Max Roach: What You’re Playing for is Sound

1982_roach_md_coverSKF NOTE: This exchange with Max Roach took place on July 15, 1981 at his home in Connecticut. The back story is posted here

How up-and-coming drummers learned from their drummer elders has always interested me. In this interview segment, I asked that question of Max Roach. As sometimes happens in interviews, one question leads to others. Max’s story about Haitian drummer Tiroro‘s teaching method impressed me greatly. It is one of the stories I recall most often from among all of my drum interviews and studies.

Now, thanks to internet technology, I can include a link to a Tiroro album and readers can listen to Tiroro or not. I didn’t have that option 35-years ago.

Scott K Fish: Were the older drummers receptive to you as a young guy? Could you go up to Baby Dodds or Jo Jones and say, “Hey, what is that you’re doing?” Or would they say, “Get lost, kid.”?

Max Roach: It was always… You had to first…. They would have to come to you. I wouldn’t dare approach them. You’d learn from them by watching and listening to records, and…whenever they’d come to town.

It’s not so much asking them how they did it, as to the fact that they could do something creative.

You don’t necessarily want to do what they did, but you want to be as creative as they are. That’s what it is.

So you may ask, “Well, how do you do such-and-such a thing?” They’ll never show you how to do it. But you saw [what they did] and figured out your way of dealing with it so you…preserve your own individuality. Contrary to saying, “Okay, you must hold the stick like this. You must do this with the right hand and left hand.” No. Then that would make you a slave to someone else’s technique.

SKF: And that would kind of diminish you in [the older drummers’] eyesight?

MR: Yeah. Well…. You know, you’re after being creative. So you have to listen to it — and we all learn like this — you have to listen to it and figure out how it was done on your own. That’s ear training. That’s what it is.

That way, it keeps you in the frame of mind to think and create. You think and figure out ways of doing things. Because the minute you say, “Oh, let me see how that was done,” and you listen to it over and over again — eventually this kind of thinking becomes a part of you so that…you know how to arrive at [an answer] by your own ingenuity, not by someone coming up to you and saying, “Well, okay. You do this this way. And that this way. And raise your stick to a certain height. And don’t hit this too hard.” Or whatever!

I know I had an interesting experience. I went to Haiti and a great, great drummer there, Tiroro, he played the skin-on-skin instrument. And he knew how to make the drum sing. I watched [Tiroro] teach a student and it was very close to the way we learned.

We used to listen to records and take off the record what the [musician] was doing. You didn’t see the [musician]. You would just hear [musicians]. We’d figure out what was happening with our ears. And then we’d duplicate the sound.

Well, [Tiroro] taught that way. He’d put a student in another room with a partition. And then [Tiroro] would make a sound, and the student would have to imitate the sound.

And when I asked [Tiroro] why he [taught] like that, why he would never have the student look at how he, [Tiroro], did things, [Tiroro] said, Because everybody’s anatomy is different. So it’s beholden up the student to listen, and then figure out a way — using [the student’s] own hands and the skin on the drum — how to create that sound.

SKF: That’s tough [to do].

MR: It is tough. But since [Tiroro’s] is a system they use — kids get it faster.

And I said, “Wow. That’s so close to the way we did things. Because I had to listen to records and find out what was happening. If it was a snare — what [a drummer] did on the snare; or if it was a hi-hat, or what kind of cymbals was [a drummer] using as rides, and all these things.

First, hear these things. And then find…out [what was happening], and maybe write it down, or just duplicate [the sound] by playing it.

SKF: How would that apply to different stickings?

MR: Same thing. If you heard [a drummer] traveling across the drumset, you had to figure out the stickings, and figure out just where the accents were. Maybe slowing down the records helped too.

SKF: Do you think it’s a bad approach for a kid to learn from a book that might have Steve Gadd‘s drum part from Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover written out? Not only written out rhythmically, but also with the stickings?

MR: It has always been like that, even with the old books…. They always put sticking in. The old Haskell Harr books.

But I know what you mean. What would happen when we’d learn the stickings? Sometimes I would play something that sounded like what I heard on a record. And I’d create my own stickings and it would be totally different. Then, when I’d go to a theater and see, [for example], Jo Jones [play what I was trying to duplicate from Jo Jones on a record], I’d say, “Wow. He does it completely different.”

But the sound was there. I had the sound.

As I said earlier, getting that involved with sticking makes you lazier.., because you can do the same thing so many different ways, as far as sticking is concerend. You don’t necessarily have to say, “Well, this is the way it has to be sticked.” Because, actually what you’re playing for is sound.

In a case like, perhaps, what Gadd is doing [on Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover] it is a rhythmic device to accompany a certain style of playing that particular number. It may work like that. Then, the sticking probably has to be done a certain way.

But for improvisational playing you don’t want to get wound up with “this is the sticking” all the time. Because every time you move from one thing to another, you’re not as felxible as if you can just play for the sound itself.

Now, I never think about sticking. I just hear the sound. I hear a certain amount of sound in a certain amount of space. And how you [create] that [sound] in that space doesn’t necessarily depend on the sticking.

I would be interested to slow it all down and say, “Ah ha! That’s what my sticking was.” But, basically it’s single [strokes] and double [strokes] unless you’re going to switch over sometimes.


About Scott K Fish
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