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Courage and Improvisation: The Max Roach Papers

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The following is a guest blog by 2016-2017 Library of Congress Jazz Scholar Ingrid Monson.

“Courage and Improvisation: The Max Roach Papers”
Ingrid Monson, Harvard University
2016-2017 Library of Congress Jazz Scholar

As I sat going through box after box of the Max Roach Papers in the Music Division at the Library of Congress, the theme of courage came to mind. Fans of Max Roach will not be surprised to hear the word applied to the drummer, as they are familiar with his reputation for speaking out against racism, for protesting the reviews of jazz critics, and for exploring links between black nationalism and pan-Africanism. But as I sat in the reading room, something much more mundane evoked the idea of courage—the yellow legal pad sheets on which Max Roach had handwritten in pencil business letters, articles, college lectures, program notes, costume and staging instructions, and contracts for the licensing and the sale of masters. Here is one example:

Max Roach. “Black Music and Its Creators,” Max Roach Papers, Library of Congress. Box 57, folder 1.

“Black Music and its Creators,” was the title of one of Max Roach’s many lectures given at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst in the 1970s. In its opening, he quickly asked several questions central to jazz historiography. “In the work of black music where plagiarism and exploitation is wantonly practiced, we ask ourselves why it happens?  how it happens? and who is responsible? Do the answers lie in the history of the music and its creators as seen from a socio-political viewpoint?”

Handwritten documents like this one are found throughout the Max Roach Papers. They demonstrate his deep engagement in every aspect of the multiple qualities and activities necessary to sustain a career as an artist, not only a creative musical vision, the preparation of performances, and their circulation through recording and broadcast, but also dogged attention to business. Throughout the archive can be found business letters hand drafted by Max Roach and subsequently typed and sent. These pages, no less than the musical works for which we celebrate him, are courageous.

Jazz scholars and aficionados are accustomed to prioritizing musical courage at the moment of improvised performance in accounts of the music. Here the artist must trust that his or her musical training has provided the preparation needed for the leap into the never fully predictable moment of live performance. Yet there are many other improvisations that have made this moment possible, such as those included in the organization of performances or recording sessions by the artist or other parties, in the navigation of legal rules and economic contingencies, copyright filings, permissions and licensing, and in resistance to contractual terms.

In exploring the types of courage visible in the Max Roach Papers I’d like to discuss briefly three examples.  First, documents related to Milma Publishing, Max Roach’s publishing company. Second, Max Roach’s forceful written resistance to the music industry’s valuation of his recording masters with Clifford Brown. And finally, his reconceptualization of the We Insist! Freedom Now Suite in a performance from 1973.

Among the materials in the Max Roach papers are the recording licenses issued by Milma Publishing, which he formed in 1958. Rather than give a third party publisher royalties for his compositions, Roach took on the considerable bureaucratic obligations of running a publishing company, so that he could collect not only his composer’s royalties, but also those for the publisher. A BMI Clearance form for “Little Sweet” makes vivid the more advantageous distribution of proceeds resulting from owning his own publishing company.

“Little Sweet” BMI Clearance Form. Max Roach Papers, Library of Congress. Box 141, folder 20.

Signing recording licenses for the songs in the Milma catalog was part of the routine work of running the publishing company. The Max Roach Papers are full of forms like this one, a recording license issued to Mercury Records in 1959 for “Tympanalli.”

Recording license issued to Mercury Records by Milma Publishing. Max Roach Papers. Library of Congress. Box 150, folder 33.

A second example is found in Max Roach’s handwritten contract which served as his response to an unacceptably low offer by Elektra/Asylum in 1981 for the purchase of the Clifford Brown/Max Roach recording masters. The amount originally offered is not included in the papers, but a similar proposal from Blue Note in 2001 for the Chicago (Nov 7, 1955) and Virginia masters (June 18, 1956) to Max Roach was for fifteen thousand dollars. In 1981, Roach’s handwritten response asked for $200,000 and the final typed version asked for $300,000. He also asked Elektra/Asylum to pay all costs.

Max Roach to Jay Cooper. November 11, 1981. Max Roach Papers. Library of Congress. Box 142, folder 39.

The contents of the carefully written letter, which was only slightly modified in the typed version, embody something once said about courage by Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu—“from caring comes courage.” Elektra/Asylum’s offer to Max Roach insulted the precious memory of Clifford Brown and the tremendous music they had made together. Not surprisingly, the deal didn’t happen, but his response in the form of a contract made a vivid point. Roach would not accept a low-ball offer for these recordings: market value was not equivalent to the artistic value and could not be accepted.

A third example of courage in the Max Roach Papers is to be found in the 1973 performance of the We Insist! Freedom Now (Uhuru Sasa).[1] Roach had been asked by the University of Massachusetts, where he accepted a professorial post in 1972, to organize a performance that would include students. A recording of the performance is available at the Library of Congress. It includes students singing in a choir called the Voices of New Africa, directed by Robert Ray of the University of Illinois. The band was composed of professional musicians. Dee Dee Bridgewater sang and Ossie Davis served as narrator. To those familiar with the 1960 Candid recording of We Insist: Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite, the biggest differences in the 1973 performance are the addition of a long narrated script written by Janus Adams (who later became Roach’s third wife) and the rearrangement of the order of the musical movements. A 1993 performance of We Insist! at Aaron Davis Hall in Harlem was based on revised version of the script and performance from 1973. Here is a comparison of the 1960 recorded version and the 1973 performance:

We Insist! Freedom Now Suite

A long drum and percussion solo precedes the entrance of the 5/4 groove of “Tears from Johannesburg” over which Ossie Davis narrates a story that begins:

“Unto you a child is born. How beautiful he was, with his olive tinted flesh, his perfect little limbs and the soft voluptuous role which the blood of Africa had molded into his features.”

“But the child is born in the land of the color line, the veil, and becomes sick in a land whose freedom is to us a mockery and whose liberty is a lie.”

The child sickens and dies, but Davis narrates that “he’s not dead, but escaped, not bound, but free.”

In 1973, the second movement “Driva Man'” is sung without narration and followed by “Triptych,” which includes a narration telling the story of the lynching of Mary Turner in 1918. The brutality of this murder requires a trigger warning, for Mary Turner was a pregnant black woman who spoke out in protest against the lynching of her husband Hayes Turner. The lynchers were not content to simply kill Mary Turner;  after burning her hanging upside down they slashed open her pregnant belly, removed the child and crushed it.[2]

Like the recorded version, the fourth movement, “All Africa,” presents a recitation of African place names and peoples accompanied by African percussion. The climax of the performance is a long narration following the singing of “Freedom Day.” Performed over the groove to “Tears from Johannesburg,” it explicates “Freedom Day”’s lyrics and ponders the deeper meaning of freedom itself. It is historically conscious, radical, and soul-searching, and it resonates uncannily with our current political moment. Arguing that freedom has never been attained, it critiques racism, integration, self-delusion, and liberalism. It cites Cuban revolutionary poet Nicholás Guillén, draws pan-Africanist relationships, and directs its moral message to people of color longing to be free. “JAZZ IS DEAD it says, but BLACK MUSIC IS ON THE RISE.”

Here are some excerpts from the final narration.

Janus Adams. Narration. We Insist! 1973. Max Roach Papers. Library of Congress. Box 163, folder 8.

The narrator, Ossie Davis, is instructed to silence the applause after “Freedom Day” and to begin:

“You know, people talk a lot about liberation.
People talk
People talk a lot about justice
People talk
People talk even more about freedom
People talk and talk
About a lot of things.”

The central theme of the narrative is revealed a moment later in an explanation of a stanza of the lyrics to “Freedom Day” and its implications for African Americans.

Janus Adams. Narration. We Insist! 1973. Max Roach Papers. Library of Congress. Box 163, folder 8.

“Freedom Day
It’s Freedom Day
Free to work and
Earn my pay
To work. To work. To build. To create. For ourselves. For US.
African culture–the Pan-African World—All Black lives.
And the business aspects of that culture…..
We have been products for so long.
And the time is now–and has been for years–to differentiate:
We are PRODUCERS, not products.”

The central message of the narration emphasizes individual agency and creativity, and encourages resistance to objectification. In addition, Adams’s script emphasizes that freedom is something unfinished, uncompleted—something to be thought about deeply by those who want to move in its direction. A long recitation of historical figures and events is included which traces the heroes of rebellions like those of Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey, key figures of black thought like Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Du Bois, and figures of twentieth-century African liberation like Kwame Nkrumah and Patrice Lumumba.

As the narration continues the message shifts to self-awareness and action. The main disease attacked is liberalism, not only the liberalism of whites, but also that of African Americans. “Our liberalism is an epidemic,” the script says, “no less than the white liberals upon whom we visit our pretend hatred…. For We spend our time on causes—all very momentary—to which we can lend our energies and talents. And all the while the REASON goes untended.”[3]

The script for We Insist! Freedom Now (Uhuru Sasa), in other words, is courageous. It has something to haunt the consciences of audience members of color or white. It provides little comfort, but much historical awareness, conviction, and social conscience. The expanded performance of We Insist: Freedom Now also highlights Roach’s interest in longer theatrical  performances combining instrumental performance, choral performance and dance.

Courage appears in the Max Roach Papers in many forms. How lucky we are that they are now publicly available at the Library of Congress. As Michael Heller has argued in his new book Loft Jazz, we need to move beyond viewing musicians’ archives as simply scraps from the past, and begin to understand how they have been “a vital facet of the artists’ efforts to reclaim control over their work, their finances, their legacy.” [4] They can, in other words, be a generative force for creating historical narratives and new understandings of the musical, legal, personal and economic circumstances underlying the artists and the musical performances we love.

[1] “Uhuru sasa” means “freedom now” in Swahili.

[2] The story of Mary Turner’s lynching is told by Walter F. White “The Work of a Mob.” Crisis 16 (5), September 1918, pp. 221-223.

[3] Janus Adams. Script for We Insist! Freedom Now (Uhuru Sasa). 1973. Max Roach Papers. Library of Congress. Box 163 folder 8.

[4] Michael Heller. Loft Jazz: Improvising New York in the 1970s. Oakland: University of California Press, 2017, p. 2.


About Ingrid Monson

Ingrid Monson is the Quincy Jones Professor of African American music at Harvard University. She has served as chair of the Department of Music and as Interim Dean of Arts and Humanities at Harvard. She is the author of Freedom Sounds: Civil Rights Call Out to Jazz and Africa (Oxford University Press, 2007) and Saying Something: Jazz Improvisation and Interaction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). Monson is editor of a volume entitled the African Diaspora: A Musical Perspective (Garland/Routledge 2000). Her books have received the Woody Guthrie Award from the International Association for the Study of Popular Music and the Irving Lowens Book Award from the Society for American Music. Monson’s article, “Hearing, Seeing, and Perceptual Agency” (Critical Inquiry 2008) explores the implications of work on cognition and perception for poststructural theoretical issues in the humanities. She was a Guggenheim Fellow (2009-10), a Marta Sutton Weeks Fellow at Stanford Humanities Center (2009-2010), a Walter Channing Cabot Fellow (2008), and a Radcliffe Institute Fellow in 2012-2013. She is currently finishing a book called Kenedugu Visions about Malian balafonist Neba Solo. Monson’s articles have appeared in Ethnomusicology, Critical Inquiry, Journal of the American Musicological Society, Black Music Research Journal, Women and Music, and several edited volumes. She began her career as a trumpet player. She also plays piano and Senufo balafon.


Library of Congress Jazz Scholars

The Library of Congress Jazz Scholars program, made possible by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, provides leading jazz experts with the opportunity to spend extended periods conducting research in the Library’s jazz collections. Library of Congress Jazz Scholars participate in interviews and deliver lectures to present the results of their research. Recent scholars to hold the title include Ingrid Monson, John Szwed, Dan Morgenstern and Abdullah Ibrahim.


  1. What a wonderful article. I have been influenced by Max Roach ever since I heard his Deeds Not Words LP around 1959. I understood his views on social issues and how they were reflected in his music. Thanks to this article I just ordered 2 of Ms. Monson’s books

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