FOR DRUM LEGEND MAX ROACH AT AGE 72, which he was when this interview took place, life was good. He could look back with satisfaction on a lifetime of innovation—and controversy, something Roach, an outspoken, even combative fellow who has never lost the “street” elements of his complex character, is as adept as ever at stirring up. That same restlessness marked his persistent musical explorations of the last 50 years, which have helped map the postwar era in jazz. From the work he did as a teen with bebop innovators Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Bud Powell to his offbeat classical-meets-jazz forays, from his definitive hard bop quintet, featuring Sonny Rollins and Clifford Brown, to his championing of hiphop artists as the newest wave of African American cultural renewal and change, Roach has been on the cutting edge—and unafraid to speak his mind.
Twenty years ago, when I first interviewed him, he straddled the fence on Wynton Marsalis, then a hot, divisive topic of discussion: he thought the trumpeter's classical chops outpaced his jazz abilities (which I agreed with) but added that it was about time jazz musicians themselves and American institutions like Lincoln Center recognized the value of what Roach, like many in the jazz world, sees as America's greatest contribution to the arts. Then, when Marsalis unveiled his rather Mingusy but jumbled extended work, “All Rise,” in the late 1990s, Roach was furious: “Those churchy sections,” he sputtered at me during the intermission, “are shit! He's never even been in a Baptist or Holy Roller church, and it shows.” In my review, I attributed the cleaned-up quote to “a jazz legend in the audience”; Roach told me the day the piece ran that he got a sharp phone call from Lincoln Center officials—they'd guessed it was him and wanted to know why he'd talked such trash to me. “Because it's what I think,” he shot back.
As countless people, including his old cohort and erstwhile business and musical partner Charles Mingus, have discovered over the years, it's not really worth arguing with Roach. Especially now that he's garnering the sorts of accolades that his achievements should bring—and, all too rarely in the arts, while he's still alive to enjoy them.