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All That Jazz

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Jazz’s greatest drummer once earned D’s in music in school, once wrote an essay entitled “I Hate Jazz” and once even launched a venture to break into the soft-drink market.

Max Roach performs at the Three Deuces club in New York in 1947. William P. Gottlieb Collection / Music Division.
Max Roach performs at the Three Deuces club in New York in 1947. William P. Gottlieb Collection / Music Division.

The Library of Congress on Monday announced the acquisition of the papers of Max Roach, the groundbreaking drummer who helped birth bebop, the adventurous musician who never stopped innovating, the educator who inspired new generations and the civil-rights activist who insisted on freedom now.

Roach’s five children – Daryl, Maxine, Raoul, Ayo and Dara – appeared in the Members Room of the Jefferson Building to celebrate his legacy and to check out a few of the 100,000 items in the collection – including dad’s eighth-grade report card, his ruminations about jazz and the promotional material for Afro Kola (slogan: “The Taste of Freedom”).

“As a drummer, composer, bandleader, educator and activist, Max Roach had a profound impact on American music,” Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said. “His collection will have high research value not just for musicians and jazz scholars, but for anyone exploring the rise of political consciousness among African-Americans in the post-World War II period. His collection will now be preserved in the nation’s library so that his legacy and works might inspire generations to come.”

Roach grew up in New York and got a musical education in the clubs of 52nd Street, where almost every great jazz singer or player of the era performed.

“I attended the university of the streets in the ‘Harlems’ of the USA,” Roach wrote on a hotel stationery pad, now part of the Library collections. “My professors were Duke Ellington, Sonny Greer, Baby Dodds, Louis Armstrong. … My classmates were Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Charlie Mingus, Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis.”

In 1942, at age 18, he filled in with the Duke Ellington Orchestra at the Paramount Theater.

In the years that followed, Roach performed with jazz’s giants on some of their greatest records: Davis and “Birth of the Cool,” Ellington and “Money Jungle,” Monk and “Brilliant Corners,” Sonny Rollins and “Saxophone Colossus” and – especially – the 1940s sides with Parker, Gillespie and Coleman Hawkins that helped create modern jazz. On those early records, Roach pioneered a new approach to drumming – he didn’t just accompany, he led. He could play any tempo and any time signature, and his lighter, propulsive sound gave the other players more space to solo.

“He was one of the great African-American creators of the modern jazz style known as bebop,” said Larry Appelbaum, a senior reference specialist in the Music Division.” He not only set very high standards for his technical prowess, but also for his vision, innovations and collaborations.”

Roach reinvented jazz drumming, then embarked on a musically adventurous career spent breaking other barriers.

Roach was among the first to use jazz as a voice for racial equality: His album “We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite” marks a musical milestone in civil rights.

He formed a 10-member drum ensemble, M’Boom; composed music for plays and dance; performed with a string quartet that included daughter Maxine; worked with avant-garde musicians; played drums for spoken-word concerts and recordings featuring the works of Toni Morrison and Martin Luther King Jr; and incorporated elements of hip-hop and poetry into his music.

He later taught music at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Roach made his final recording in 2002 and died five years later at 83.

Members of Max Roach’s family (onstage) take in a film clip featuring their father on drums. Photo by Shealah Craighead
Members of Max Roach’s family (onstage) take in a film clip featuring their father on drums. Photo by Shealah Craighead

On Monday in the Members Room, Roach’s children reflected on his life and legacy. They recalled growing up around some of the great figures in African-American culture: chess games with Gillespie, musical advice from Davis, a visit at home by James Baldwin, a babysitting session with Mahalia Jackson.

“It seemed normal,” Maxine said. “We were fortunate. We just met these people.”

The family first considered the Library of Congress as the permanent home to Roach’s papers in 2010, when Maxine attended a Library event celebrating the acquisition of saxophone great Dexter Gordon’s papers.

“I was so warmly received,” Maxine said. “I was given a tour. My impression after leaving the library was that this was one of the sanest places I’ve ever been in my life.”

The collection contains some 400 linear feet of musical scores, photos, audio recordings, video recordings, business plans, lesson plans and correspondence that define Roach’s life and times. It holds many important items – the holograph score for Roach’s groundbreaking “We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite,” an unreleased recording of legendary pianist Hassan Ibn Ali, and an unpublished draft of his autobiography, among others.

The collection also includes a fascinating assortment of odds and ends that reveal his life, music and the music business: that early report card (he earned an A in “civility” and a D in music); an address book (Josephine Baker and Miles Davis face off on opposite pages); receipts noting payments to sidemen (trumpeter Freddie Hubbard got $3,500); a contract for a gig at the Blue Note in Philadelphia ($1,500 for two weeks).

The papers also illustrate a man deeply concerned about jazz, African-American culture and their place in the United States. His “I Hate Jazz” essay explores not a dislike for the music but the racial and economic implications of the term: “ ‘Jazz’ has always meant the worst of working conditions for our artists,” he wrote.

In another essay, he wondered, “What does it mean economically when black musicians espouse and perform the music of anyone other than black composers?”

Roach’s children said he felt a strong sense of the importance of jazz in American music and that he meticulously documented his experiences for the benefit of future generations and researchers – dedication that produced the collection acquired by the Library this week.

“It speaks to his passion to be recognized as not only a hard-working musician all his life, but a human being as well,” Maxine said. “He fought for that on so many levels. That was always the focus: dignity as an artist and a human.”

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