This is FRESH AIR. Tomorrow marks the centennial of the birth of Charlie Parker, who was one of the originators of bebop in the 1940s. One of his musical peers was the late drummer Max Roach, who played on many of Parker’s most important recordings beginning in the mid-’40s. Roach was one of the most influential drummers in the history of modern jazz, playing with Clifford Brown, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Abbey Lincoln, to whom he was married for many years. That’s just a partial list. He was awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant in 1988. Roach died in 2007. I spoke with him on FRESH AIR in 1987.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: I’d like to talk about your life a little bit. You got your start, I think, playing in Coney Island for – at sideshows. Is that right?
MAX ROACH: That’s true. We used to do sometimes 12, 14 shows a day. And we’d have a barker outside. It was a barker who would say come on in. And the girls would go out and shake a little bit, and then public would come in. And we do, say, a 40-minute show and have 20 minutes off and they’d go back out – real sideshow. I enjoyed it.
GROSS: What kind of music did you play?
ROACH: Well, we played everything from small group versions of Khachaturian pieces where we – where the fire-eaters would – the ladies would dance and put fire all over themselves. And the comedian would say a few jokes. And a lot of fine musicians, dancers and choreographers had to do that for a living. I did it during the summers, you know? And yeah.
GROSS: You were a teenager then.
ROACH: Teenager – and that was it. You know, in order to master, I guess, your instrument, you have to do everything. I played with the local symphony orchestra. I played Coney Island sideshows and played with marching bands.
GROSS: Were you different than the other drummers who were playing in the same kinds of bands you were at the time? Did you know that you were doing something different?
ROACH: No. I’m – only – I grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y. So it’s right next door, of course, to Manhattan. I think we all did the same things. Some of the guys dropped out. Some people – they got married or went to the post office or whatever. But there was some marvelous music – I grew up with some marvelous musicians.
GROSS: How did you first meet some of the people who you became very close with and made now classic music together with? I’m thinking of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Did they find you? Did you find them?
ROACH: Well, Dizzy Gillespie heard me in a jam session in a place called Monroe’s Uptown House. Clark Monroe was the brother-in-law of Billie Holiday’s first husband, Jimmy Monroe. And he was like a – kind of a patron for young talent in these after-hour clubs. These after-hour clubs would open up at 4 in the morning and go until 8. So we could work those places and still go to school – Bud Powell and a crowd of us. Well, he heard me. He was with Cab Calloway when he heard me. He said, someday when I get my own band – when I leave Cab Calloway, I would like for you to play for me. That’s how I met Dizzy, and Dizzy got – introduced me to Coleman Hawkins, and I got my first record date.
And Dizzy was kind of like the catalyst of that whole movement that we call bebop. You know, he brought Charlie Parker. He discovered – in a way, you know, he brought Charlie Parker to New York and Bud Powell and all these wonderful people. He kind of had a group around him, you know? And I was just fortunate enough to be part of that. But that’s how I really got started.
GROSS: You were one of the first drummers to play bebop. And you were one of the first people to figure out how to drum in the kind of fiery sessions that were being played. What were some of the challenges that that presented to you?
ROACH: Well, when they played fast, they played very fast. It was a period where instrumental virtuosity was – in our area – prevailed because during the war, you know, we had an extra – the Second World War – we had an extra 20% cabaret tax. It was very complex. To put it very simply, it was – if an entrepreneur hired, he had to pay for – say, he had to pay a city tax. Like, in New York, he had to pay a state tax and a federal tax. And upon that, he had – up on that – on top of that, he had to pay a 20% government tax called entertainment tax if he had a singer, if he had public dancing or dancing on a stage or a comedian.
This really heralded the demise of big bands during that time. This tax was just awful, you know? So the people who really got the jobs were the virtuoso instrumentalists. Everybody went home and practiced, practiced, practiced. And then that was the beginning of bebop – like, the people who – so Charlie Parker and Dizzy and Shearing. The virtuoso players were the ones who people would come and sit down. Everybody began to sit and listen to the music rather than get up and dance to it. That was the beginning of it.
GROSS: What rhythms had you been playing before? And what rhythms did you shift into playing once you started playing bop because you really had to – you had to invent new rhythms. You had to invent new styles.
ROACH: Yeah. Well, I also – I had help, too. I had a lot of help. My mentors were people like Big Sidney Catlett and Chick Webb and Jo Jones with the Count Basie band. For folks who don’t know, these were people who played with Louis Armstrong and – Sidney Catlett did and later went with Benny Goodman. Sidney Catlett took Gene Krupa’s place when Krupa started his own band. But all these folks, they were doing pretty much the same thing but only in large band contexts. When you played in a small band, you had to do more. More was required of you because there were less people. It was like playing in a string quartet vis-a-vis a symphony orchestra. It’s much more interesting for the individual player. Of course, an orchestra’s interesting for the composer and the conductor and the soloist.
But when you play in a smaller context, everybody has to do more to fill up the sound. So this was required of us, actually. I don’t think we were aware of it except in that first small band I worked in. The first was Dizzy’s. I worked in small bands, of course, all around the city at that time. But Dizzy was the one that – his band with Charlie Parker and Oscar Pettiford and Bud Powell or Charles Mingus, that was a real – all the virtuoso people got together. And that’s – and we knew that you – everybody had to be kind of busy. So consequently, there were – you heard more drums. You heard more piano. You heard more this and that and the other to fill it out. That’s to put it very simply, of course (laughter).
GROSS: Right. Well, to put it less simply, we’ll hear some of what you were playing, then.
ROACH: Thank you.
GROSS: This is from the mid-1940s, and this is my guest Max Roach as recorded with Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. And we’re going to hear “Ko-Ko.”
(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE PARKER’S “KO-KO”)
GROSS: That was “Ko-Ko.” It was recorded in 1945 with my guest, Max Roach, on drums and Miles Davis on trumpet, Charlie Parker on alto saxophone. Does it bring back memories for you? Do you listen back to that much?
ROACH: It sure does. Charlie Parker at that time, as well as Dizzy, the music was very, very fresh. And I guess you would equate it with what we hear today from people like Anthony Braxton, at least they treated us that way. We were the new breed on the scene. And they would say things, well, like – the critics would say, Dizzy sounds like he’s playing with a mouthful of marbles. And Charlie Parker was playing scales from a saxophone both – just only scales. And Max Roach dropped bombs. I don’t know (laughter) but it was interesting. But Powell had no left hand. And it was, you know, we were criticized. But some of it was valid, I thought. You know…
ROACH: …We had a long way to go, you know?
GROSS: My interview with Max Roach was recorded in 1987. He died in 2007. After a short break, we’ll continue our tribute to Charlie Parker with interviews from our archive featuring two other musicians who had a close association with Parker, trumpeter Red Rodney and saxophonist Jackie McLean. I’m Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.