Roach I Presley
Thursday, August 16th, exactly 30 years ago, Elvis Aaron Presley, the King of Rock n’ Roll, was found dead. On the same day, while media personalities and fans everywhere were recalling Elvis’s demise, Max Roach, jazz drummer and co-architect of Bebop, passed on at age 83.
A while ago, while reading Chuck Klosterman’s latest collection of anecdotes, reviews and essays, I was particularly drawn to one article that examined the juxtaposition of two superstar deaths. One was Dee Dee Ramone, who died on June 7th, 2002, of a heroin overdose. The other was Robbin Crosby, lead guitarist of glam band, RATT, who succumbed to AIDS on June 6th, 2002. Klosterman went on to compare the two deaths, pointing out that these events’ validity would be extremely one-sided due to the fact that one of these guys was in an “important” band and the other was essentially a flash-in-the-pan. Did anyone notice whether or not the guitarist from RATT died, other than the band’s remaining fans? Compared to the amount of people who’ve felt the impact of the Ramones, and their undeniable influence on music in general, no: Crosby’s death meant very little in correlation with the loss of Dee Dee Ramone. It had nothing to do with talent. It had nothing to do with personality. It had everything to do with impact.
So, August 16th, in the wake of Elvis’s 30th year anniversary, I had to wonder if Max Roach was going to suffer the same fate. Granted, Roach is no flash-in-the-pan, but his accomplishments are unfortunately specific to one area of music and one type of music fan. Elvis IS music in the eyes of many, so his loss is on par with JFK in that “Do you remember what you were doing when blank happened?” kind of way. More people are familiar with “That’s Alright, Mama” than they are with “Salt Peanuts” and that’s something that has to be expected. It’s hard to inform pop culture that it needs to pay attention to more than the surface when it’s mostly based that way. It’s “pop” because it’s “popular,” not because it gives a fuck about art.
This is in no way any indictment of Elvis Presley for being too popular for his own good. The guy changed shit and the honoring of him and his music is deserved, so it’s not as if this is ill-gotten notoriety. It just happens that he is the John Holmes of notoriety, and his death hasn’t led to any decrease in its size. It’s not the first time that a celebrity’s passing went somewhat unnoticed due to Elvis Presley’s death: Groucho Marx died three days after Elvis and that event probably would’ve received more notice had Groucho stuck around a couple more months. Thirty years later, Groucho’s still overshadowed by Presley. The timing, to put it simply, just sucks.
Thankfully, Roach’s death was not completely overshadowed. Even up against the King, Roach got some coverage that will hopefully enliven some curiosity about the man, his music, his activism and his appreciation of hip hop. Plus, you can’t really discount the collective cry of a million jazz fans. Bebop’s greats are leaving us so Roach’s death is, to put it lightly, pretty significant.
I’m unfortunately under-exposed to Roach. The couple CDs that I own where he appears are Charlie Parker CDs, though one is The Quintet: Jazz At Massey Hall, which is one of the best jazz records I own. Listening to it, you can understand why Roach is as revered as he is.
So, thirty years and the King is still gone, but not forgotten. And hopefully, those in his wake, aren’t forgotten either.
Letters From A Tapehead