The self-taught musical prodigy died Wednesday night at an undisclosed hospital in Manhattan, said Cem Kurosman, spokesman for Blue Note Records, one of Roach's labels. No additional details were available, he said.
Roach received his first musical break at age 16, filling in for three nights in 1940 when Duke Ellington's drummer fell ill.
Roach's performance led him to the legendary Minton's Playhouse in Harlem, where he joined luminaries Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in the burgeoning bebop movement. In 1944, Roach joined Gillespie and Coleman Hawkins in one of the first bebop recording sessions.
What distinguished Roach from other drummers were his fast hands and his ability to simultaneously maintain several rhythms. By layering different beats and varying the meter, Roach pushed jazz beyond the boundaries of standard 4/4 time.
Roach's innovative use of cymbals for melodic lines, and tom-toms and bass drums for accents, helped elevate the percussionist from mere timekeeper to featured performer on a par with the trumpeter and saxophonist.
"One of the grand masters of our music," Gillespie once observed.
In a 1988 New York Times essay, Wynton Marsalis wrote of Roach: "All great instrumentalists have a superior quality of sound, and his is one of the marvels of contemporary music. ... The roundness and nobility of sound on the drums and the clarity and precision of the cymbals distinguishes Max Roach as a peerless master."
Throughout the jazz upheaval of the 1940s and '50s, Roach played bebop with the Charlie Parker Quintet and cool bop with the Miles Davis Capitol Orchestra. He joined trumpeter Clifford Brown in playing hard bop, a jazz form that maintained bebop's rhythmic drive while incorporating the blues and gospel.
He was survived by five children: sons Daryl and Raoul, and daughters Maxine, Ayl and Dara. Funeral arrangements were incomplete, said Kurosman.
By Larry McShane