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Max Roach

08/24/07 5:55PM By Mike Martin

(HOST) The recent death of drummer Max Roach brought back memories of hot nights and cool jazz for commentator Mike Martin.  

(MARTIN) Like the bebop he played, jazzman Max Roach was original, bombastic, soulful, and sophisticated. When he died last week at 83, music fans said goodbye to another jazz giant, another genius who made American music one of the bright spots of the 20th Century. In fact, Max was the first jazz musician to win a MacArthur genius award, and he was a college professor too, but you had only to hear him play to know he was a genius.

The first time I remember hearing him was on a sweltering summer night in Paris. I was at Magali's, not knowing yet that we would get married and have kids, and it was so hot in her apartment that we were watching TV from outside on the balcony. The French channel was broadcasting a concert in Paris with just two guys on stage, a trumpeter and a drummer, and the Parisian audience was going nuts because it was Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach. Dizzy played flights of fancy, scalding high notes, dirty slurs, and his trumpet lines insinuated themselves between Max's shifting rhythms. Max wasn't just playing drums, he wasn't even soloing per se, he was drumming up little worlds for Dizzy to play in: a hip-hop club, a New Orleans dirge, 52nd Street after hours, West African dance - drumming all conjured up by Max and his magic hands and feet. And although Max and Diz filled the stage with their virtuosity, the whole performance was still a conversation between two old friends, sharing jokes, reacting to bold statements, and telling old stories like "Oo Pa Pa Da", "Salt Peanuts", and "Round Midnight".

When Max came to Vermont, we went to hear him and were sucked in once again by the stories that he played, as if a drum kit were a narrative tool instead of a thing to keep time. I even got to talk to Max at a Flynn Center "Meet the Artist" event. It was so packed that Magali waited for me on the sidewalk with the baby and stroller. Max was in his seventies at the time, but looked like a fit 45-year old, and he was charming and debonair. "Yes, the man in the back with the nice smile," he said, picking me out of the crowd for the last question that day. I asked him about recording the landmark trio album Money Jungle with Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus. He told us how Mingus stomped out of the session because Ellington was covering his bass lines on the piano with his left hand. Max, the diplomat, had to mediate and somehow got Mingus back to record. Afterwards, I realized that he'd also just given a mini-lecture on stride piano, bop, and the avant-garde.

And Max was generous. He always credited the drummer Papa Joe Jones whenever he borrowed his astounding cymbal act, "Mr. Hi-Hat". You can still see it on YouTube.

Max was a genius - and he was big-hearted and funny. We'll miss him.

Mike Martin writes about issues of culture and education and teaches French at Champlain Valley Union High School.
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