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The Beat Goes On

The prolific drummer Max Roach would have been 100 years old on January 10, and all around the world, admirers have been celebrating. The Joyce Theater joined the party on April 6 with an evening of commissioned dance works to Roach’s music choreographed by Ayodele Casel, Rennie Harris, and Ronald K. Brown and Arcell Cabuag, curated by Richard Colton.  

Performance

“Max Roach 100”

Place

The Joyce Theater, New York, NY, April 6, 2024

Words

Cecilia Whalen

Ayodele Casel in “Freedom...In Progress” for “Max Roach 100.”

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Roach’s legacy can’t be overstated. As a young man, he revolutionized the role of the drums in American music and played with practically every important jazz musician of the twentieth century, including Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Duke Ellington. He was active in the Civil Rights Movement and used his compositions to advocate for justice: His 1960 album “We Insist! Freedom Now Suite” was one of the first, and perhaps the most famous, explicitly political jazz albums in the fight against segregation and apartheid.

Roach was an artist devoted to exploration, innovation, and collaboration. In his later career, he expanded his artistic scope to perform with writers Toni Morrison, Amiri Baraka, Sam Shepard, Maya Angelou, and others. He composed for dance, performing with Bill T. Jones, Alvin Ailey, Donald Byrd, and Dianne McIntyre, and worked many times with multi-media visual artists.

The Joyce’s “Max Roach 100” began with a video prelude directed by one of these multi-media artists, Kit Fitzgerald, who worked with Roach on numerous occasions in the 1980s and ’90s. The new film features archival footage of Roach improvising. His sticks fly across the drums and from them burst streams of color, rainbows edited in to arc out paths of movement.

In one genius clip, Roach pares down his resources to a single hi-hat. He hammers with such intensity that we suppose he’s securing the instrument to the floor. For Roach, anything could be a percussion instrument if you knew how to play it, and in this episode, he uses the metal hi-hat stand as an equal companion to the cymbals. Roach’s clicking strikes on the stand sound like trilling tap shoes.

The Joyce Theater celebrates legendary drummer Max Roach

Cue Ayodele Casel, who followed Fitzgerald’s video as the first live performance of the evening. Casel entered the stage humbly and sat down on a stool. She slipped on a pair of yellow tap shoes and warmed-up seated, pitter-pattering on the floor.    

Casel stood and was greeted by a recording of one of Roach’s duets with the experimental pianist Cecil Taylor. Roach and Taylor’s duets were part of the free jazz movement, particularly popular in the 1970s, where musicians would improvise off of each other unrestricted by tempo or chord changes.

This particular excerpt from “Duet Improvisation #2” was full of other-worldly percussion sounds and piano scales played like falling down a staircase. Casel improvised intuitively, responding and sometimes impossibly anticipating rhythms and accents. Lighting by Serena Wong, which briefly lit squares like checker boards and thin, glowing lines which Casel walked like tightropes, gave the audience navigation through this musical wonderland.

Angel Anderson in “Jim Has Crowed” by Rennie Harris. Photograph by Steven Pisano

Rennie Harris took on Roach’s activist streak with “Jim Has Crowed,” choreographed to Roach’s “The Dream/It’s Time” from 1981. “The Dream” features a sampling of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and dancers dressed in all black raised fists and opened their mouths producing silent screams to acknowledge this “dream deferred.” They tumbled in backwards rolls, flipped, and spun on their heads. To Roach’s accelerated drum solo, Harris’ dancers jumped and stepped in super-fast footwork.

Both Casel and Harris’ pieces highlighted Roach’s dexterous, up-tempo playing with choreography that matched in speed and intensity. This virtuosic soloing style could be characteristic of Roach, particularly in his own compositions and his later career. To this side of Roach, the two choreographers paid expert homage.

However, in addition to his wild, fast, and free soloing, musically, Roach was distinguished for his melodic drumming. His solos could be extraordinarily complex and intense, but they could also be spacious and relaxed, almost like humming a tune. Additionally, as much as Roach was an incredible soloist, he was also a brilliant accompanist, which is why he was in such demand with so many jazz greats from the time he was a teenager: He was great at keeping time, at swinging, and supporting a melody.

Ronald K. Brown and Arcell Cabuag honored this other important side of Roach’s musicianship in their piece “Percussion Bitter Sweet: Tender Warriors” for both Brown’s Evidence and the Cuban Malpaso Dance Company, together.

Auston Warren Coats (center) with dancers from Ronald K. Brown/Evidence and Malpaso Dance Company in “Percussion Bitter Sweet: Tender Warriors.” Photograph by Steven Pisano

In Brown’s compelling signature blend of West African forms, dancers glided, undulated, and leaped across the stage. Although these recordings —selections from the album “Percussion Bitter Sweet”—were still up-tempo and rhythmically complex, Evidence and Malpaso’s dancers broke down the complexities and focused on anchoring to the beat. Deconstructing Roach’s rhythms to the composition’s core sense of time allowed for a renewal of breath and clarity in the movement.

The dancers presented high kicks and grounded footwork to the audience and greeted one another in ensemble formations. They danced in circles, facing in towards one another in acknowledgement and respect. In addition to its grounded sense of time, this dance represented a sense of community that Roach, himself, found vital to the essence of jazz music.

“What makes the performance is the dialogue created between you and everybody around you spontaneously,” Roach said in an interview for the Washington Post.

“You have to interact with everybody up there. Jazz is a purely democratic music. It’s collective creativity where somebody introduces something and we all get a chance to say something about it. It always amazes me: The whole of it is just a great spirit.

It grabs you to the point where it never lets you go until the very last breath.”

Cecilia Whalen


Cecilia Whalen is a writer and dancer from Charlotte, North Carolina. She is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and holds a bachelor's degree in French. Currently, Cecilia is studying composition at the Martha Graham School for Contemporary Dance in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn.

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