Back On The Bandstand
The composer of several major jazz works. Roach’s Freedom Now Suite was adapted for film in 1966 by Gianni Amid, winning first prize at the International Film Festival in Locarno. A long-awaited recording of
Freedom Now Suite will be released shortly as part of the Columbia Masterworks series. Recently, Roach won the prestigious French Grand Prix du Disque for his recording of the South Africa Suite.HH: You seem to be performing more now than you have in the last several years. What has occupied you till now?
MR: I’ve been at the University of Massachusetts since 1971, but a year and a half ago I took a leave. I’m now teaching part-time there. I am a guest lecturer, making eight contacts a semester, one semester per year. I teach theory, composition, and history in modern American music.
I don’t teach percussion at all. The few percussionists I teach are composition majors. My thing is to encourage percussionists to write. Percussionists bring a different thing to composition, to dealing with the other instruments. Pianists have a certain way of approaching the orchestra, wind instrumentalists and string players have a certain way. In any idiom, you can almost tell which instrument the composer deals with.
Since the time I started teaching at the University, we fought, with the help of students and some members of our faculty, to develop an Afro-American Jazz Music major track. During the summer and winter breaks, I did a lot of traveling, mostly in Europe, with the Quartet. During one period we took the M’Boom percussion ensemble overseas. All the things we did were recorded, and issued either in Europe or Japan. The last year I’ve been doing more in the States.
After I realized that my forte lies in performing, I decided to go back out there and do it full-time again.
HH: What is the background and present situation of M’Boom?
MR: Warren Smith had a loft studio in downtown New York that we used for rehearsals. This was about six years ago. The idea to form a percussion ensemble wasn’t to make money off of it. I wanted people who knew the kit well, but also drummers who could write, were familiar with harmony, and had some experience on mallet instruments. We wanted to experiment and work on a collective basis to produce a group that was reflective of jazz.
A swinging percussion ensemble. When everyone was in town we’d work three or four days of the week. Then everyone would disperse and go their separate ways with different bands, until we came together again. Actually, it took us a couple of years before we did our first concert. We were invited to Europe in 1973. We did three concerts, one in the South of France, one in Holland, and one in Belgium.
HH: What was your own university training like?
MR: My major in school was composition and theory. I went to the Manhattan School of Music in the early fifties where a lot of wonderful people were at the time, people like Gunther Schuller, John Lewis and Donald Byrd. I auditioned for percussion while working on 52nd Street. This was how I could afford school. Fred Albright was the percussion instructor and Alfred Friese the timpanist. They asked me to play something and read music on the snare. Approaching the snare, the first thing Mr. Albright said was that I held the sticks wrong.
I changed my major, because there was no way to employ that so-called classical European technique and then go down on 52nd Street to work with people like Charlie Parker. In this country we have other ways of approaching the arts, which is great. Take Aretha Franklin or Ray Charles. It takes a lot of work to get that quality out of the voice. I played piano and switched my major to composition. My major percussion instrument was timpani, with Al Friese, because you had to play in the orchestra. It left me free to develop myself on the multiple percussion set, what we call the jazz set. The formal education I had on that set came from being in the company of Chick Webb, Sidney Catlett, Kenny Clarke, Art Blakey, Tony Williams and Freddie Waits. All those wonderful folks. It also prepared me for writing and arranging. The music schools teach you tradition. Tradition prepares you to teach, work in a symphony orchestra or become a musicologist. It’s hard to get a job like that today. If you’re prepared in the contemporary musical idioms that originated in the United States, you can make a fine living as an arranger, writer, in TV, studios — there are a whole range of things you can do. But the traditional music departments don’t become involved in that. It’s not about eliminating that traditional fare; but adding things that prepare someone to go out and make a living.
HH: How do you as a music educator respond to the argument that the influences of jazz are more American and less African than many black musicians propose?
MR: It’s a fusion type thing. You find jazz only in America. It’s not in European or African musical history. It is a unique American phenomenon. The educational systems in the United States are totally Germanic. Black American musicians and artists reach back into their African roots because it’s left out educationally.
HH: Why do you think jazz is taken more seriously in Europe and elsewhere than it is in America?
MR: It’s relative. The Grammies are important, because you get certificates of merit and accomplishment for how much money you make. Scientific or artistic contributions are not considered. It isn’t that the song has paved new ground, just that it has made money. But that’s relevant to our society.
We just recorded an extended work (South Africa Suite) as well as another long piece. We got the Grand Prix du Disque, which was given because it was an innovative idea and recorded well. We got that even before the record hit the market.
I noticed the audiences in Europe. The same people who go to see. an opera or a rock thing will see a jazz concert. Here we’re much more sectarian. A rock person will not go to hear Rubenstein. If you’re a person who likes Rubenstein, there’s no way you’re going to go hear Oscar Peterson. In Europe, it’s all the same. This is why so many things are supported by the government. They’ve learned to appreciate things for what they are. But that’s a different situation; those are Euro-Socialist countries. Here we’re high on profit. Cultural development suffers as a result, which is a tragedy.
HH: Let’s talk specifically about drumming. Along with Kenny Clarke, you were a founder of the bop style, changing the rhythmic emphasis from the bass and snare drums to the ride cymbal, using the other components for accents and color. There are those who say that Kenny was primarily responsible for this transition and that you carried it further. Is that how you see it?
MR: Kenny’s influence was that you should get more involved in harmonic playing. Kenny plays piano and is a total percussionist. It had little to do with the technique of playing. Kenny was in the Army when I came on the scene. I knew nothing about him until after recording with Coleman Hawkins. That style of playing was already established around New York. The first person I heard on radio who played broken rhythms using the bass drum and hi-hat was Jo Jones. Actually, Chick Webb, Jo Jones, O’Neil Spencer and Sidney Catlett had the greatest influence on me.
HH: How do you view the drummer’s role as an accompanist and timekeeper?
MR: Drummers are required to support constantly. We’re expected to be the rhythmic foundation. One thing I gloried in, working with people like Charlie Parker, was the built-in rhythm section. You didn’t need a drummer or a bass player to know where the time was. If you don’t lay the beat down for some players there’s no form or rhythm in their playing. You’re almost like a slave. “Bam bam bam bam” or “Boom bam de-boom-boom bam,” whatever it is. I think the instrument goes beyond that.
Most percussionists spend a lot of time developing themselves on the instrument. A lot of things we do never have a chance to come out. When the moment comes where the band finally turns around and says, “OK, you got it,” most of the time you overdo it.
Excluding a wind instrument, there’s always the danger of sounding inhuman. You’re not obliged to take a breath before you do something. Wind instrumentalists are obliged to be human; they have periods, question marks, exclamation marks, phrases. But there’s always the danger, with people who play piano, percussion, or string instruments, of not creating phrases that speak out to people. You can just rattle for hours. That characteristic is not only unmusical, but unnatural as well.
Someone asked me about the use of the metronome and I answered that you should use it only if you cannot keep time and are trying to develop a sense of holding time at a certain level. But to play metronomic time is another inhuman aspect. The time should be at the same place, but to make it elastic sounding, it may have to get a little faster or slower. A metronome locks you into “bap bap bap bap.” With the Quartet, holding time for each other would lock us in. My charge with the group is to add color and be dynamic in my accompaniment, not just to keep time for the players. They keep time. I can go outside of the time. We sometimes deal with sounds that have nothing to do with the meter, just for an effect. Everyone should have that time.
HH: How do you approach solo improvisation?
MR: When I go into an improvisational section it is not preplanned. I have all the techniques at my disposal. When someone else stops, I’m permitted to deal with my thoughts on a particular musical subject. I come to it free. The first thing I throw down into the instrument will determine the pattern and its development. Within, I’m conscious of what I call conversational structure, saying something to myself and answering.
I try not to do things because I can do them. I try to allow the moment to create itself, to respect silence, to say something and let the audience absorb it.
HH: Many of your solos use brief melodic, rhythmic refrains, usually accompanied by bass drum, hi-hat vamps. These figures unify and contrast the improvised sections — kind of a loose rondo form. Do you feel that this technique is something in which you particularly are an innovator?
MR: Yes, maybe so. During an evening, week or month of performing I play a host of drum solos. To live with myself I have to constantly set up new things, and interest the members of the group. We all have to do this. The rule is not that you killed them last night, so now you know what will bring the audience to their feet. That’s not the rule for the creative musician. You should try each night to introduce something that you didn’t do the night before. It’s always a challenge, for Billy or Cecil or Calvin or whoever, to do something that wasn’t done before. The public may not be aware of that, but for us it means we’re developing ideas for new recordings, for new pieces.
I do set up a call and response thing, something to return to that’s still within the structure of the piece. Music to me isn’t merely a matter of being melodic and harmonic. When you deal with the essence of art, it has more to do with design. I f it doesn’t have some kind of design, then it doesn’t make sense to me, which is why I appreciate Monk and Bartok.
HH: Do you have any special concepts or systems for tuning the drum set?
MR: I don’t tune in fourths or thirds or things like that. Usually I say the drums should be high, medium, or low.
“…There’s always the danger, with people who play piano, percussion, or string instruments, of not creating phrases that speak out to people. You can just rattle for hours. That characteristic is not only unmusical, but unnatural as well.”
HH: Do you alter your tuning for recording?
MR: There’s a different touch and tuning to get the clarity needed in recording. In the studio everything is tight to prevent distortion. You muffle and do a lot of things in order to get that sound. The music is now subservient to the techniques of recording! But in public the atmosphere absorbs it and you can be more open with the overtones.
HH: Are hand positions and wrist action something to which you’ve devoted a lot of attention?
MR: Wasted motion. That is what was different in the (rudimental) approach to the instrument from the way we viewed it. On 52nd Street everything was close to the instrument because you played exceptionally fast. You had to play at a certain volume, so you didn’t raise your hands high. You had to play what was acoustically best suited for small clubs.
HH: What about your brush technique? You’re constantly flipping the left hand over, creating a continuous swishing triplet sound. How did you develop this?
MR: I learned the law of playing brushes from O’Neil Spencer and Big Sid Catlett. The brush is really not supposed to leave the drum. You’re supposed to create a sweeping effect to get the accents without picking the brush up off the drum.
HH: What are the components of your present drum set?
MR: I’m using a 14×22 bass drum, two tom-toms mounted, 8×12 and 9×13, 16×16 floor, and a 6 1/2 xl4 metal snare drum. For hi-hats, I’m using a 14″ band cymbal on the bottom and a medium 13″ hi-hat top cymbal. The reason for that is a law of physics. The sound is pushed up and out. If you have two cymbals the same size the sound goes out on the side. Incidentally, the first one I saw do this was Kenny Clarke. For ride cymbals I use a 19″ pang cymbal, 17″ and 18″ medium cymbals. The 17″ gives a roaring sound, while the 18″ gives me a tight sound because it’s heavier.
HH: In 1961 you said, “I will never again play anything that does not have social significance.” Today, as you return to full-time performing, how do you feel about that statement?
MR: Well, I’m still at the same place, and I’ll tell you why.
There are those who think that art is for the sake of art, but actually it never is. Art is a powerful weapon that society, or the powers that be, use to control or direct the way people think. Culture is used to perpetuate the status quo of a society.
During the late fifties and sixties, poets and writers were engaged in dealing with our society, and issues like the civil rights movement or the Vietnamese war. When the seventies came, college students were turned away from that. The artist, in music especially, was used to make everyone dance. In came disco and the hard rock things to drive the poets and thinkers on campuses away from looking at society. Instead, they dance and party. The poets from the sixties aren’t writing the kinds of things they were then.
Even though I’m involved in music for the sake of entertainment, I always hope to offer some kind of enlightenment.
Photos by Ray Ross