Modern jazz icon Max Roach, who altered the course of drumming in the 1940s and would use the music to affect race relations, academia, theater and dance, died in his sleep Thursday morning. He was 83.
A spokesman for Blue Note Records announced his death, though no cause was given. Roach had been known to be ill for several years.
Known for a layered style that was as much melodic and full of tonal color as it was rhythmic and steady, Roach is among the few musicians who brought about stylistic changes to jazz. His bebop and hard bop styles continue to be the standard in jazz to this day.
Born in North Carolina to a mother who was a gospel singer, he grew up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. A few years after taking piano lessons, he took up the drums at the age of 10.
From the start of his music career, Roach was involved in numerous situations that would later be designated historic. As a teenager in the early 1940s, he was part of the dawn of bebop, drumming with alto saxophonist Charlie Parker in clubs on such benchmarks of the style as “Woody ‘n’ You,” “Koko” and “Now’s the Time.”
Roach worked with Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell on their earliest recordings and was part of Miles Davis’ “Birth of the Cool” sessions in 1949 and 1950. He co-founded Debut Records with Charles Mingus to give musicians control over their recordings.
His first group as a leader, formed with trumpeter Clifford Brown in 1954, forged the post-bebop style known as hard bebop. The work of the group ended in 1956, when Brown was killed in a car accident and Roach fell into an alcoholic depression. He recovered by taking on projects with Sonny Rollins, Monk and trumpeter Kenny Dorham.
In the early 1960s, his works such as “We Insist! Freedom Now Suite” were among the first to use jazz to address racial and political issues. Hired as a professor at UMass Amherst in 1972, he became one of the first jazz musicians to teach full time at a college. (He studied composition at the Manhattan School of Music in the ’40s). Concerned about relating musically only with his students, he turned to the New York avant-garde and recorded with Anthony Braxton, Cecil Taylor and Archie Shepp.
In 1970, he created the all-percussion band M’Boom that he would keep active for more than two decades.
For the 1980s, he also led a “double quartet” — trumpet, saxophone, bass and drums plus a string quartet.
Roach won an Obie award in 1985 for his music written for three Sam Shepard plays revived at New York’s La MaMa Theater. After that, Roach collaborated with the choreographer Alvin Ailey on “Survivors,” a tribute to Winnie and Nelson Mandela.
In 1988, he became the first jazz musician to receive a “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation.
He also worked with video artists, writers such as Toni Morrison, gospel choirs and rappers such as Fab Five Freddie. Roach made his final recording, with trumpeter Clark Terry, in 2002.
“He was also one of the first American musicians to understand the complex polyrhythms of Africa,” Quincy Jones said. “Thank God he left a piece of his soul on his recordings so that we’ll always have a part of him with us.”
He was married three times, including to the singer Abbey Lincoln from 1962-70. All three marriages ended in divorce.
Roach’s survivors include his daughter Maxine and a son, actor Daryl Roach, from his first marriage, to Mildred Roach; a son, Raoul Roach, from another relationship; and twin daughters, Ayodele Roach and Dara Roach, from his third marriage, to Janus Adams Roach.