It's Time: Max Roach and M'Boom, 1970-1984
Exploring the legacy of the legendary jazz percussion ensemble.
“The concept of drummers playing together is the only way to go, if you check it out.”
Rick Mattingly: There is a so-called “traditional” percussion ensemble literature….
Joe Chambers: In terms of who’s tradition?
“When I first listened to Varese, I realized that it was imitative of our improvisatory music.”
“[M’Boom] is a school. I’ve spent time with the cream of the crop— people like Pablo Casals and Zubin Mehta— but I simply didn’t want to do that kind of work anymore. When I heard M’Boom, I got so excited….with all respect to the Zubin Mehtas and so forth, their music doesn’t offer that kind of involvement.”
“We’re all learning from each other [in MBoom]. I’m learning from them, they’re learning from me.”
“To me, M’Boom is a vast institution, and since I’ve been involved in it, it has been a tremendous help to me musically. It’s probably been my most inspirational musical point over the last 12 years….To look at it in another way, it’s human. We’ve learned so much about just being men around each other….”
“M’Boom, like all the rest of American music, has been standing on its own two feet…..we’ve always had to do it ourselves. If people don’t come through the door, we don’t get paid…..The thing I hope this group will do, more than anything else…is stimulate drummers…to really get involved and write.
Drummers are a special family; they kind of love each other. I remember when we did the thing in Central Park with Krupa2. Guys came from all across the country to play, and it was a beautiful day for drums. History has kind of overlooked the contribution of the percussion players, and I’ve never understood that.”
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Drummer Max Roach is of course synonymous with bebop, but he was perhaps the most perspicacious, the most forward thinking, the most inherently revolutionary of all the bebop founders. Consider:
Years ahead of their time, Roach and Charles Mingus owned and operated their own record label, Debut Records, from 1952 to 1957.
Max was a front-lines Civil Rights warrior and activist, appearing at marches and rallies and using his music to advance social justice.
Starting in the 1970s, Roach aligned himself with the avant-garde (duets with Cecil Taylor and Anthony Braxton) while also honoring his bebop heritage in his own working quartet.
His appearance with Fab Five Freddy at the Kitchen in 1983, generally seen as the first public alliance between the nascent hip hop scene and jazz.
Above all, Max was concerned with progress—musical, social, political. Central to his idea of progress was presenting the drumset as a complete instrument, needing no support from horns, strings, a piano, or a voice; the solo drumset as a complete musical experience.
In 1966, Roach recorded Drums Unlimited for Atlantic, a masterpiece which includes three of his classic unaccompanied solo drumset pieces— “The Drum Also Waltzes”, “Drums Unlimited” and “For Big Sid”. For 1968’s Members Don’t Git Weary, Roach hired the best of the tough young players in NYC, including trumpeter Charles Tolliver, alto saxophonist Gary Bartz, and pianist Stanley Cowell for a serious, uncompromising set of modern jazz with nods to soul and gospel music.
These late 60’s Max albums on Atlantic are as accomplished and fully realized, in their own way, as 60’s Miles and Coltrane, but Max seemed in need of something else. Following 1971’s Lift Every Voice and Sing, Roach’s second exploration of jazz and choral music, Roach took a job teaching at University of Massachusetts-Amhurst3 and broke up his quintet.
Perhaps that something else was M’Boom.
And now everybody get ready for M’Boom, and when you’re getting ready for M’Boom, you’re getting ready for one of the most exciting musical trips imaginable. Get ready for six percussionist composers, who have created a percussion ensemble and workshop, to advance the knowledge and beauty of percussion to the world. With Roy Brooks, Joe Chambers, Omar Clay, Max Roach, Warren Smith, and Freddie Waits, here’s M’Boom.
—Ellis Haizlip, host and producer of Soul!, Season 4, Episode 30, originally broadcast November 17, 1971.
M’Boom was Max Roach’s grand statement on the drummer as musician, the ultimate expression of his convictions about drumming, drummers, and self-sufficiency. With M'Boom, there could be no doubt: the drummer would be heard and recognized as an equal to all other instrumentalists4. A co-operative band (even though Max was, by default, the leader) comprised solely of Black and Latino percussionists, running their own business, with no tradition to uphold: never before had the world had a band like this.
The idea of multiple drummers seemed to have entered the musical bloodstream in the late 60’s, with major radio hits, rock bands, and jazz groups all featuring drums, Latin percussion, or even multiple drumsets.
M’Boom began when Max Roach, in
1971 1970, called percussionist Warren Smith, asking him if he’d want to start a group. Smith, a native of Chicago with a masters degree in percussion from the Manhattan School of Music, was one of the first trained percussionists— fluent in mallets, tympani, and all classical techniques—to maintain parallel tracks in jazz, orchestral, Broadway, and studio work, appearing with Ken McIntyre (on drumset) and as the percussionist on recording dates with Jimmy Smith, Nat King Cole, etc.
According to Roach, once Smith was on board, and had volunteered his studio for rehearsals, Max started calling players he liked, players who he thought might be interested in doing something different. He started with Freddie Waits (see my essay for an outline of his enormous contribution) and Joe Chambers (on whom I’m preparing another article), and reached out to Jack DeJohnette5.
Roach, Warren Smith, Joe Chambers, and Freddie Waits would be formidable enough, but Roach went further, tapping the great Roy Brooks for membership.
Brooks, originally from Detroit and best known today for playing with Horace Silver (Horace-Scope, Doin' The Thing, both on Blue Note) and Charles Mingus (Bandcamp), as well as leading some special bands, was an inventor,6 played the musical saw and steel drums, and a composer; a brilliant player who sadly struggled with mental illness his entire life.
Finally Omar Clay, most known for playing with Sarah Vaughan, but an experienced Broadway, classical, and opera percussionist as well, was added to the group. Clay eventually became best known as an educator, teaching in the San Francisco area from the early 80’s until his death in 2008.
This was the original, six-man M’Boom, as featured on Soul! Freddie Waits was the house drummer on the show, and sometime musical director— getting M’Boom booked was Freddie’s doing. You can watch it here; this is the very first document of M’Boom, and might in fact be their first public performance.
In the summer of 1973, M’Boom went on its first European tour, adding Latin percussionist Ray Mantilla to the group7. The group's first8 official release, M'Boom Re: Percussion (Strata-East, released 1973 or 1974) comes from a concert in Laren, Holland. Here’s a link to a YouTube vinyl upload.
However, also on YouTube, is a film of a M’Boom concert from the same tour. Shot in black and white at Jazz Middelheim in Antwerp, Belgium, this is an extraordinary document, essential for understanding M’Boom. It can be watched right here.
The stage is crowded with instruments, and the members of M’Boom give a strong sense of group unity, creating an incredible visual effect. Watching this over and over, I sense that M’Boom understood theater, and used it to deepen their impact.
For 30 minutes, without a word spoken, seven grown Black and Latino men move about the stage, no one at a set station— everyone plays everything. The comments above from Waits, King, and Smith about M’Boom being a school, a supportive, challenging place for them to grow musically and socially now make perfect sense.
The concert begins with an improvisation over a slow 11/8 groove; the faster 11/8 that emerges (later known as “Onomatopoeia”) is the background for solos by Max Roach on marimba and Warren Smith on tympani. After a tight ending, the next piece begins with an unforgettable image and sound: tutti ensemble body percussion.
All seven members of M’Boom play a roll on their chests with their bare hands. I actually teared up at this image, so powerfully did it force me to consider their bodies, Black bodies, bodies subject to centuries of the cruelest injustice. This is a dramatic image in the history of jazz— seven master jazz drummers playing body percussion— and should be more widely seen. I know of nothing else like this.
The body percussion becomes a tutti ensemble roll with brushes, but Max opens up on the snare drum, sounding like gunfire; a more direct display of the military origins of the snare drum I can’t imagine.
Whistles and metal noises follow the gunshots; the wind gathers, blowing harder and harder, and then the group erupts, thunder and explosion, a true climax, a fearless explosion of percussive sound as all members roll, bang, and crash. In the aftermath, they return to their bodies, rolling on their chests, as Chambers, on vibes, announces the final theme.
By the end of the film, Roach, the de facto leader, is on the drumset, playing his extreme 4/4, while a barrage of tympani, mallets, and congas crash and burble alongside. When the applause fades in, I’m shaken. This film should be shown in movie theaters.
It was six years before M’Boom had another chance to record. Max Roach snake-charmed industry behemoth Columbia Records into recording and releasing the group’s only major-label release, 1979’s M’Boom Re: Percussion9.
This is an easily found record, streaming and downloadable on all the major services10. By this time, M’Boom had expanded to an octet, with the addition of Fred King, a classically trained percussionist known for his work with Pablo Cassals.
The music has changed as well. In the 1973 concert, M’Boom seemed as much a social collective as a musical group, with the music closer to planned improvisations or routines than specific compositions. But on their first widely-available release, M’Boom presents songs, solos, grooves, with something peaceful or trance-like throughout the tunes.
The album opener, the 11/8 “Onomatopoeia” (Clay) with Roach playing a xylophone solo is intense and serious, just as it was in 1973. “January V”, composed by Roach in memory of Mingus (he died on January 5, 1979) is haunting and evocative, a fitting memorial for a great man— Chambers’ reading of the melody is masterful.
On Roach’s “The Glorious Monster” (dedicated to Clifford Brown) Brooks’ saw is an otherworldly voice, with King and Roach holding down a swinging 7/4. Warren Smith and Fred King play tympani and orchestral bells in rough unison in Chambers’ arrangement of Monk’s “Epistrophy”, bringing out Monk’s connection to Africa and the Swing Era.
Brook’s “Kujichaglia” (Swahili for self-determination, the second day of Kwanzaa), features Waits and Omar Clay on drumset, an undulating, earthy, 3-2 son clave that’s surely been sampled by this point; it’s just too grooving and catchy to remain untapped. It’s a fitting end to M’Boom’s first album, as the group embodied ideas of self-determination for the whole percussion community.
The next M’Boom document is the great Collage on Soul Note, from 1985, maybe their most fully-realized recording project. On this album, M’Boom is a school, a community, a non-hierarchical collective, a fully empowered band of drummers making a complete musical statement. (Like their Columbia album, Collage is streaming on all the major platforms.)
With M’Boom, sound, rhythm, texture, and melody are the primary concerns, with harmony and form a distant second. The overall dynamic is quite soft and delicate, so that a single note on a vibraphone takes up the same sonic space as a tympani, bass drum, or cowbell. Every tune has a beat; the whole album grooves and swings. Perfect execution is less important than maintaining the group’s integrity and concept. By design and intention, Collage is almost ambient, a jazz percussion ensemble album you could listen to at the end of a long day.
Chambers’ “Circles” opens the record, begins with a stuttering cowbell outlining a grooving 5/4 played by newcomer Eli Fountain. The group moves between 5/4 and 6/4, with conga, steel drum, and vibraphone contributing, but no one voice dominating.
“It’s Time” is a Max tune he first recorded in 1962, with a chorus and quartet, on the album of the same name. A hushed atmosphere is set by Max on concert bass drum, for solos by Waits on concert toms, Fred King on orchestral bells, and Ray Mantilla on timbales. King’s solo is incredible; certainly there’s never been an improvised orchestral bells solo as badass as the one Fred King plays on this track.
Roy Brooks’ “Jamaican Sun”, features a lovely calypso beat from Freddie Waits. There are two sets of claves, one playing 3-2, one playing 2-3, which is somehow fine. Waits’ beat announces “something big is coming”, but we get M’Boom just grooving. Warren Smith solos, then Mantilla and Brooks on steel drums get the energy up. Sonny Rollins should have played over this.
“Street Dance”. Kenyatta Abdur-Rahman, about whom I know nothing, and could find nothing online about, plays a lovely, lilting funk beat with Max providing second-line commentary on snare. This is Max’s tune, and shows M’Boom pre-occupied with the beauty of percussive sound. The track just drifts by, a cloud on a summer day, with Brooks’ saw, Smith’s vibes, and Fred King’s tympani as light and soft as a breeze. Could a jazz percussion ensemble really sound this chill?
Warren Smith’s “Mr. Seven” features himself and Freddie Waits and Warren Smith on drumset. The melody, played by Roach, Chambers, and Ray Mantilla, opens up into a good marimba solo from Chambers. The ominous chimes announce a memorable, brief concert tom solo from Roy Brooks, while Waits plays a beautiful 7/4 backbeat. The theme is reprised, and the tune wraps up. A standout track.
“A Quiet Place”. A deep African concept, just some interlocking mallet parts over a C major and A minor chord in 6/8. This is the most ambient, ECM-ish track on the two M’Boom albums that can be streamed. Various details stand out— Brooks’ dreamy steel drums; the bells that come in and out; the beauty of the marimbas. I could listen to this all day.
M’Boom continued— a glance at YouTube shows audio recordings from the late 80s, while Blue Moon released M’Boom: Live At SOB’s in 1992, and they appear on Max’s career retrospective To The Max from 1993 (Blue Moon), their final official release11.
Their legacy is secure, due to Mr. Max Roach, of course, but also because drums, drummers, and rhythm command cultural real estate now in a way they never quite have before— Tyshawn Sorey; Questlove; Terri Lynne Carrington; Dave Grohl; Anderson .Paak. Ours is a drum-centric era. Max Roach and M’Boom brought this about.
Max Roach’s mission was to foreground the creativity of the drummer, the expressive power of the drums, and the interconnectedness of all percussion traditions. M’Boom was Roach’s elite force for this mission.
Roach, through his playing, imagined and created a future where drummers, once the lowliest member of the ensemble, could do anything in music. Roach imagined drummers as composers, arrangers, and bandleaders; drummers playing in concert halls; drummers write music for orchestras, for theater, dance, movies; drummers who could produce hit records and be pop stars; a time when drummers could do anything.
That time is now. Enjoy the music, enjoy the video! Leave some comments, let me know if I got anything wrong.
Respect and gratitude.
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All quotes from “M’Boom”, by Rick Mattingly and Scott K. Fish, Modern Drummer, September 1983. This is the only print interview with all seven primary members of M’Boom that I could find; I assume some European publications covered M’Boom as well, though I didn’t come across them. Kudos to the writers and editors at MD in the 1980s for putting M’Boom on the cover, and the current staff for making the PDF available to anyone with a subscription.
Max Roach seems to be referring to an event that was part of the Newport Jazz Festival, held in NYC at the time. On Saturday, July 7, 1973, M’Boom appeared on a bill called “Drum Schtick” at the Wollman Amphitheater in Central Park which, according to the New York Times, included Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers with special guest Roy Haynes; Randy Weston’s African Rhythms with Candido; a program of drummers who played Gretsch drums, including Tony Williams with Tequila, Elvin Jones with a group, and then Mel Lewis, Freddie Waits, and Jo Jones, all playing solo. At some point, Jo Jones presented what the Times said was a “special drummers award” to Gene Krupa, who died just a few months later, on October 16th.
Earlier version had University of Amherst; this is wrong. The name of the college is University of Massachusetts Amherst. Thank you Brad Faberman for pointing out this error
Was Roach also thinking, “I’m tired of working with and for horn players, singers, pianists, bassists, the whole thing, I’ve been doing that since I was 18. For a while, I’m gonna work with drummers”?
DeJohnette was with Miles Davis at the time and respectfully declined.
Though I can’t find it now, I read an account of Brooks’ inserting breathing tubes into the holes of his tomtoms, and breathing into them to change their pitch. Andrew Drury does the same thing with his floor tom, albeit without a breathing tube; I was with Andrew Drury when someone shared an eyewitness account of Brooks’ technique with him. More on this as it develops. In the meantime, here is Brad Faberman to the rescue again, with his excellent overview (might be behind a NYTimes paywall) of Roy Brooks’ Understanding, a 2021 release of a 1970 concert, available on Bandcamp. At 17:53 on “Billie’s Bounce”, you can hear Brooks change the pitch of the drums with his breath; the effect occurs a few times throughout the remainder of his solo.
As far as I know, that’s Ray Mantilla at the Antwerp concert, but he’s not on the August 25th, 1973 concert which became their first Strata-East album. Instead, Richard ‘Pablo’ Landrum is credited. If anyone knows the story, please fill it in! (I have been informed it is a very different concert, with the same recording date at the Strata-East album.)
And their second: the identically-titled M’Boom Re: Percussion on the Japanese Baystate label, released ca. 1977, was recorded the same day. Is it the same album as the Strata-East M’Boom? I haven’t been able to get a hold of the album yet; when I do, I’ll let you know.
Also, M’Boom actually first appears on record on “Love Piece”, on Brother Ah’s Sound Awareness (Strata-East, 1973) album. Brother Ah (Robert Northern), a beloved Washington DC French hornist who died in 2020, intended the two-song album as a sort of self-help manual. “Love Piece” is centered around a spoken sermon by Max Roach, with M’Boom (barely audible) helping the congregation respond to Roach’s calls. While not essential for understanding M’Boom, the track can be heard on Bandcamp and does give a sense of the overall atmosphere in which M’Boom was founded.
Yes, is the third M’Boom release in a row to be titled M’Boom Re: Percussion.
I talked about a few tracks of the Columbia M’Boom in my Freddie Waits post; my apologies if you’re reading this again.
Joe Chambers has been teaching M’Boom repertoire at the University of North Carolina in Wilmington for a few years, keeping the ideas circulating. Maybe Chambers will use his new relationship with Blue Note to launch a new M’Boom-oriented ensemble.