Library of Congress Unveils Max Roach Legacy Collection of Artifacts
Posted 1/30/2014

At a public ceremony in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 27, the Library of Congress unveiled the Max Roach Legacy Collection, the drummer’s personal papers, recordings and memorabilia, which the library had acquired from the Roach family a year earlier.

To give a sense of the roughly 100,000 items in the holdings, samples were spread across two tables. At the end of one table were several artifacts related to Roach’s landmark 1961 album, We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite.

The artifacts include the contract with Candid Records, the original, unused album artwork, and a program from a live performance of the music. Most interesting, though, was a portion of the score written in pencil in Roach’s own hand. Chords and drum accents were written out over lyrics that never made it onto the final recording. At the bottom of the page, Roach had written a note to himself about those lyrics: “Change ‘I hear the beat’ to ‘I feel the beat.’”

Few musicians have ever felt the beat as profoundly as Max Roach (1924–2007). Along with Kenny Clarke, he invented a new kind of drumming that proved as important to bebop as the horn playing of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. He integrated African percussion patterns into his Freedom Now Suite and other projects.

During his long career, Roach used his drums to dialogue with everyone from avant-gardist Anthony Braxton to rapper Fab Five Freddy; from the Boston Symphony Orchestra to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater; from his second wife, Abbey Lincoln, to the Uptown String Quartet, featuring his daughter Maxine. In each situation, he believed the drums were central to the music.

“The rhythm section is the essence of every style of music,” Roach said during an interview in 1992. “Charlie Parker can play whatever he wants on the saxophone, but if I play a polka beat on the drums, the music’s going to sound like a polka. If I play swing, the music’s going to sound like swing, and if I play bebop, the music’s going to sound like bebop.”

Roach was a collector. He saved anything that might document his career: contracts, photos, posters, programs, reel-to-reel tapes, rehearsal cassettes, videos, scores, written correspondence, address books, date books, magazines, newspaper clippings and more. The documentation filled the basement cage of his Upper West Side apartment building; it spread out to as many as three self-storage units.

One item in the Library of Congress collection that jazz historians will be particularly interested in is the unpublished manuscript for an autobiography that Roach had worked on with writer Amiri Baraka (who died Jan. 9).

“He had a strong sense of his place in history, and he wanted it documented,” the drummer’s oldest daughter, Maxine Roach, said at the Library of Congress. “In the last years of his life, I asked him, ‘What do you want us to do with all the stuff you have in storage?’ He said, ‘I don’t care where it goes, but I want it to stay together.’”

Maxine Roach had attended the April 2010 unveiling of the Dexter Gordon Collection at the Library of Congress with Maxine Gordon, Dexter’s widow. Roach was so impressed by the experience that she convinced her stepmother and her four siblings to give the Max Roach Collection the same home.

“When we were kids, they were just boxes of junk,” said Maxine’s brother Daryl. “But as I got older, when I spent a summer setting up his drum kit at European festivals, I realized he was more than just my dad. And now, seeing some of the stuff in those boxes, it’s like putting the pieces of a puzzle together. I can see the breadth of his associations. I can see that he wanted to be viewed not just as a musician but also in a sociopolitical-economic context. He was a holistic thinker.”

During the year prior to this formal unveiling, the Library of Congress was busy processing the materials so they could properly catalog the artifacts. The librarians plan to create a searchable database of all the artifacts in the collection.

If a musician, academic, journalist or blogger wants to research the Freedom Now Suite, for example, he or she can request it and the staff will know which carton contains the related materials. The staff will bring the materials to a table at the library’s reading room so that the person doing research can examine them up close.

“The purpose of these archives is not to collect boxes and put them on the shelf,” said Larry Appelbaum, senior music reference librarian and jazz specialist at the Library of Congress. “We want people to come and use them.”

Geoffrey Himes


Max Roach (Photo: DownBeat Archives)

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Alex Mercado

Dusty Groove

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Jody Jazz

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