Library of Congress Acquires Papers of Legendary Jazz Drummer Max Roach

From Max Roach’s archive: a contract for a 1956 club date; an undated photo of Roach, at right, with Art Blakey, center; a 1964 letter from Maya Angelou. Lexey Swall for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Max Roach, the great drummer and bandleader and paradigm-shifter of jazz, though he disliked that word, never finished an autobiography.  That’s a shame. He died in 2007 at 83, and his career spans the beginning of bebop, the intersection of jazz with the civil rights movement, free improvisation, and jazz’s current state of cross-disciplinary experiments and multimedia performances. Inasmuch as jazz is about change and resistance, he embodied those qualities: He fought anything that would contain or reduce him as an artist and a human being. He would have been well served by his own narrative, set in one voice.

Max RoachBut Roach was archivally minded, and, when he died, he left 400 linear feet of his life and actions to be read: scores and lead sheets, photographs, contracts, itineraries, correspondence, reel tapes and cassettes and drafts of an unfinished autobiography, written with the help of Amiri Baraka. On Monday, the Library of Congress will announce that it has acquired the archive from Mr. Roach’s family and that it will be made available to researchers.

“What I think he would hope people would see,” said the violist Maxine Roach, his daughter from his first marriage, “is that there was a lot about his life that was difficult, you know? The struggles. A lot about economics, and jazz as a word that we didn’t define ourselves.” (Roach felt that it was a pejorative term; he preferred to call it African-American music.)  “But aside from all of that,” she continued, “I hope that people see his excellence and his mastery of his skill, which helped him rise in this country that’s been so hard on black men especially, and how he went through it and what price he paid.”

I went through some of the archive last week in advance of its public unveiling — only a little, but enough to know that it contains the material for understanding how Roach saw himself and how those close to him saw him. We don’t have all the answers yet, but perhaps we can start asking the question, what needs to be better understood about Max Roach?

How he constructed his style, which brought together the wholeness of the drum kit rather than any specific part of it, let you hear tuning and touch, and expanded the notion of the drum solo as a truly narrative art might be the hardest one to address. (Perhaps the Roach-Baraka manuscript will help.)

What might be more easily understood is the nature of his friendships and correspondences with figures including Maya Angelou and Nina Simone, and his passions and causes, from the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa to the obscure Philadelphia pianist Hassan Ibn Ali, with whom he made a fascinating record for Atlantic in 1964. (There’s an hourlong tape in the collection of Ali playing solo piano in Roach’s apartment, some of which I heard, and several letters from him.) There is also a one-sentence telegram that Roach sent to Gov. Nelson Rockefeller after the Attica uprising in 1971: “Does your belief that prisoners are not human justify the loss of 42 lives?”

There is even some material — a radio jingle, an advertisement mock-up — on Afro Kola, a short-lived soft drink in which Roach was an investor; his son, the actor Daryl Roach, who worked for the company in the summer of 1968, recalled that it was quickly bought by Coca-Cola and then vanished.

Roach was a natural figurehead: He had an instinct to lead, to politicize, to ask uncomfortable questions of politicians and club owners and journalists; to run an independent record label pretty much before musicians did that kind of thing (Debut, owned and operated with Charles Mingus from 1952 to 1957); and to collaborate with playwrights and visual artists.

He stressed that jazz functioned within a larger picture of African-American expression and a history of survival. “Beyond his music,” Daryl Roach said, “I think Dad grew to understand that things don’t happen in a vacuum — they happen out of a sociopolitical and economic context.”

He had his own economic context, of course, and the collection contains plenty of documents of business transactions related to club dates and recordings; there are contracts and papers from his time with the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet in the mid-1950s, for example. Brown died in a car accident in 1956; the archives tell you, among other things, what the ensemble was being paid in the months leading up to the end, when they might have been the greatest jazz group in America: $500 for two nights at Basin Street, in the East 40s in Manhattan, that year; $900 for six days at the Cafe Bohemia in Greenwich Village; $203 for Roach, and $150.76 for each sideman, for one night at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Such details might seem inconsequential, but they’re important: They help us reconstruct exactly when and where the group played and how its work was valued.

There are fascinating letters from Mingus to Roach after the dissolution of Debut Records: This was a close and complicated relationship. In one written in February 1961, Mingus commends Roach for his wariness of the British-born jazz patroness Nica de Koenigswarter; emotionally and incredulously, he reports of her stated disdain for Patrice Lumumba, the leader of the Congolese independence movement, who had been recently killed.

Another letter dated three days later angrily asks Roach for $1,230 owed him. He compares him to Miles Davis, summing them up the same way: “dress right, pose right, and appear cold.” Above his signature, he wrote “Hate.” Three months later, Roach interrupted a Davis concert at Carnegie Hall, a benefit for the African Research Foundation, whose politics he questioned; he picketed outside and eventually climbed onstage with a sign reading “Africa for the Africans.” The collection contains photos of all that, too.

Admiration, invective, scrutiny — the sense you get is of a man determined enough to take it all.

article by Ben Ratliff via

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