Why you should care

Because where there’s an ass-kicking will, there’s an ass-kicking way.

I used to work at the New York Jazz Museum, just yards from the old Studio 54. The museum is long gone, but it had put the teenage me in a place not only to refine a pre-existing interest in jazz but also to learn how to navigate celebrity. Essentially, don’t be a pain in the ass, and make yourself useful. Good life lessons that have withstood the test of time.

So while meeting a dozen or so members of jazz royalty had prepared me a lot, it hadn’t prepared me in 1999 when one of my writers called me. Between gigs getting coffee for Dizzy Gillespie and dodging drunks at Studio 54, I’d moved to California and become an editor of a men’s fashion magazine.

On the phone was my freelancer, a Rutgers law professor and jazz drummer himself. He’d been dispatched to Roach’s house for an interview with a man who had not only pulled down a MacArthur “genius grant” and landed in the DownBeat Hall of Fame but had also been honored as a Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and twice won the Grand Prix du Disque. This, on top of his eight honorary doctorate degrees, meant that, despite the fact that most people couldn’t name even three of his songs, Roach was a giant in the world of music.

“Um, he’s not letting me up,” the freelancer said. Apparently, Roach wouldn’t buzz open the door to let him upstairs to do the interview. The reason? “He wants to talk to you first.”

On the one hand, being called a motherfucker by a genius was kind of cool. On the other hand, I was being called a motherfucker.

 

Maybe Roach wanted to chat about getting some friends of his featured in the same issue. Or maybe the freelancer had irked him and, like Prince had once asked me, maybe I could send someone whose clothes matched a little bit better.

“OK, I’ll give him a call,” I said.

I hung up and leaned back in my office chair. While it’s something you’re supposed to be above admitting to, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that there was always a buzz when touching the hem of greatness. Roach, who got started in life in North Carolina on the edge of what’s called, no joke, the Great Dismal Swamp, had moved as a young child with his family to Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. By 1934, when he would have been about 10, Roach was already playing drums. Less than 10 years later, he was drumming with Duke Ellington. 

 

I dialed and heard a phone ringing, then the voice of an older man.

“Mr. Roach? This is Eugene —”

“I WILL KICK YOUR MOTHERFUCKING ASS!” 

I sputtered in the face of a fusillade of vituperation. This was a … moment. A Naomi Campbell moment to be sure but a moment nonetheless where the first thing was to remember that though no other grown man had ever spoken to me like this without sanction, Max Roach was not any other grown man. He was, without a doubt, MAX ROACH.

“Listen, whatever the fuck your name is —” and then he dropped the 100-megaton Hollywood bomb on me — “do you know who I am?”

 

The problem as he was laying it out for me had everything to do with his realization that he was not appearing on our cover that month. The hotter-than-hot-at-the-time Chris Rock was slated for the cover, and while we never promised covers to anyone since anything could happen to make that a stupid move, there was no way we could bump a Rock for a Roach.

But how to say that? And how to say it without sounding like a typical Hollywood cheeseball?

“Mr. Roach, we’ve got a great photo shoot set up for you. I think Hugo Boss is slated to dress you. And you’ll be in the same issue as the überhot Chris Rock,” I said, sounding like a typical Hollywood cheeseball. “But we don’t decide on who’s going to be on our cover until much later in the process.”

“Well, you’re going to decide for me right here and right now, you motherfucker.”

On the one hand, being called a motherfucker by a genius was kind of cool. On the other hand, I was being called a motherfucker. And I was an editor in danger of losing an article that was tied into some jazz festival upsell.

“I’ll have to talk to our publisher,” I said, not so much lying but very definitely saying something that maybe wasn’t true. “I’m sure I can swing it. In the meantime, would you let my writer come up? I think you’ll dig each other. He’s a drummer as well and —”

“Listen, whatever the fuck your name is —” and then he dropped the 100-megaton Hollywood bomb on me — “do you know who I am?”

I was grinning now from ear to ear. It was very possibly the coolest time to ever have said that and in the most genius way possible.

“Yes, sir, I do, and …” And then a perfect cherry on a perfect cake: The phone line went dead. I waited a few minutes. I called the writer to update him, and then I called Roach back. I don’t know why I didn’t just lie to him. Many in my position would have done exactly that. But I wanted to persuade

“Mr. Roach? Good news,” I said, having no idea what I was going to say. “I talked to a few people upstairs, and I got your cover.” Letting what was supposed to feel like triumph hang in the air for a beat, I added the kill stroke: “… I think.”

And not missing a beat, something he was actually famous for, Max Roach growled, “You … think …,” right before the line went dead for the last time. 

I never got that piece. In 2007, at age 83, Max Roach died, and not a month goes by that I don’t think my life would be a lot better lived if I lived it more like Max Roach. And that, for better or worse, is my Max Roach piece.

OZYTrue Story

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