Max Roach was one of my favorite jazz musicians, and to me, one of its most consequential. Along with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and a few others, he ushered in the movement known as Bebop—a riveting style of jazz characterized by complex chord progressions with rapid chord changes and fast tempos that had its birth in New York City clubs. But Max hated labels, and he particularly disliked the word “jazz.” He didn’t think it gave enough credit to what he was doing with his brethren, as he felt they were creating music that was just as important to our culture as that of Bach and Beethoven. It just wasn’t a word that elevated his art enough.
I first met him in the early 90s but had seen him perform much earlier. The first time I met him in person was at Trattoria Dell’Arte. He was then dating a much younger white woman—an amateur singer of sorts—who he had met while on tour in Seattle. They had a long relationship, and my dealings with Max always centered, mostly around them as a couple, as they seemed inseparable.
Max had also introduced me to many of his friends like James Moody, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Bill Cosby, Al Grey, and even his ex-wife Abbey Lincoln who I adored and enjoyed taking care of on her occasional visits to the restaurant. Max was always impeccably dressed. He had to be one of his genre’s best-dressed exponents. Everything he wore fit him like a glove; like it was custom-tailored for his jaunts around the city. He was beautiful.
On one occasion, he came for dinner at Dell’Arte—not with his girlfriend this time—with his long-time friend and fellow drummer Art Taylor. I had known Taylor previously from Dell’Arte’s sister restaurant, Fiorello’s. He was a colorful person and, like Max, had also defined the sound of modern jazz drumming. I think the first time I encountered him was when he was dining at Fiorello’s, at a table surrounded by six gorgeous Japanese women. I said to myself, “Now that guy is smooth.”
But on that evening, Max and Art were together and wanted to enjoy a guy’s night out. So I sat them both in a quiet area of the restaurant where Max always enjoyed eating—the Green Room. I gave them the corner banquet, and though I had hundreds of other patrons to take care of during my evening, I spent more time doting on them; I just love these cats.
Well, about midway through their dinner and two bottles of Chianti—one of which was 3/4 full—Max dozed off at the table. I thought it must have been because of wine or tired from an entire week of work—as he had just played at the Blue Note—or both. But as time went on, he got into a deeper and deeper state of sleep, where you could hear him snoring in the dining room.
I looked at Art. He was just smiling and soaking in everything else that was happening in the restaurant, that he didn’t even bother to shake Max out of his soporific state. Max was now in the arms of Morpheus.
Well, I left them alone to attend to something else, but when I returned, a mini-disaster had happened. Apparently, in his deep sleep-induced state, Max had hit his head on the Chianti bottle causing it to spin uncontrollably (and don’t ask me how it happened, for I’m not a physicist), hitting several diners at adjoining tables, including themselves. There was red wine all over the place. It was a mess.
I quickly dispatched several bussers to help clean the mini-disaster while Max was trying to wipe off his red-stained jacket and trousers with soda water. Art was equally drenched with wine but was too busy laughing, literally in stitches, at the entire episode to worry about himself.
Max was so embarrassed that he looked like a flush-red tomato. He must have apologized to me a hundred times, but I thought it was just as funny as Art had felt. Feeling sorry for Max, I picked up his check to lessen the blow to his ego. He appreciated this gesture and asked if I had another jacket he could wear when leaving the restaurant, as he was too embarrassed to walk out with red stains all over his clothes. Unfortunately, I didn’t, but I improvised and gave him a tablecloth to wear as a shawl to cover most of his self-inflicted damage.
And with that, Max walked out, with Art still laughing hysterically behind him.
Former restauranteur, musician, concert promoter, producer, publisher, manager, and impresario, Charles Carlini has synthesized these roles to become a dynamic force in the music industry–noted for his ability to bring diverse talent together to create innovative concerts and recordings that reach and move music-lovers everywhere.