The passing of Max Roach will initiate countless reminiscences, retrospectives, and reassessments. With his appearances alongside Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie on "Ko-Ko"the seminal early bebop release"The Birth of The Cool" with Miles Davis, and on countless recordings with Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and other bop pioneers, Max set a new standard for percussion even before he started his first group with Clifford Brown in 1954.
Soon, writers and music folk everywhere will be recalling incidents from Max's career and relating their experiences. As everyone gathers for his funeral service on August 24th, I have gathered thoughts about my own encounters with this jazz immortal.
For this piece, I thought I would note the very first time I met him, and the last time I saw him. At the Café Bohemia in the halcyon days of hard bop, I had heard that Max would appear at a jam session. My boyhood friends and I hustled over there one night after a gig hoping to get to play with Max. We were lucky and got onto the bandstand and began playing "Jordu." The tune went well, we all had nice solos, and then looked back at Max who took three or four choruses (unusual for him to play that long) and went out with a huge standing ovation. He then announced a new "associate" and brought Clifford Brown up to the bandstand. Clifford took the first solo and my friends and I gazed at each other with our mouths open. As we left the session a few tunes later Max was very sweet and thanked us for playing. When we got outside my friend Ray, a very talented trumpeter, said that after hearing Brownie he wanted to throw his horn in the East river. I agreed with him. We both knew that in a million years we would never be able to play like that.
Many years later I had contracted to write a biography of Brownie. I called Max and received an invitation to come up to his legendary Central Park West apartment; I went up with my daughter who was visiting from San Francisco. I chatted with Max for awhile about his running track at Boy's High School and me at Bishop Loughlin. He noted a bit jealously that my school had the better reputation. I commented on his trim physique and asked how he stayed in shape (he was close to 75 at the time). He modestly scratched his head and said it was probably because of his drumming but he wasn't really sure. When I told him that I had begun research for my biography on Brownie he got strangely excited. "Oh yeah, that's right" he said. "Well, have I got a surprise for you." I looked at my daughter Sue and back at Max who had a devilish grin on his face. He then related the following incident.
The Clifford Brown-Max Roach quintet had been together for about 18 months in December of 1955. They were touring the eastern cities, recording prolifically for Emarcy and really tearing up the jazz world. They had made a couple of stops in Detroit and on this particular occasion, none other than Soupy Sales had dropped in to catch the band. Soupy had a TV show running locally and pleaded with the group to come up to the studio and appear on his live show. Max declined but Clifford was very gracious and accepted . And that had been that. Everyone seemed to forget about the incident (it was the early days of TV and Soupy was certainly not well known at the time) until, tragically, Brownie was killed in the infamous car accident the following June. As the years moved along, every time Max ran into Soupy, the comedian would note that somewhere he had a kinescope of the show and would get it to Max if he could locate it. Decades went by. When Max reached this point of the story he said..." and you'll never guess what happened." I looked at Sue, then at Max, with a completely blank expression on my face. "You're right" I said. "I have no idea." Max arose from his chair and left the living room momentarily returning quickly with a small package. "This came in the mail yesterday" he said happily. I looked at the package. It was, at long last, the kinescope of Brownie's appearance on Soupy's show 40 years before!
"Let's take a look" he said inserting the cartridge in the recorder. I was on the edge of my seat... "Could this really be true" I thought. Years of research by many writers had failed to turn up any footage of Clifford Brown on television. Suddenly, the screen lit up , incredibly, there was Soupy Sales introducing "a great jazz trumpeter... Cliff Brown"! As I sat mesmerized, I watched Clifford playing 2 selections and marveled at the good camera work that revealed his embouchure and famous wrinkled expression of concentration. After the music, Soupy moved on camera and interviewed Brownie who answered politely and warmly that he had played music from the group's latest album "A Study In Brown" and modestly shuffled his feet saying he was grateful and happy that Soupy had asked him on the show. Soupy then said that he had heard that a special event had occurred recently in the Brown household. Beaming, Clifford proudly announced that his wife LaRue had just given birth to a son. As Soupy shook his hand I wiped tears away from my eyes and looked around the room to see that Sue and Max were doing the same thing... Later, as we left, I hugged Max and thanked him no end for sharing the experience. It was the last time I talked with him.