Mr. Roach's death closes a chapter in American musical history. He was the last surviving member of a small circle of adventurous musicians — among them Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and a handful of others — whose innovations brought about wholesale changes in jazz during World War II and immediately afterward.
Although Roach helped usher in an era that would change jazz music forever, he didn't live for, or rest on, those past achievements. He was always a working artist, and always an innovator.
He led a "double quartet," consisting of his working group of trumpet, saxophone, bass and drums plus a string quartet. He led an ensemble consisting entirely of percussionists. He played duets with avant-gardists like the pianist Cecil Taylor and the saxophonist Anthony Braxton. He performed unaccompanied. He wrote music for plays by Sam Shepard and dance pieces by Alvin Ailey. He collaborated with video artists, gospel choirs and hip-hop performers.
Mr. Roach explained his philosophy to The New York Times in 1990: "You can't write the same book twice. Though I've been in historic musical situations, I can't go back and do that again. And though I run into artistic crises, they keep my life interesting."
You can read Max Roach's New York Times obit here. It's fascinating.
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Allan posted a video in comments: see what Roach could do with nothing but two sticks and a hi-hat. Simply amazing. If this piques your curiosity, there are lots of good videos making the YouTube rounds.