They were rambunctious geniuses — Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell and Max Roach — the nucleus of a group of immensely talented musicians who engineered a revolution in jazz as wondrous and profound as the birth of Cubism in painting.Max was a tall, skinny kid who had grown up in Brooklyn and was so gifted a percussionist by his early 20s that Dizzy would express the mock fear that the angel Gabriel (the only trumpeter who could rival Dizzy at the time) might try to steal Max to play drums in some heavenly band.
He warned Max to stay put if Gabriel came to call.
I imagine they’re all jammin’ with Gabriel now. Max, the last survivor of that rowdy crew that created bebop, the stunningly complex and sophisticated music that ignited modern jazz, was buried yesterday. My great fear is that the music, underappreciated and poorly understood, is dying, too.
Max had an easy surface personality, which belied the torments he had to fight through as he adhered obsessively to the highest artistic standards, and the lifelong resentment he felt about the way the music was treated.
Elegant, husky-voiced and quick to smile, he was full of stories about the titans of jazz. I remember him chuckling one afternoon as he pointed to an elaborately carved straight-backed chair in his apartment on Central Park West. He was telling a story about Charlie Parker that went back to the 1940s.
Bird, peerless on the saxophone, was not only addicted to heroin, he was also phenomenally charismatic. His personal habits were as closely imitated by other musicians as his music.
“The guys would flop at my house in Brooklyn,” Max said. “My mother did day work, so we’d be there by ourselves all day. Now Bird was clever. He knew my mother was very religious and as soon as he’d hear her putting that key in the door, he’d pick up the Bible, jump in that chair and pretend he was reading it.
“My mother would say to me, ‘Why can’t you be like that nice Charlie Parker?’ I’d say to myself, ‘That’s my problem.’ ”
Like so many others in Bird’s orbit, Max became addicted, too. Bird would die at 34 from the effects of heroin addiction and alcoholism. Max was able to kick his habit. He then advanced the triumph of bebop with the creation of a stunning new sound — dubbed “hard bop” — that emerged from his alliance with the trumpeter Clifford Brown.
By the mid-’50s, Max was standing atop a pinnacle. Compulsively creative and an absolute virtuoso, he had almost single-handedly dragged the drums out of the shadows and demonstrated that they were much more than a mechanism to keep time for the rest of the band. They could be the expressive equal of any of the other instruments in the jazz repertoire.
And he was the co-leader, with Brown, of a phenomenal quintet that was recognized by critics and fans alike as a genuine artistic achievement. Brown, a modest, soft-spoken young man with a warm and powerful sound, was being hailed as the most talented trumpet player to emerge since Gillespie.
“Oh, man, he was something else,” Max said. “He was going to set the world on fire.”
The quintet was booked to play a gig in Chicago in the early summer of 1956. Brown, who was 25, and the band’s pianist, Richie Powell (Bud Powell’s younger brother), were to drive from Philadelphia to Chicago to meet Max and the rest of the band there.
Not long after midnight on June 26 the car in which they were traveling, driven by Powell’s wife, Nancy, careened off the rain-swept Pennsylvania Turnpike and plunged down an embankment. All three occupants died.
Max went into a tailspin. He drank heavily and sank into a depression.
But there was always the music, his recovery mechanism, and it was always fresh and inventive. “His artistic integrity was always intact and operating at a high pitch,” said Shannon Gibbons, a singer who was close to Max for many years.
Jazz no longer commands the attention it once did, and many of its greatest practitioners have slipped into the realm of the forgotten. (Your average person has never heard of Clifford Brown.)
Once when I was talking with Max in his living room, I noticed that his gaze had shifted to a spot over my shoulder, and there was an odd look in his eyes. Behind me, over the sofa, was a large photo of Max with Bird and Diz, Bud Powell and the bassist Charles Mingus.
Dizzy had only recently died. Remembering when they had all been young and wild and great together, Max said, “Damn, now all of those cats are gone.”