Oct 2, 2011

The Max Roach Workshop

In the mid-1980s I was working at a local non-profit music school, organizing their jazz program. One day I got a call from our music school director (a classical guy). "Have you heard of someone named Max Roach? He wants to do a workshop here." I told him that this was something we should definitely try to make happen, as Max Roach was one of the greatest drummers in the history of jazz.

Max had gotten a grant to do some performances and workshops in the San Francisco area, and as part of the package, needed to arrange some "community outreach." Somehow the name of our school came up, and his agent had made a call. Our director called back with an affirmative reply, we put out some publicity, and a couple of months later Max showed up to do the workshop.

Shaking hands, I couldn't help thinking that I was one handshake removed from... just about every major player in the jazz world. Max was wearing a suit with 1940s style high-waist, baggy pants, nicely creased. He reminded me of my Uncle Louis, a New Yorker of Max's generation, who dressed the same way.

There were around 40 people in the audience: perhaps 30 older non-musicians - bebop fans - and 10 or so relatively young student jazz players (that included me). Now, "workshop" is a sort of vague term, less specific than, say, "masterclass." We didn't know exactly what Max had in mind, and he probably didn't either, at least not until he had a chance to size up the audience.

Max talked for a few minutes about his current projects (working with dancers, I recall), and then sat down at the drum set and played for about 20 minutes, a couple of fascinating, virtuosic solo pieces. That was an education in itself, especially for the handful of drummers in the audience. Then Max said, "Would anyone like to come up here and play?"

Wow! For us young boppers, this was too good to be true... playing a tune with Max Roach! About 8 of us got our instruments and gathered around the drum set.

Max stood up, walked back into the audience, and took a seat. Then he said, "What are you going to play?" We discussed it for about 15 seconds. How about a blues? Great! How about "Now's the Time?" Max, from the audience, said, "Now's the Time... I think I played on that recording."

So we played "Now's the Time," everybody took a solo, maybe 10 or 12 minutes altogether. Max, talking to the rest of the audience, said "Ladies and gentlemen, do you see how this works? These musicians have probably never played together (true), but they have a common repertoire, and didn't have any problem improvising a performance..." Of course, we were a little disappointed that we weren't able to actually play a tune with Max, but what the heck, at least we played for him.

Max took questions for another 30 minutes or so, and then headed back to San Francisco for his gig at Fort Mason.

No comments: