Saturday, May 13, 2023

SIFF ’23: Max Roach, the Drum Also Waltzes

Max Roach was one of jazz’s two great “trouble-making” musical activists, along with Charles Mingus. Together, they formed Debut Records, the short-lived independent jazz label. Tragically, Mingus was undermined by his own body at the age of 56, but Roach lived into his eighties, having successfully channeled his protest anger into music. Documentarians Sam Pollard and Ben Shapiro chronicle Roach’s long, challenging career about as well as anyone could with a mere ninety minutes in Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes, which screens at the 2023 Seattle International Film Festival.

Roach left this world in 2007, but Pollard started filming him for a prospective documentary in 1987. At the same time, Shapiro was recording audio interviews with Roach for a book about jazz drums. Apparently, other projects and events intervened for Pollard, but he had a wealth of material to draw from when they finally joined forces and finished the film.

Roach was the classic Bebop drummer, but he was probably more responsible than any for Bebop’s evolution into Hardbop as the co-leader of the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet. His protest music with Abbey Lincoln was about as avant-garde as any Free Jazz and he later explored the unexpected melodic and harmonic possibilities of his instrument in the all-percussion ensemble M’Boom.

By far, the best sequences in
Drum Also Waltzes cover Roach’s relationship with Brown, who died far, far too young, through no fault of his own. The memories of Roach and legends like Sonny Rollins will move many jazz fans to tears.

On the other hand, the biggest absence in the doc is that of Mingus. Roach had a long association with the bassist, as co-founders of Debut, as members of the celebrated one-night-only “Jazz at Massey Hall” Quintet, the rhythm section of Duke Ellington’s
Money Jungle record, and the so-called “Newport Rebels.” I suspect Pollard and Shapiro are keenly aware of the oversight and it probably kills them, but maybe one Mingus reference would have necessarily led to another, until he took over the film.

In any case, there is still a whole lot of Roach’s life and music in the film, none of which you can begrudge Pollard and Shapiro for covering. Frankly, they do a really nice job explaining Roach’s activism and politics, without letting the film turn into a lecture.

Indeed, it is good to see Roach get the attention he deserved. Sadly, I only saw Roach play live once, when he sat-in with Clark Terry during the flugelhorn legend’s set. That was a cool bonus. Regardless, Roach’s music will endure and Pollard & Shapiro will hopefully help spread it to festival patrons and eventually,
American Masters viewers. Highly recommended, Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes screens in-person tonight (5/13) and Monday (5/15), as well as virtually 5/22-5/29, as a selection of this year’s SIFF.