Obituary: Max Roach, jazz legend and retired professor

Max Roach, the legendary jazz drummer and retired Music professor, died Aug. 16 of an undisclosed cause at a New York City Hospital. He was 83.

One of the first jazz musicians to teach full-time at the college level, Roach joined the faculty in 1972 as a visiting professor and was one of the founders of the Jazz in July programs in improvisation. He continued his affiliation with the campus until his retirement in 1994.

In 1988 he was the first jazz musician to receive a MacArthur Fellowship – a $372,000 “genius grant.”

Roach brought jazz greats Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Tito Puente, Ray Brown and others to campus to help raise money for student scholarships as part of the Fletcher Henderson Memorial Scholarship Fund, which Roach created and named after another jazz giant. The fund was later renamed Fletcher Henderson-Max Roach Memorial Scholarship.

Born in Newland, N.C., he later moved with his parents and brother to Brooklyn, N.Y. He got his first drum kit when he was 12 and played in a church drum-and-bugle corps and his school marching band.

He started playing professionally before he had graduated from high school. As house drummer at a Harlem club, he participated in the jam sessions that helped give birth to bebop. His first break was as a fill-in drummer for Duke Ellington.

Although he earned a bachelor’s degree in composition at the Manhattan School of Music, he liked to cite his education at the “conservatory of the street,” a reference to clubs in Harlem and along 52d Street.

He began performing with Charlie Parker in 1945 and would be with him off and on for the next decade. He made the first recordings under his own name in 1949. Three years later, he and Charles Mingus founded Debut Records.

Formed in 1954, the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet helped define the hard bop school of jazz. His recordings “We Insist! Freedom Now Suite” (1960) and “It''s Time!” (1962) were landmarks of the civil rights era, integrating music and protest. During the 1970s and ‘80s, his percussion ensemble, M’Boom, and Double Quartet, which combined a classical string quartet with a more traditional jazz quartet, further expanded musical horizons.

Roach played as sideman on classic recordings led by Coleman Hawkins and Gillespie, such as “Disorder at the Border” and “Woody ‘n’ You,” considered the first bebop discs; Charlie Parker’s “Ko-Ko,” “Billie’s Bounce,” and “Now’s the Time”; Miles Davis’ “Birth of the Cool”; Bud Powell’s “Tempus Fugit” and “Un Poco Loco”; Sonny Rollins’ “Saxophone Colossus”; and Ellington’s “Money Jungle.”

He was also the drummer at the “Greatest Jazz Concert Ever,” recorded at Toronto’s Massey Hall, with Parker, Powell, Gillespie and Mingus in 1953.

He was a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1995. France named him a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters, its highest cultural honor, in 1989.

He leaves three children from his first marriage, sons, Raoul and Darryl, and a daughter, Maxine, a violist, who often performed with her father; and two other daughters, Ayo and Dara.