Friday, August 17, 2007

MAX ROACH, LEGENDARY JAZZ DRUMMER...and my teacher: January 10,

One reason it took me such a long time to finish college--or for college to be finished with me--was that I couldn't seem to focus on my requirements. I was supposed to be a "Communication Studies" major(my idea of a practical use for my writing obsession). But every semester, the listings in the English department called my name. What choice did I have but to answer, to follow, to extend my stay at the university just a little longer?

Then there were the dance classes--at least one each semester. I must have been the klutziest student in ballet. Invariably, when the class moved one way, I drifted in the opposite direction. (A metaphor for my life, maybe?) But that didn't keep me from taking the beginner's class again and again, enjoying the feeling of being regal, disciplined, graceful--if only in my mind.

I was also drawn to languages. Each felt like a personal invitation to travel in a way that even I could afford. I immersed myself in Italian and French, and even tried Chinese--though it rapidly proved too demanding for an uncommitted dilettante who was looking for a trap door to the culture. Eventually, I found that door, as well as many interesting friendships, in the Asian Studies department. Meanwhile, my adviser wanted to know if I had satisfied my science requirement yet. Um, maybe next semester? I said sheepishly.

However, when I heard that music giant, Max Roach was teaching his first course in "The History of Jazz," I scratched Zoology 101 from my schedule. Honestly, I didn't expect to be admitted. I figured the class would be overrun by music majors, and I'd still have time to sneak into Botany or Astronomy at the last minute.

But to my surprise, only twenty students signed up to spend a semester with a legend; and to my eternal good fortune, I was one of them. The class turned out to be one of the most memorable experiences of my excessively varied and academically checkered college career.

Every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon at 2:20, we sat in a little room and listened to Max talk about jazz. He also talked about his life, which it turned out, was pretty much the same thing. Nearly every one of the musicians whose music streamed into the hallway, cajoling us inside with the wild notes from their saxophones or the rhythms of Max's drums, and altering the atmosphere of the University in subtle and not so subtle ways was someone he knew, someone he'd played with or learned from, or watched come up.

I can see him now--a trim man in his fifties, always in a well-tailored suit--leaning against the desk, as he turned the history of America's original art form into a personal story, one filled with humor and excitement and vibrant life--but also great tragedy. When he talked about the death of Charlie Parker, there were not only tears in his eyes, they glistened in the eyes of every student in the class.

But Max's class was not just a History of Jazz; it was a history of African Americans in the twentieth century. He told us about playing in hotels where he wasn't allowed to stay; and of the many composers who'd sold their music for almost nothing, only to see white musicians become wealthy by recording it. There was no bitterness in Max's telling of the past he'd lived, but there was no sugarcoating it either. Change had come, but there had been a long, hard price for it. It needed to be spoken about. It needed to be remembered.

An iconoclastic musician, Max was a rule-breaker in the classroom as well. He failed to show up for class if he had something else to do--though he usually sent another musician in his place. When mid-terms came around, he announced the first exam. Immediately, the class was seized with the usual anxiety. What would be covered? Would we have to identify the music we heard? We didn't even have a text book; nor had most of us taken notes. How could we prepare?

After the third question, Max held up his hand like a stop sign. "Have any of you heard a word I said all semester?"

We must have presented a uniform face to him--stunned and perplexed. Was he about to reveal something that was going to be on the exam? Something we'd obviously missed?

He shook his head sadly. "What I've been trying to teach you is just one thing: you don't have time to worry about stuff like that. None of us have time."

He seemed disappointed with us in some way and dismissed the class early that day. The next time it met, he announced that he'd changed his mind. There would be no exams that semester. There was some vague talk about assigning a paper, but that never materialized either. In the end, I got an A in the class, and I suspect everyone else did, too. Like the music he played for us weekly, and the stories he shared, the grade was Max's free gift.

This week, when I heard my former teacher had died at eighty-three in Manhattan, I thought about the hours I spent in his classroom, and remembered his exhortation about the limits of time. Of course, he was right. Both teacher and students have been buffeted and exalted by the years that separated us. The A has disappeared on a meaningless yellowed transcript. But the music he played for us, those old recordings that snaked under the door and down the hallway, drawing us deep into a world he inhabited and helped to create--that is with me still.

Thank you, Max.