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Library of Congress Jan. 27 celebrated getting jazz great Max Roach collection

The Library of Congress Jan. 27 celebrated its new acquisition of the collection of jazz drummer Max Roach, a legendary virtuoso, composer, professor, and civil rights activist.

Portrait of Max Roach. Photographed by Annie Leibovitz in New York City on July 24th, 2001. From the Max Roach Collection at the Library of Congress.
Photo by Annie Leibovitz. From the Max Roach Collection, The Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Roach (1924-2007), a founder of Modern Jazz, was one of the first to use jazz to address racial issues.

The event featured a conversation with his five children, led by Sue Vita, chief of the Library's Music Division.

It included a one-day display of rare papers, music, photos, audio and video recordings in the collection:

  • A draft of his unpublished autobiography -- written with Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) -- the celebrated poet and fellow activist who died Jan. 9. In one segment, Roach talks about being "white balled" and "rejected by my fellow Quincy Jones. There was just this big freeze on me..." for being "so heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement."
  • Roach's annotated scores, original and holographs, including his music for Baraka's "The Life and Life of Bumpy Johnson" (1990-1991).
  • His handwritten essay "I Hate Jazz" says "'Jazz' has always meant the worst of working conditions for an artists (sic)."
  • Rarely seen photos of Roach. In one, he wears a sign "Africa for the Africans" while protesting a Miles Davis concert for UNESCO in 1961. Other photos show Roach with fellow jazz greats Dizzy Gillespie -- inscribed "To Max, 'The silver lining for my cloud.'", Art Blakey, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and others.
  • Correspondence with Charles Mingus, Nina Simone, Phil Collins, Maya Angelou, and many other luminaries. Writing shortly after the murder of Malcolm X, Angelou says, "The moral deterioration in this country is shocking..." She also regrets that she has "romanticized the American Black Man."
  • Roach's address book with Josephine Baker's address in France, among other star performers.
  • Roach's writings on black consciousness.

Roach, born in New Land, N.C., grew up in Brooklyn -- where his 8th grade report card shows a "D" in music. Later, he studied at the Manhattan School of music.

As a teen, he began playing drums in Duke Ellington's orchestra, and for alto saxophonist Charlie Parker. Within a few years, Roach was regarded as a pioneer in the development of bebop.

He was a drummer for other jazz megastars including Miles Davis ("Birth of Cool" recordings in 1949 and 1950), Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk.

"Jazz at Massey Hall" the famous 1953 concert with Roach, Charlie Parker, Gillespie, Mingus, and Bud Powell -- one of Roach's two entries in the GRAMMY Hall of Fame -- "is regarded by many jazz enthusiasts as the greatest jazz concert ever," Tom Barrick, one of the two archivists for the Max Roach Papers, told me.

"What's really amazing is Roach's real global influence," archivist Chris Hartten told me. "He had thousands and thousands of performances, festivals, magazine articles...He knew everyone...he was constantly fighting on behalf of African Americans in the music business..."

Roach was also the first jazz musician to receive a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant in 1988, among numerous other grants and awards.

The collection of some 100,000 items has 80,000 manuscripts and papers, including 300 manuscript scores, 7,500 photographs and posters, including his collaborations with playwright Sam Shephard, and choreographers Alvin Ailey and Bill T. Jones; and hundreds of recordings, including a jingle for the short-lived Afro-Kola soda, "the taste of freedom".

The Max Roach Collection will be available for research through the Library’s Performing Arts Reading Room on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

For more info: Max Roach Collection, Library of Congress, Performing Arts Reading Room,, James Madison Building, 101 Independence Avenue, S.E., Washington, D.C., 202-707-5507. The Library also has the collections of Charles Mingus, Billy Taylor, Gerry Mulligan, Dexter Gordon, Leonard Bernstein, the Gershwins -- and manuscripts of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms, among many other masters.

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