SXSW Film Review: Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes

The life and impact of the jazz drumming pioneer

Decades in the making, Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes had its unveiling in a world premiere at SXSW.

The documentary about the groundbreaking jazz drummer’s career is co-directed by Samuel Pollard and Ben Shapiro, who pooled their separate early efforts to mount a singular biopic about Roach and created this informative and powerful investigation into the musician’s accomplishments and legacy. The film is scheduled to air in the fall lineup of PBS’ American Masters series.

The film uses a vast array of archival footage and interviews to bring the recent past to life, often building sections into pulsating impressions that reflect its subject and an overall musicality. Jazz novices and well-steeped aficionados will all find this an edifying document that presents an overall biography of a significant life in music as well as a revealing portrait of what made the artist, a Black man who made his bones in Jim Crow America, tick.

It’s clear in the film’s opening seconds that the artist and his milieu are inextricable: We hear a white journalist ask Roach, who was then early in his career, if his music could be used as a weapon. In reply, Roach, whose music demonstrably reflects the conflicted racial times, answered in the affirmative, and went on to explain that even the term “jazz” is diminishing when a more proper descriptor might be something like “African American instrumental music.”

We may have Max Roach to thank for the often-dreaded drum solo in modern music. Roach lifted drumming from a mere beat-keeping anchor to an expressive instrumental showpiece and compositional tool. Playing with titans such as Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Thelonious Monk in his early bebop years, Roach formed several combos of his own and developed a style that fostered free improvisation, and by the Seventies even created a percussion ensemble called M’Boom. In later decades, Roach composed for theatre and dance companies, as well as performing in a a hip-hop concert with his godson Fab 5 Freddy because he saw an intrinsic kinship between his jazz roots and the burgeoning hip-hop revolution. Roach also composed and recorded an album commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation called We Insist!: Max Roach’s Freedom Suite and music for a video of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech.”

For their interviews, the filmmakers largely tap fellow musicians who knew Roach and could add personal knowledge and reminiscences rather than jazz historians and academics presenting facts. Interviewees include such musicians as Sonny Rollins, Harry Belafonte, Roach’s former wife Abbey Lincoln, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Randy Weston, Fab 5 Freddy, and poet Sonia Sanchez. Rollins perhaps sums up Roach’s lasting influence best when he describes Roach’s harmonious thrust: “He was always playing something that makes me want to play.”

Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes

24 Beats Per Second, World Premiere

Thu 16, 2:15pm, Alamo Lamar E

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