Max Roach: The Long March
a previously unpublished interview

Marc Chénard

This previously unpublished interview was among the first I ever did, occurring before I started working full time as a music journalist. In October 1978, I was in my final year of studies in anthropology at McGill University, fulfilling a course assignment to conduct an oral history, which simply meant to interview someone and let them recount their life.

In the late 1970s, The Rising Sun was the last jazz club in Montreal to bring in internationally acclaimed artists for week-long stands. Luck would have it Max Roach was there for a six day run. This was a crucial time in Roach’s career, an era where a leading figure of the bebop revolution was charting new waters, recording frequently in duet with latter-day revolutionaries: Archie Shepp in 1976; Abdullah Ibrahim in ‘77; Anthony Braxton in ‘78; and Cecil Taylor in ‘79. At The Rising Sun, however, Roach was leading his working quartet of Billy Harper, Cecil Bridgewater and Calvin Hill, a pianoless format that remained very much at the center of his activities until the 1990s.

I approached Roach after the last set that Thursday and, rather timidly, asked him for an interview. He immediately agreed and invited me to his room for a Saturday morning chat. I had to scramble to get a recorder, a 75-minute cassette, but I got the interview. The following is the complete transcript, with only minor edits due to the occasional indecipherable word or phrase.

Max Roach’s 90th birthday is 10 January 2014.

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Marc Chénard: The jazz scene of the forties was a golden era for the music. In retrospect, what do you retain from that period? At least what were the most significant things to you, both on a personal level and with regards to the social context?

Max Roach: During that time, there was a recording ban and a 20% war tax that was placed on any night club or facility where the management brought singers, dancers, comedians, anything but instrumental music. This caused the demise of the big bands during that period. There was no public dancing because nobody could afford it. A club owner had to pay state tax, city tax, a government tax – especially in New York State – as well as paying for the rental of his club, the lease, the liquor, maitre-d’s, waiters, plus that 20% out of every dollar he made, if he had a dancer, a singer or comedian. So this almost destroyed tap dancing, to give you just an example.

All this had an effect on the kind of musicianship of people like Bud Powell, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie who exemplified that whole period of which I was very fortunate to be a part. At that time, the giants of 52nd Street were people like Art Tatum, just to name you one of the many gifted virtuosos. I was not only very fortunate to be part of that scene, but it was also very fulfilling.

As for the term “bebop,” Dizzy had actually written a piece with that title. One night we had come off the stand totally exhausted and up jumps this critic who asked us what the heck we were doing. Dizzy actually misunderstood what he was asking and thought the critic was asking him the name of the last tune we played, so Dizzy said “bebop.” Being clever, this critic coined that term for the music and so the name “bebop” stuck to that whole period of music. Leonard Feather gets the credit for that.

However, I resent the word, because whenever anybody puts you in a category and names it, one is just pigeonholed; and in the next breath, they can say that “bebop is dead,” for instance, which is what they did. I prefer to allude to the music of that period as that of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell and so on. This is what it should be; otherwise, it is stigma, which I resent. I have already criticized those of us who accept nicknames. Like ragtime: It is a way of putting together a lot of people and throwing them to the trash. Anyway, what does “ragtime music” mean? Scott Joplin was a great composer: he was very sound harmonically, melodically and everything else. Bebop has the same kind of connotation as the one given to ragtime.

The bebop period was one great [period of] creativity because it was instrumental and it forced people to show their technique much more. As for me, I took a degree in composition at the Manhattan School of Music. At first, though, I wanted to take percussion because I had been playing drums in high school and I thought it would be a breeze to do that. But on my first lesson, I realized that the technique I was using was wrong in terms of classical technique. I became aware of the fact that the European technical approach was incompatible to the jazz technique. So that is why I changed.

MC: Tell me about the clubs of the day. How were those places operated and how were the owners?

MR: The places were very elegant and quite spacious. They had maitre-d’s and dressing rooms for the musicians. That was also the case for after-hours clubs like Monroe’s and Minton’s, which were open from 4 to 8 in the morning. Those were the places we would head to after our scheduled engagements. But as I said earlier, 52nd Street was at a critical period during the War: There was that 20% tax that owners had to dish out at the time. It is amazing how the war had so much to do with our lives and how it affected a culture, which it still does. The war had a part in giving people like Charlie Parker visibility. The war was responsible for bringing instrumental music to the forefront. Despite the recording ban in ‘42 to ‘44, we were still making records under the table – and thank God for that! Were it not for that, we would have lost all the early stuff Charlie Parker did, like “Now’s the Time” and all those records. Those records were all done in a studio down a back alley and we were paid cash on the spot.

MC: How much was that?

MR: It was a little bit more than union scale. In a way, you had to do it without the union knowing about it, even though they did.

MC: Another significant part of your life was your association with Clifford Brown. How did you first meet him and how did the quintet with him come about?

MR: My first meeting with Clifford was when I played as a guest artist in a local band in Philadelphia, directed by Jimmy Heath. These concerts were organized by a drummer who is now [1978] owner of a music store, his name is Ellis Tollin.

The next opportunity I heard him was in a record store some six months later. At that time, he was on the West Coast playing at the Lighthouse. I formed the group after the well-known jazz producer Gene Norman suggested to me that I put together a band of my own. It was at a time I had a group on the East Coast that had just broken up, and some of us went West to form the first Clifford Brown-Max Roach quintet, which, incidentally, was never recorded. Sonny Stitt was in that band and we used to rehearse in the garage at Eric Dolphy’s parents’ place.

MC: In 1953, there was that legendary Massey Hall concert in Toronto. What were the circumstances behind that concert and its recording?

MR: A Canadian jazz society had decided to call up five men who they thought were most representative of the new music to come and play a concert together. Originally, Oscar Pettiford was chosen as the bassist, but he could not attend because he broke his arm, so they called up Charlie Mingus who had just arrived from the West Coast. It was his idea to commit this concert to tape. In fact, he hired a technician and put him up in the rafters of the hall and recorded it without anybody knowing, except he and I.

MC: Over the years, there have been many stories about Dizzy and Bird not being on speaking terms while Bud was often drunk and erratic. How true were these stories?

MR: Writers and critics tend to create false stories about these kinds of things. This feud was totally fabricated by Ross Russell. You see, he wanted to monopolize the artists, since Bird was under contract for him. He thought he owned [Parker], so he wanted to monopolize them. Dizzy wanted to break this up and Russell invented this whole story which has hurt him ever since. The fight between Diz and Bird was the most ridiculous thing. I think that Russell was projecting himself: He resented Bird and Diz and others, because he did not have any talent himself.

As for Bud, he was one of the real piano geniuses of that period. Around 1942-43, the Blacks were being pushed into a racist army that segregated them, and this was causing a lot of discontent among Black people. At that time, no more than two Blacks were allowed to be together on the street in New York City; if there were, the police would move in and say: “Break it up, you niggers.”

Bud, who was a young man of 18 at the time – and we grew up together – was rather very oblivious of all this discrimination. One night, he was with a group of friends, and the police came in to break up the gathering. One policeman touched him and he took exception to it: Then he was almost beaten down to the ground for that. They had damaged his skull, and it was only ten years later that he began to break down mentally.

Now, returning to the Massey Hall concert, we got him out of a sanatorium where he was getting shock treatments. He was all doped up that night, but he still played beautifully. At the time, those sanatoriums were like real prison cells, and I did visit him in those places. As a matter of fact, he was under contract with the Birdland syndicate in 1953, and was followed around by a delegation who almost seemed to control him.

In spite of all these stories, everybody was very friendly at that time, and all were generous with their knowledge. Music is a great force when it comes to dealing with human beings on a sociological level.

MC: In what way, or ways?

MR: Jazz as a democratic form does not only mean “bebop,” but it goes back to its sources – Buddy Bolden, King Oliver and the like. It is people getting together and being so sympathetic to one another as they are sitting on the bandstand and playing music together in a way where they influence each other. It means to listen, to respect and to harmonize together. Jazz is not an imperialistic way [of making music] where a conductor tells that you are not doing it right. That is classical music. Jazz is fluid, and every generation has the opportunity of contributing something new.

MC: I asked you earlier about the club scene in the forties, but how was the scene in the following decade? Had it changed that much? What were the things that struck you most from that period?

MR: Earlier we talked about the influence of the war during that period of the forties; there were the after-hour clubs as well as a certain night life in New York that was wide open. But as New York became more conscious of collecting taxes for this, that and whatever reason, these places couldn’t make it anymore. Moreover, we all got sanctimonious because of all this Protestant ethic and we all got caught up in this good and evil syndrome where all these places had to be closed. We started having vigilantes saying that all those night spots had to be closed – the after-hour places mostly – and all the prostitutes had to get off the streets. Laws were also being enacted to do just those things.

So, all the powers became sanctimonious, and when the religious zealots and all those folks came to power, then they started changing the laws. They closed up 52nd Street, which has now become an extension of Rockefeller Center. Harlem has also become an unsafe place to go to – even for the Harlemites – but most of that was propaganda. All of that club scene was just closed down and things went from bad to worse. So I think that was the difference between the forties and fifties.

But from about 1955 to the late 1960s, we reached a state which affected our culture very deeply: We had the Vietnamese conflict and the whole racial issue and the civil rights activism. That took a lot of attention on the part of artists, be they in music or visual arts.

Now, after coming out of that period, we are leveling off and have fought the onslaught of acid-rock, but now we are slurred by punk-rock. Yet, we can still aspire to becoming all a little more sophisticated and are now appreciating things for what they are and not to compare them. For example, those people who like classical music often do not want to deal with the blues, because it does not have that “classicism” – whatever that may mean. Conversely, those who love the blues are not going to like classical music, because it is not funky enough. We are getting to the point where we can go and listen to the blues and appreciate it for what it is, and likewise for classical music. At least, I find this to be true in Europe more than any place else. You see, the same group of people who go to see the Ballets Africains or the Bolshoi Ballet, also listen to Mozart, go to modern jazz concerts and like the blues. So they are sophisticated enough to get more. In a way, it is like getting more out of life and to really enjoy it more by getting into different cultures. But that takes some work: You have to read, listen and just find out [about] it all, so you can really get into that. Balinese music is very difficult to listen to and you can’t listen to it unless you have some background in the culture. I suppose that is a matter of education.

MC: What is your assessment of the impact of long-play records on the music?

MR: The advent of the LP had a lot to do with musicians fighting for royalties. They did not have what the symphonic composers did. There were many problems associated with the royalties and the first long playing recording sessions. Record companies were just getting away with murder. The publisher would get two cents per track, so if you did 12 tracks you would get 24 cents for an LP. But if you did one track, then you would only get two cents. For a classical album, on the other hand, you would get 24 cents for a total album. That was just another way to show the discrimination in the business. Understandably, we wanted the same consideration as classical musicians. Despite the improvements over the years, it is still a battle today. Since publishing was established years ago to get some kind of consideration for the classical composers, we too are equally entitled to that. I think everybody is stupid about that.

MC: When you say “everybody is stupid,” who do you have in mind here: the general public or those in the business?

MR: I was referring to producers and record companies who look at musicians as though they can do anything with us. We only want the same consideration as every other composer wants and that is a big struggle. They think we are the ones who are not aware of what is going on. It is wrong to accept a different royalty scale than that of the classical composer. A lot of this has been straightened out today because some jazz musicians – Miles, Brubeck – would not stand for this.

MC: Have the producers and A&R Men of today changed since the early days of the forties and fifties?

MR: I think they have had “God complexes,” because they think they are the ones who shape the music. I read an interview in Down Beat with the producer of Arista Records, and he was saying that he’s interested in where the music is going [artistically and market-wise]. Now how stupid can a statement be like that one? [He thinks] Art is taken up on the assumption that it does not come from human beings who have been a certain way for so long. It is like not being aware of what evolution and true change is about. It does not happen like that. When a psychological change takes place, it probably takes place over long time periods. Art is the same way: Art is not like someone coming up and saying we are going to change it. This commercial point of view is that we are going to give them bullshit and sell it until we just eat cancer. Despite that, people will still buy it because they have sold it so well.

When I read that interview, I said to myself that it is very presumptuous of him to assume that he’s interested and that he can tell what is of substance and what is not. He sounded like an idiot to me. He’s typical of those people who are non-artists and non-intellectuals who are now going to foster something for the people. It is nondescript, disposable, and it’s not in the continuum, the natural flow. It just goes against what is.

MC: In conversation, you use the phrase, “music that we call jazz.” Does this word have a meaning to you?

MR: It is synonymous to “nigger,” “black,” “kike,” “mick;” that sort of stuff. It is music created in the Americas and cross-fertilized by different cultures. Actually, the word “jazz” has to do with the Scottsboro Boys case. It had to do with nine Black youths accused of raping a White girl in the South. One of the most famous lawyers of the day, a certain Lebowitz, took the case and broke it with a letter that the girl wrote to a dear friend of hers in which she said that those boys didn’t “jazz me.” You see, “jazz” was a word that came out of New Orleans, because it is derived from the creole word “jass.” These “jass houses” were houses of ill repute, as we now call them, but they were respectable places back then, quite legitimate too. They were elegant places that hired Black musicians to play that so-called rhythmical piano style we know as ragtime. Apart from working in those places, these musicians also acted as caretakers who kept them clean. So it was there that there was the music of the “jass houses.” As it moved up to Chicago, they started spelling it j-a-z-z, which was supposed to be more respectable, because White musicians were now dealing with it. But at one time, the Whites in the United States were not allowed to listen to this music. Those who did were ostracized: “Why are you listening to that Nigger music? That’s the music they play in the whorehouses!” Even today, in some parts of the Midwest, if you put up a sign saying “jazz is played here,” guys will stumble in asking where the girls are?

I’ve argued over that word with George Wein, for example, to the point where we have reached an impasse, and could not speak to each other for years over that. For him, he thinks you can justify anything. In 1924, when Paul Whiteman did the historic concert, all the papers said: “Now Mr. Whiteman has made an honest woman out of jazz.” You see those kinds of things when you start looking back into history.

MC: Coming back now to that period when you played with Clifford Brown, I am interested in knowing about the circumstances surrounding his death, and also how it affected you.

MR: Our band rehearsed a lot; and what we were trying to do was just to have something good, as best as we could do, without really thinking about doing something historical or really significant in terms of the evolution of the music. We just wanted to be a part of the larger continuum. The group was just like a happy family.

That said, we had a date in Chicago, but Clifford was in Philadelphia playing at one of these Sunday afternoon concerts they held there. On the phone, he told me he would be going through Elkhart, Indiana on the way to endorse a line of trumpets. He was to leave around two that morning, get there by nine and then arrive in Chicago later that day. That actually was the first time we had not travelled together as a band.

The next morning, Joe Glaser [the band’s manager] phoned me up and told me to brace myself: Clifford was killed that night in an automobile accident on the Baltimore turnpike as well as Richie Powell – pianist of the quintet, and Bud’s brother – and his wife, too. They were 25, 23 and 21 years old. But in the same breath, Glaser told me that both Miles and Roy Eldridge happened to be in town and I could still make the date! I just couldn’t believe it: This is my agent telling me that!

I was so shattered. I just shut myself in my room and got so high on booze just to numb me from the pain. I remember very well the gloom surrounding the funeral and the visits from the respective families. Years later, Bud used to go around asking where Richie was.

MC: Looking back now on your career, what are in your mind the important factors that shaped both your career as a musician and your stands as a social activist?

MR: I was born in the South where it was totally Black, and arrived in Harlem during the depression. All my early images were of people like Chick Webb, Duke Ellington and countless others. Those were the people I really looked up to. In some way, that has kind of saved me. I’ve always said that I am somebody special, not because of what I do but because of what I have seen other people do to themselves. That has acted as a kind of buttress to me. Basically, when I get into situations like that, I have always known to avoid just the kind of tragedy that befell Bud Powell, for instance, and so I have always dismissed this problem as not being mine but of others. The person who’s walking around thinking the sun is just shining on him is living in a dream-world: It really shines on everyone.

That big great world out there, even if it looks cold, is not discriminatory. But I still have to live by it, even if it’s cold. I pay my taxes like everyone else. When I look at people here in America, I see a unique sociological experience. It is really the only place in the world I can see where so many groups and types of people are just thrown together and manage to live with each other. I find this mixture of people nowhere else in the world, save for some larger European cities – Paris, London. You go to Africa and they are all Africans; they don’t have the problems of rubbing their shoulders with people who are different, in a physical sense at least, but also in terms of culture. In the Far East, it is the same: Be it Koreans, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, they are basically of the same family. The differences that exist are more of a national character. And that is also true of the Europeans. I remember the time that Martin Luther King was killed: We were in Italy then. The people would walk up to us with tears in their eyes, and they openly expressed their sadness each time they saw a Black person. Even the Pope delivered a message after his death.

I remember an incident that took place in the hotel lobby that very night. We were sitting there with some of our friends from Italy. One of them said that such a thing could never happen there – but they killed Aldo Morro [a politician assassinated by the radical Red Guard]. But a strange thing happened: An elderly man, who was listening in, begged our pardon and asked if he could add something to our conversation. He said: “I sympathize with your people, too, Mister, and what your friends are telling you is particularly true, but if we, Italians, woke up tomorrow and found that a thousand Frenchman had landed on our shores, we’d surely go to war.

This broke the ice, because it was getting to be like doomsday in there. So, to listen to these people saying it could happen elsewhere but not there, seemed simplistic to him. However, the only reason he saw that they did not have such of a problem in their country is that they do not have many different kinds of people. But if you were a Protestant and started raising your fist to everyone, you might get lynched if everyone around you is Catholic.

In any event, I find that over here in the Americas, we have a chance to prove something sociologically. And when you look at things in a broader scope, the way we got to the Americas is really inconsequential, be it coming here in chains or as a baron like Washington or Lafayette. Getting away from the religious and social tyranny of Europe is only incidental to the fact that we have all been able to participate in some sociological experiment.

MC: Do you have find that audiences in Europe are different from those in North America. It seems to me that there has been a lot of musicians, White or Black, who have moved to Europe, and that seems quite indicative of something to me. I don’t know if you have thought about that, so I wonder if you have some observations to share on that topic?

MR: I don’t think it is the music as much as the liberal attitude of European society, which is so close or in touch with everything. It could be that. When you go over there, Black musicians have a certain kind of sociological freedom, and a psychological one, too. They can go any place and live as long as they can afford it. That means a lot. They enjoy a great deal of artistic freedom, which, in some cases, is not always good. I know Red Mitchell, and he was telling me, he was so tired about the whole Civil Rights thing, the Vietnam issue and all the conflicts back then, that he wanted to get away from all of that. He was just looking for the artistic freedom to do what he wanted, which was to perform.

Another example is Kenny Clarke. He wanted political freedom. You see, a lot of these people were tired of having to ride in the back of the bus, so to speak. He wanted to ride in any part of the bus, and if he wanted to sit in the back, it would be through his own choice.

But the Europeans accept artists more out of sympathy, more so than out of knowledge of what is really going on. At least, that is true some times. There are more musicians over there who cannot deal with the music on the level which is equal to what had happened, because I think we should at least start to grasp what people like the Art Tatums and Charlie Parkers have left behind, and then try to take it on from that point. But that’s not an easy job, because they have done so little with it. But there are people over there who can’t even blow their noses, or who can’t even tap their feet, but they are still accepted, and enjoy artistic freedom as well. I think it has more to do with the Europeans not being totally familiar with what’s [going on] in this continent and what we do here.

Montreal, 8 December 1978

© 2013 Marc Chénard

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