When U.S. jazz great Max Roach came to the Havana International Jazz Plaza Festival in 1989, he spoke to Cuban writer Leonardo Acosta about his first trip to Cuba in the mid-1950s. The legendary drummer said that he had made the trip after hearing stories about shows at the Tropicana Cabaret and about the Cuban musicians there who made jazz music their own. Sadly, Roach wasn’t allowed to enter the club in pre-revolutionary Cuba because of the color of his skin.

Roach, considered the most important drummer in the history of jazz, received a completely different welcome at the 1989 Jazz Plaza Festival. He conquered Havana, joining the percussion section of Irakere to put on display his domination of a wide range of rhythms. After that memorable jam session, Roach lavished praise on Cuban kit drummers Enrique Pla and Oscarito Valdes, conga player Miguel Anga and veteran musician Oscar Valdes, who played the chequeré and the batá drums. Nine years later, presided over by former Irakere bandleader Chucho Valdes, Jazz Plaza dedicated its 18th festival to Roach.

Max Roach died in New York on Aug. 16. He was 83. With his death, an unforgettable era of jazz, of the big names and founders of bebop, comes to a close.

Max Roach helped invent modern jazz in the 1940s, playing in groups with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Duke Ellington, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, Thelonius Monk and Miles Davis, and left an unforgettable mark of “hard bop” in the quintet he formed in 1954 with trumpeter Clifford Brown.

Critics praised Roach for his improvisations and rhythmic innovations, and for his nonconformist attitude that took him beyond the confines of jazz to work with gospel choirs, hip-hop bands, visual artists and a whole gamut of musical expressions.

He once said that anyone can acquire technique, but the real challenge is to bring a seal of individuality and identification.

Roach did not live isolated in his music. He was an activist who often lent his support to the African-American civil rights movement. In 1985, he was among the main figures to perform at a concert calling for the release of Nelson Mandela.

Reprinted from the Cuban newspaper Granma

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