SKF NOTE: A DrumForum.org member posted an SOS regarding Max Roach. Paraphrasing, the member asked, “What’s the big deal about Max Roach? I know he’s famous. But from what I’ve seen and heard of his drumming on YouTube, I don’t understand why he’s famous. What’s so special about his drumming? So far, I’m unimpressed.”
Thinking back to the first time I heard Max — it was the self-titled Clifford Brown/Max Roach album on the Emarcy label — I was transformed. Max’s style was compositional, musical. What sounded, at first listen, simple, was not simple at all. It was the style of a drummer with a firm grasp of all aspects of music: rhythm, melody, harmony, and where they applied, song lyrics.
What’s more, Max understood and respected the history of drummers. He knew what the better known drum pioneers — like Papa Jo Jones and Big Sid Catlett — contributed to how the drumset is played. He also knew and respected drummer pioneers who were not so much in the limelight. Drummers like O’Neil Spencer.
I’ve listened to many Max Roach recordings. I’ve seen Max perform twice. Once with his quartet and once with his percussion ensemble, M’Boom. And I was blessed to have interviewed both Max and M’Boom for Modern Drummer cover stories.
If my experience with Max was based solely, or mostly, on his YouTube fare? I would be missing out on the Max Roach musical experience. Fortunately, Max’s digital recordings are plentiful; a must for any serious drummer.
Now, I have to admit there was a moment when I thought about Max similar to the DrumForum.org member. I’m embarrassed remembering it — but it’s true, and at least I learned a good lesson from that incident.
I was having a phone conversation with Max during what was, to the best of my recollection, very preliminary plans for the first Modern Drummer Drum Festival. This was probably in 1983 when I was still on staff at MD. The phone conversation took place in my MD office.
I remember giving Max a general idea of the festival — to which he was receptive. But when I told him we were thinking of having Max and Art Blakey together, I could see Max wincing. Promoters always want to pair Max and Art or Max and other drummers of that era. The idea was old hat.
Why not, said Max, have he and Steve Gadd together onstage?
True confessions, drum colleagues. My heart sank when Max said that. I thought, “Steve Gadd will carve up Max. He doesn’t stand a chance.”
That was when Steve Gadd’s career and popularity were on the steep ascend. He was the new kid in town.
Max told me how interesting it could be to take two such different players, put them together, and see what they could create.
At that moment all I could see was Max Roach, my drum hero, getting demolished onstage, in public. I wanted to avoid that, but I had no idea how to share my thoughts with Max.
Sometime after my phone conversation with Max I left MD, went to work for the Gretsch Musical Instrument, Co., and had no part in planning MD’s drum festivals. Who knows how that festival — which ultimately featured Steve Gadd, Vinnie Colaiuta, Dave Weckl, and the Buddy Rich Big Band — might have turned out if I’d stuck around.
Today, I recognize how shortsighted I was and how wrong I was about Max. Leaving Max Roach and Steve Gadd to their own creative devices in producing an onstage event would have been a gas. I’m sorry I missed it.