To the Max Forever
The world lost one of its most powerful artistic forces today. RIP Max Roach. Not just one of the greatest drummers in history, but a bandleader, conceptualist, political activist, interdisciplinary collaborator, and human being beyond category.
I had the chance to meet him when I was about 19, while I was studying with his wonderful trumpet player, Cecil Bridgewater. I went to see the quartet play a concert in Boston, and Cecil had invited me backstage after the performance. There was a man guarding the stage door, and I said, “Could you tell Cecil Bridgewater that Taylor Ho Bynum is here to see him?”
He leaned into the room and shouted, “Hey Cecil! Taylor’s here!”
Max came running up, saying “Cecil Taylor’s here? Man, I haven’t seen him in ages, where is he? Who’s this kid? He’s not Cecil Taylor!” Ridiculously mistaken identity; a less than auspicious way to meet one of your heroes.
But Max was friendly and talkative, telling me “So you’re a trumpet player? I respect trumpet players. I remember one time I was hanging out with Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, and Pops said to Diz, ‘Man, it sure is tough pushing that metal on our faces day after day.’ That made me think about it, that’s really what you’re doing. That’s hard work!”
So yeah, between not being Cecil Taylor, and casually chatting about hanging with the greatest trumpet players of all-time, I was kinda nervous. I’m not sure I managed a complete sentence. But the next day, when Cecil and I got together for lunch, Max happened to be eating at the same restaurant, and he joined us. He was a marvelous storyteller; I remember him telling us about Benny Carter throwing a Kansas City gangster down the stairs when the gangster threatened J.J. Johnson. (”Benny looks like a gentleman, but his fists are like boxing gloves! That’s how to stick up for your band.”)
I never again got to meet him in person, though I got to hear him play a few more times. But as amazing as he was as a drummer, we must be sure to celebrate him as far more than simply a master instrumentalist. (Though for that alone, he earned immortality.) As I got to learn more about his career, and heard more from other musicians who were friends and collaborators of his, like Braxton or Cecil Bridgewater or Warren Smith, I saw what a profoundly innovative and truly revolutionary artist he was. He refused to accept the boundaries imposed upon him by others, be it race or genre or discipline; he exploded definitions while creating art that was relevant, vibrant, and always searching. May he long inspire others to to be as artistically fearless and passionately committed as he was for so many years.