A Window into Max Roach's World, at the Library of Congress

Photo by William P. Gottlieb/ Courtesy Library of Congress

When I interviewed Randy Weston for this recent Wall Street Journal profile, the 87-year-old pianist reflected on his youth in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, New York.
“Back then, Brooklyn was a jazz city,” he said. “Musicians were local heroes. Once bebop hit, you could hear shoeshine guys whistling Charlie Parker melodies while they worked.”
Weston talked to me about spending time at the home of Max Roach, who was one year his senior, and whose family moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant when Roach was four years old. Any conversation with Weston involves digging deeply into the primacy of rhythm and the social and political context for African American music without ever landing on the word “jazz.”
It’s hard to overstate Roach’s importance to our understanding of rhythmic orientation and possibility in modern music, to African American identity in general, and concerning the pejorative connotations and linguistic failures of the word “jazz.”
I can’t wait to get a chance to dig into the collection of Roach’s personal archives, acquired by the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. and announced on Monday.
According to the Library of Congress website:

This extraordinary rich collection totals more than 100,000 items, comprising about 80,000 manuscripts and papers; 7,500 photographic materials; 1,000 music manuscripts; and hundreds of sound and video recordings. Highlights from the collection include:
An unpublished draft of his autobiography, written with the late Amiri Baraka
A holograph score from “We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite”
An unpublished recording—dated Nov. 14, 1964—of legendary pianist Hassan Ibn Ali
A “Solo on the Drums” rehearsal for the television program “With Ossie & Ruby,” featuring Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Billy Taylor and Max Roach
An unpublished 1969 recording of Max Roach with former wife Abbey Lincoln in Iran
An unpublished Cecil Taylor and Max Roach duet in Italy in 2000
The “An Evening with Max Roach” broadcast, Sept. 8, 1964
Interviews and performances with Max Roach, Gary Bartz, Woody Shaw, Stanley Cowell and Reggie Workman for Tokyo radio in 1977
Rarely seen photos of Roach with Art Blakey, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Clarke, Thelonious Monk, Clifford Brown, Sonny Rollins, Abbey Lincoln and many more
The Max Roach Collection will be available in the Library’s Performing Arts Reading Room on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. The collection will complement the Library’s existing collections of Charles Mingus, Billy Taylor, Gerry Mulligan, Alvin Ailey, Dexter Gordon, Louis Bellson and Shelly Manne.

Roach, who died in 2007 at 83, had a career that began with bebop’s rise and that peaked as African American arts and culture were prominently interlaced with the civil rights movement. I first encountered him in his later years, when he would often close performances with a virtuoso solo turn, playing simply a hi-hat cymbal. At the time, I was also digging through Roach’s recordings, which include a 1944 take of “Woody ’n’ You,” alongside trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, which is among the earlier bebop sessions, and includes the output of the brilliant quintet he led with trumpeter Clifford Brown, who died in 1956 at 25.
According to Matt Schudel’s piece in The Washington Post, the Library of Congress archives include Roach’s reflections after the car accident that claimed Brown’s life, as documented in the unpublished autobiography he was working on with Amiri Baraka.
Here’s an interesting excerpt from Ben Ratliff’s piece in The New York Times:

I went through some of the archive last week in advance of its public unveiling — only a little, but enough to know that it contains the material for understanding how Roach saw himself and how those close to him saw him. We don’t have all the answers yet, but perhaps we can start asking the question, what needs to be better understood about Max Roach?
How he constructed his style, which brought together the wholeness of the drum kit rather than any specific part of it, let you hear tuning and touch, and expanded the notion of the drum solo as a truly narrative art might be the hardest one to address. (Perhaps the Roach-Baraka manuscript will help.)
What might be more easily understood is the nature of his friendships and correspondences with figures including Maya Angelou and Nina Simone, and his passions and causes, from the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa to the obscure Philadelphia pianist Hassan Ibn Ali, with whom he made a fascinating record for Atlantic in 1964. (There’s an hourlong tape in the collection of Ali playing solo piano in Roach’s apartment, some of which I heard, and several letters from him.) There is also a one-sentence telegram that Roach sent to Gov. Nelson Rockefeller after the Attica uprising in 1971: “Does your belief that prisoners are not human justify the loss of 42 lives?”

I hope to write more about Roach based on my own immersion in these archives. One point of fascination for me is Roach’s disdain for the word “jazz”— an attitude reflected in the comments of many musicians during the past century—and one that comes up again and again in my interviews these days.
As Schudel wrote in the Washington Post:

In a handwritten essay that is part of the collection, Roach wrote: “ ‘Jazz’ has always meant the worst of working conditions for an artist.”

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