Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes is a love letter to a jazz icon over 30 years in the making. Directors Samuel Pollard and Ben Shapiro happened to meet three decades ago when their jobs both brought them to recording sessions that included legendary jazz drummer Max Roach and they knew immediately they wanted to share his story with the world through a documentary.
Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes isn’t just a story about jazz music, it’s about how a new generation of jazz musicians used their musical voice. It starts by discussing how Max Roach and others of his era viewed the term “jazz musician” as another racial term to demean black musicians. They didn’t want to be seen as “jazz musicians”, they wanted to be seen as black musicians. After early bouts with drugs that eventually led to a young arrest, Roach was determined to get his act together and do something good with his life.
One way Roach did this was by helping create the new bebop subgenre of jazz. The idea was that music didn’t always have to be sweet and beautiful. Instead, it could capture the anger and hurt that black musicians felt and voice it in the best way they knew how. It wasn’t about making people feel comfortable, it was about sharing their experiences as black musicians in a world that didn’t see them as people. Music has always been a powerful tool, so Roach channeled that tool to make a genuine difference in the fight for equality. Roach was acutely aware of what he was doing as a black man in the spotlight and used that to influence what he chose to do. He spoke out against injustice worldwide, but even in the way he dressed, he helped push forward the idea that it was ok for black men and women to be their own people and not conform to societal norms or expectations laid on them by white people.
Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes highlights that Roach felt that he had a duty to use his music to fight for what he believed in politically. It wasn’t enough to just play music, he needed to gather together with other like-minded musicians and be a voice for those that didn’t have. Personal experiences dealing with racial injustice further drove his need to fight against the powers holding them down. The deaths of friends and missteps that Roach made afterward left him broken, but his music and the people he made it with dragged him back from the brink.
What I appreciate most about Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes is that it shows what a complicated era the bebop era was. The musicians, like Max Roach, weren’t perfect people who lived mistake-free lives. They weren’t trying to use a platform to preach down at others. No, they were just as broken as the people they made their music for. I’ve always known about what a great drummer Roach was, but I had no clue just how tormented his life was. Other contemporaries of his like Charlie Parker had similarly brutal lives, which gave a real authenticity to their music. They thought the world was going to change for the better, and when it didn’t they became more and more determined to speak out.
The authenticity of Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes is what really stood out to me. Famous names like Quincy Jones and Harry Belafonte saw Roach as an icon, but when talking about him many of his peers struggled to talk about how rough some moments were. Specifically when it came to the death of Roach’s friend and musical partner Clifford Brown. Brown’s death broke Roach, and his friends still struggle with that memory decades later. Max was their friend, he was their bandmate, and his brokenness hit them hard and they still care decades after the fact. It’s a beautiful look at how tight the bond was between those contemporaries.
Max Roach was an activist musician before musicians felt comfortable stepping up in that way. Take away that activism and he still remains one of the greatest drummers to ever live, but his fight against injustice is what really made him special. He often gets overlooked historically, given the fact that drummers didn’t tend to be the most noticeable members of bands, but his impact is still felt strongly to this day. Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes is an important film in this regard, telling a story the world needs to hear about how music and activism worked and continue to work hand in hand.
Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes premiered at SXSW on March 16th, 2023.
Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes
- Rating - 9/109/10
Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes is an important film, telling a story the world needs to hear about how music and activism worked and continue to work hand in hand.