Film night to capture the life of legendary drummer Max Roach

June 5, 2023 | Ryan Feyre

A photo of legendary drummer Max Roach.
Photo credit: The Film Collaborative

NORTHAMPTON — The Northampton Jazz Festival is kicking off its 2023 season with a film premiere of the recently released film “Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes” on June 15 at 7 p.m. at the Northampton Center for the Arts, 33 Hawley St.

The film follows the life of Roach — a legendary drummer, composer, bandleader and activist — through his “creative peaks, struggles and personal reinventions,” particularly from the Jim Crow era to the Civil Rights Movement years. The movie also surveys post-war modern jazz to hip hop and beyond.

“This is the third year we’ve done a jazz film in June,” said Ruth Griggs, the president of the Northampton Jazz Festival.

This particular film is part of a broader celebration of Roach’s life since it is his centennial year. “One of the reasons why we are so excited at the Jazz Festival to be celebrating Max Roach’s centennial is because he was a professor at the UMass Amherst off and on for about 20 years [from the 1970s to 1994],” Griggs said. “He’s kind of a local legend … it’s remarkable to know he was teaching right here in Amherst.

Roach is widely considered one of the most innovative musicians of all time, as he and drummer Kenny Clarke pioneered the bebop style of jazz in the 1940s and 1950s, which was jazz music played at a much more exhilarating and propulsive tempo than the softer tones of the time.

He was one of the first artists to turn his inventive style of playing into a business, starting a record label in the 1950s and played with some of the greatest jazz musicians of the time including Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and more.

“He has a list a mile long about the jazz musicians he worked with,” Griggs said. “He had his own unique, personal style, and personal sound that is just incredibly distinctive, experimental and innovative.”

Aside from his musical acumen, Roach also became a formidable political activist in the 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement, and even created an album in 1960 called “We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now,” which addressed the political and cultural injustices that African Americans faced.

During his time teaching at UMass Amherst, Roach was one of the founders of the school’s “Jazz in July” program in improvisation, which is now celebrating its 41st year. “He was very foundational for the jazz program at UMass,” Griggs said. “He was one of the reasons why the UMass jazz program became as strong as it is today and continues to be.”

The film shown on June 15 encapsulates the ups and downs of Roach’s life, from his revolutionary jazz in the 1940s to the price he paid for his outspoken political views during the Civil Rights Movement. It also follows his later years when he experimented with hip hop and multi-media works.

The film is directed by Sam Pollard and Benjamin Shapiro. The former is a film director, editor, producer and screenwriter whose films have garnered numerous awards such as Peabodys, Emmys and an Academy Award nomination. He has also worked with legendary filmmaker Spike Lee in the past.

Following the film will be a question-and-answer session involving the audience with Pollard and Tom Reney, the host of NEPM’s Jazz a la Mode.

According to Griggs, the centennial celebration for Roach began in January 2023 and will continue until January 2024.

“The Northampton Jazz Festival is about delivering jazz to its audiences in as many different ways as possible and interacting with as many different ages as possible,” Griggs said. “This jazz film is a really nice way for some people to learn more about some of these amazing players like Max Roach; to learn more about the history of jazz in America; and to take in the music in a different way.”

To purchase advance tickets for the movie at $15, visit Tickets are $20 at the door.

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