ARTS: JAZZ: Drumming to a different beat

Max Roach, jazz legend and civil-rights man, visits London next week. Phil Johnson met him in New York
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INTERVIEWING MAX ROACH is a bit like interviewing God, except, of course, that Roach is better dressed. Visiting his uptown apartment in New York, overlooking Central Park, you can't help wondering a big what-if about Charlie Parker. Only three and a half years older than Roach, who was his friend, colleague and drummer of choice, Parker would now be 78 if he hadn't died in 1955 of drugs, racism and ill-health. Would he, like Roach, also be - as Ezra Pound wrote of Max Beerbohm - "an old man with beautiful manners"? Would Bird be reposing in a cool white room lined with bookshelves full of African-American literature, the walls decorated with African masks, a piano waiting silently in the corner?

It's only a slight exaggeration to say that every time we hear the drums in jazz or rock music, we hear an echo of the great Max Roach. He revolutionised approaches to the instrument by freeing the percussive potential of wood, skin, metal and wire from a purely rhythmic, accompanying role to become the equal in expression of the saxophone, the trumpet or the piano. Of course, Roach denies this: "There's Baby Dodds, Big Sidney Catlett, Kenny Clarke, Papa Jo Jones," he says irascibly. "But here we are talking about what you can't compare. The music is comunally done: it's not like playing violin in an orchestra. Things begin to happen, and that's what this music is all about." But really, Max Roach is the man: in recent performances he has even been known to play the jazz standard "Body and Soul" as a solo with the aid of just two wire brushes and a snare drum.

From the early 1940s to the present, Roach has been one of the most individual jazz artists of the century. In the Forties he helped to define the new musical language of bebop, and later played on Miles Davis's Birth of the Cool. In the Fifties he played at the legendary Massey Hall concert with the supergroup of Parker, Gillespie, Mingus and Bud Powell, and formed his celebrated quintet with the tragically short-lived trumpeter Clifford Brown. In the Sixties, he married the singer Abbey Lincoln and became a leading cultural figure in the struggle for civil rights, producing the classic protest albums Freedom Now! and It's Time! In the Seventies, he collaborated with the new avant-garde of free-jazz players like Cecil Taylor and Anthony Braxton. And in the Eighties, unlike everyone else, he didn't make a dodgy jazz-fusion album.

And Roach is unique in that he is still - gloriously, and at 74 years of age - at the forefront of the music he helped to create. He continues to work in a variety of formats: leading his own bands, performing in special projects with artists as diverse as Toni Morrison, Bill T Jones and Bill Cosby, writing music for the stage (including a score for Eugene O'Neill's The Hairy Ape) and a "bopera" with the poet Amiri Baraka, as well as serving as a Professor of American Music at Amherst. He even has a park in the London borough of Lambeth named after him. When he comes to London, he will bring with him a jazz sextet and a 16-piece gospel choir for a programme that will reach from the "sorrow songs" of the slave plantations to his own latest compositions.

"I didn't really know anything about instruments until we moved from North Carolina to New York City when I was four or five years old," Roach says, settled on his sofa. "We had a marching band in our church in the black community and my brother, who was two years older, brought home a bugle. When I brought home a bugle like he did and couldn't get a sound out of it, my mother suggested that I bring home something I could deal with because I was so frustrated. So I brought home a drum. That's why I started, because you just hit it and you got a sound."

He started playing the drums in church; the voices of the choir made an impression that has continued to colour his music ever since. "My folks sang a lot so I've always been interested and involved with choral music, and with storytelling that involves singing. Of course, to me the voice is steeped in the black experience, from the very early roots of field hollers and shouts and then on up to the great songs written by people like James Weldon Johnson, and on up to what we're doing today."

When Roach talks, it is in the manner of an old-school headmaster. He invokes not just his own story but that of all musicians, and occasionally that of black people in America generally. "We're all vocal people, and it wasn't until the turn of the century, with the pianists of the day like Scott Joplin and his crowd, that instrumental music really came about ... The big thing was always singing, and of course church music was a dominant part of that, and the blues. And this is why, I would imagine, that later on when I got involved in composition, I concentrated on voices."

After receiving his first drum-kit at the age of 12, Roach later studied theory and composition at the Manhattan School of Music. But his real education took place in what he calls "our music's conservatory of the street," in the jazz clubs of 52nd Street. Despite the reputation of clubs like Minton's and Monroe's as revolutionary cells for the promulgation of bebop, Roach is keen to emphasise the continuity with earlier forms of jazz. "You had to be restful," he says. "We were surrounded by these brilliant minds dealing with this music, and one thing this music allows you, is - if we can use this overtaxed word - freedom. But it's not just freedom to do anything with. You're free to pick and choose; but the concepts that you pick and choose have to be as profound as those you learn from."

"Segregation," he continues, "as convoluted as it seemed, kept the music in that rarefied atmosphere of creativity that was profoundly exhibited by Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge and so forth, and the public knew exactly how to respond to it. Then, when the music began to branch out into the world, it seemed that you could do anything, but it was never that - you had responsibility to the people that came before you. Take Louis Armstrong: when he played his whole body just reacted to the sound. I heard him and he was strong, strong!"

Asked about his radicalism in the Sixties and about how he sees the politics of the black experience today, Roach is cautious. "Actually, culturally, it's in a wonderful place, he says, pointing to a special issue of the magazine Art in America which is devoted to the work of black artists. "I just got this in the mail today, and they even have some of Miles Davis's paintings. I recall that when Miles began painting as a therapy - because at the time he was in a lot of pain - he called me from Washington DC where he had a big show and said 'Max, I'm making more money from my painting than from playing my horn!' But the black experience today is rolling along, as things get better. To paraphrase Martin Luther King, 'Even though we've come a long way, we still have a long way to go,' and he's talking about everybody. All over the world, it's not perfect for any of us."

Of the Sixties, Roach says: "We were all speaking with whatever weapons we had at our disposal. Now, I just want more for the generations to come. Sometimes it's difficult to see, but what people like Martin Luther King did was monumental, and they gave their lives for that. We still have the monster of the haves and the have-nots, and I don't care where you go: you still have the haves and the have-nots."

"This music, I find, is very democratic," he says finally. "You take three or four musicians and put them on stage, and there isn't a sheet of music. Yet collectively they create. No one is conducting them, no one is telling them they're this, that or the other thing, but things begin to happen." For Max Roach, uniquely, it's happening still.

! Max Roach Sextet: Barbican, EC2 (0171 638 8891), Fri.