Referred to as the “dean of modern jazz drumming,” Max Roach spent his formative years in Brooklyn and received a degree in composition from the Manhattan School. While still in his teens, Roach became one of the innovators of the bop drumming style at jazz fountainheads such as Minton’s Playhouse and Clark Monroe’s Uptown House in Harlem. Among his collaborators have been Coleman Hawkins (with whom he made his first recording in 1944), Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and many others. Known for his melodic, formally structured solos, and compositional experimentation, Roach moved from bop to cool and free jazz styles, and his creative talents were recognized with commissions and awards from various sources, including the MacArthur Foundation and Down Beat magazine.
Roach’s We insist! Freedom now suite, recorded in 1960, moves from depictions of slavery to Emancipation to the Civil Rights struggle and African independence. The work draws on both long-standing symbols of African American cultural identity and a more immediate historical context. It is a modernist work as well, as Roach and his musicians used African and African American legacies in new and novel ways. In a 1987 interview, Roach commented on whether by the time he recorded the Freedom now suite, he had become a Civil Rights activist:
“Well, I guess [Black jazz musicians] always have been [activists], you know? I go back to Bessie Smith with Black mountain blues and then to Duke Ellington’s Black, brown and beige. It’s always been there. Leadbelly always spoke about the issues and the times that existed. And many of the old Black folk singers from the South to street musicians dealt with it. I’ve always been an activist. At that time [in the 1960s], my children were young. But you’re always thinking about their future as well. And if they’re going to come up and be responsible human beings, they have to have education, and the things like everyone else has. And society has to accommodate that. So, I guess I’ve always been activist because of them.”
Listen to the entire We insist! Freedom now suite recording below.
Decades after its initial release, the Freedom now suite remains fresh and significant, foregrounding the ways that jazz has been in consistent dialogue with social and cultural movements, and has been at its most inspired when engaged in social commentary.
Celebrate the beginning of Black History Month by reading the entry on Max Roach in Percussionists: A biographical dictionary (2000, RILM Music Encyclopedias) and “Revisited! The Freedom now suite” by Ingrid Monson (JazzTimes XXXI/7 [September 2001], 54–59.
Below is a performance of We insist! by Abbey Lincoln and the Max Roach group in 1964.