Journal of the People’s Pastor
“Writing the History I’ve Lived, Living The History I Write!”

The Passing Of Giants Of The Human Spirits

MAXWELL LEMUEL ROACH (1/10/1924 – 8/16/2007)

“My point is that we must decolonize our minds and
re-name and re-define ourselves…
In all respects, culturally, politically, socially,
We must re-define ourselves and our lives in our own terms.”

Max Roach

“I will never again play anything that does not have social significance.”
Max Roach.

The huge gothic structure that is the Riverside Church can be seen from far away. It is the church that Rockefeller built. It is the church where Dr. James Forbes, the first black Pastor, recently resigned. I wonder why decision makers for black celebrities, more often than not, choose to have their funerals at the Riverside Church. Is it the size, convenience, availability or prestige? Are there no black churches that can accommodate the occasion?

After entering the VIP entrance, I went to the Chapel and greeted the family. Maxine, the eldest daughter, was delighted to see me. She profusely thanked me for attending. “Where else would I be?” There’s only one place for me to be today and that here.” I said. Ayo, who is one of the twin daughters, Dara being the other, stepped forwarded and introduced me to the rest of the family which included Daryl Keith, Raoul and Kyle Roach who also served as pallbearers. Even in their sadness, they all were gracious and polite. They reminded me of their father.

I first met Max Roach during the early 50’s in Birdland. The old Jazz spot was the Mecca for innovative musicians. A new sound had hit the scene. It was BeBop. The leaders included Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Bud Powell, Max Roach, Art Blakely, Thelonious Monk, and of course, the Bird, Charlie "Yardbird" Parker. During the funeral, someone quoted Max Roach saying to Dizzy, “Soon as we learn how to play fast, Bird is gone.” A group of us Brooklynites would stay at Birdland until the program was over. We would drive Max Roach back to Brooklyn. We shared the various substances that were envoque at the time. He was always friendly, approachable, an unusual humility, with a great sense of humor.

Terrie Williams, who heads one of the largest black public relations firm in the country, handled the funeral arrangements. Also, she assisted in officiating. She was superb. The church was packed, in the sanctuary, as well as the 3-tiered balcony. I could not help contrasting Mzee’s and Max’s funerals. Here at Riverside, the audience was well dressed, mostly Euro-American style. There was some African apparel scattered across the Church At Mzee’s funeral, it was the other way around. The motif was African – libation, apparel, language, greetings, music, mostly drums. The audience more demonstrative, relaxed, emotional, humorous, with spontaneous interjections, and an open mic for community expressions. In the Riverside Church were the Black achievers, the superstars, and the acceptables to mainstream America. At the House of the Lord Church were primarily the radicals, revolutionaries, activists, nationalists, Pan Africanists, socialists, grass-rooters, hood dwellers and the working class. They were mostly outside the American mainstream.

The funeral was more diverse than at the Riverside Church, involving different religions and political views. Although the ceremony was structured, it allowed for opened expressions. After the viewing and the ceremony the casket was opened for another viewing. The two funerals demonstrated the full range of African people; from black to almost white in complexion, creative words and music. Uniquely colorful in every way, from body wear to body motion.
Dr. James Forbes opened the ceremony with welcome, Scripture and prayer. He said, “We have come to bid farewell to a gifted genius. We shall have sorrow and laughter.” How right he was!
Elvira Green, in an operatic voice sang, A City Called Heaven. “I’ve been tossed and driven, got no place to call my home, but I’ve been hearing of a city called Heaven, I’m trying to make it my home.” Maya Angelou, remembered how they, James Baldwin, (she mentioned another name I can’t remember) and Max Roach adopted her as a sister and kept telling her she was a genius. Randy Weston followed. He played softly, sweetly and brilliantly. Then came Amiri Baraka. He spoke of the days he idolized Max Roach. He loved him, not only for his musical genius, but also for his commitment to the Black Liberation Struggle. He said Max had asked him to do his biography. He spent many days with Max and the family. He concluded with a poem he had written not long after meeting Max. When he was finished, he received a boisterous standing ovation. I thought to myself, no disrespect, but we can all go home now.

Then followed Bill Cosby. He was, as usual, hilarious. He said Max Roach was the reason he became a comedian. He paused for effect. Then related the story. He wanted to be a drummer. He paid for drumming lessons. He studied the drummers, i.e. including Art Blakey. He went home and he copied their style. He was doing okay until he heard Max Roach. Then he put up his drumsticks. Years later, when he had gained some fame, Max Roach came to him and introduced himself. He said to Max, “Pay me my money for my drumming lessons.” All during his presentation there was pervasive laughter. He too received a standing ovation. Congressman Charlie Rangel read a letter from former President, Bill Clinton. Then he quoted from the New York Times, “To call Max Roach a Jazz musician is like calling Shakespeare a strolling player.” I’m not sure what was intended by that quote. It can be interpreted as a put down of Jazz.

Cassandra Wilson sang, Lonesome Lover, with a bluesy, jazzy touch. Sonia Sanchez stepped forward. She said, “I was told to be short. I am short.” In her poem she spoke of the genius of Max Roach. “We tried to catch them in mid flight,” she said, “And swallow them whole…”

Jimmy Heath and Billy Taylor played beautifully together. Heath played the clarinet. I guess he chose it rather than the sax because it has a more soothing, mellifluous sound. But whatever instrument Jimmy uses, the sound is always mesmerizing.

Lieutenant Governor, David Patterson, remembered how Max Roach had protested the Newport Jazz Festival in the 1960s. He too praised Max for his commitment to the Black struggle for freedom. Phil Schaap, remembered the annual Max Roach birthday celebration on his radio program. Other music makers included Gary Bartz, Odeon Pope and Reggie Workman.

The children of Max Roach came forward with Maxine as spokesperson. She thanked everyone. Then speaking quietly and lovingly of their father, she said, “Yes, he was a genius of a musician, but he was more. He was a cultured man who taught us, music, art, cooking, reading and above all, love. And he taught us how to move on. Bye bye Daddy. We love you.”

Rev. Calvin Butts, Pastor of Abyssinia Baptist Church, did the eulogy. He spoke with pathos and humor. It is true, wherever black people gather, whatever the occasion, there must be humor. He reminded the congregation that Max Roach had his roots in the church. “He used his music as an instrument of struggle. And when the saints go marching in Max Roach will be in the number.” The ceremony was concluded with Ms. Elvira Green singing “Precious Lord Take My Hand,” and, Dr. Forbes saying the benediction.

There was two pieces in the ceremony which provoked a ripple of uneasiness: Stanley Crouch, whose name was not on the program, made remarks. It was hard to reconcile his conservative views, and what seems at times, his demeaning of people of African Ancestry, with the likes of Max Roach and the tone of the Ceremony. The other piece of uneasiness was a film showing of Max in Israel during the bombing. It seemed that it was blatant propaganda. And it was inappropriate for this funeral ceremony.

Slowly, we moved out of the great sanctuary into the vestibule. Old friends had to greet each other. Idolizers had to shake hands or get close to their idols. Clusters of individuals blocked the aisles or conversed in between the pews. It seemed no one was in a rush. Outside it was the same, as groups stood around talking, hugging and backslapping.
The sun was brighter and hotter as I drove back to Brooklyn to tend to the business of the living on this side of history. “May heaven welcome its newest drummer,” the words of David Patterson stayed on my mind.

Upcoming Events
Join us in a Fundraiser to Support the People of Darfur, Sunday, September 9, 2007, 5pm at the Bibleway Church Worldwide, pastored by Apostle Huie Rogers, located at 261 Rochester Avenue in Brooklyn. The Fundraiser is Sponsored by the Bibleway Church, the National Religious Leaders of African Ancestry Concerned About Darfur, The House of the Lord Church and The Downtown Brooklyn Neighborhood Alliance.

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