playing single strokes, but as precise and clear as his ideas are, he’s relaxed about his articulation. His loose left hand puts some extra rattle in there, giving his phrases a hint of mystery, folkways, and African perspective. Max is a virtuoso of design and architecture, and this solo on “Cherokee” is a new standard: an improvised composition. At the same time, this is some of the most exciting, swinging music ever waxed: the jazz dichotomy dual bell is rung again.

The iconic Max Roach drum sound is featured on Study In Brown: high, hissing cymbals are front and center, with snare and toms tuned way up, evoking bongos and timbales. The overall effect emphasizes treble, allowing Max’s sound and ideas to sing out over the band; with this tuning and these cymbals, everything Roach plays will be heard.

But “Cherokee” was recorded in 1955, eleven years after Max first began making records, and almost ten years after Charlie Parker’s “Ko Ko”, a legendary Roach performance. That classic, ‘treble Max’ sound isn’t present on “Ko-Ko”, nor on any of the canonical bebop records he was making at the time. The treble Max sound was something he arrived at.

The earliest example of treble Max I know of is the Thelonious Monk session for Prestige in December 1952, which yielded the original “Trinkle Tinkle”. It’s also heard on the Charlie Parker Verve session later that month which gave us “The Song Is You”.

A brand-new Gretsch drumset is part of the story— the drumset Max is playing at the Three Deuces with Charlie Parker and Miles Davis simply couldn’t be tuned to the treble range that Max was now exploring. But what came first, Max’s search for more clarity or a new, precision-engineered Gretsch kit?

All drummers buy new drumsets, few create a new sound and vocabulary with them.

Max Roach at the Three Deuces, NYC, October 1947. Source: Library of Congress website.
Ultimately, these questions— what makes bebop drumming different from swing drumming? how, when, and why did Roach teach himself to take a drum solo on the form of the tune? when did Max’s characteristic sound first appear? — lead back to my haziness about the earliest bebop. Perhaps if we hear Max Roach and bebop from the beginning, maybe we could enjoy it and understand it more.

I remind myself that this is music— a human activity— and therefore a final, complete, and correct understanding is not possible. Nor, really, is it even desired. If we knew what the music meant, perfectly and completely, why would we listen to it?

I’m going to pretend to be an astute and rather obsessive jazz fan in the late Forties in NYC. I spend all my money and time hitting the clubs and building up my home record library, with a special interest in Max Roach.

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