Growing Up Jazz Part 1: The Biggest Lesson

The first time I sat down with Dara Roach, I walked out on her. I returned to the bar and grill in our Brooklyn neighborhood, but only after a much needed 30-second breather to digest the bomb she dropped on me, most casually between sips of her white wine. Up until this moment, I knew that Dara was a bright, beautiful woman with a magnetic smile. I knew she was, like me, a new mom looking to connect with like-minded local families, with a goal to further enrich our young toddlers’ social activity; the mission which brought us together that evening. All of this was more than enough for me to know she was a special person. That Max Roach was her dad…well, now, for this I wasn’t prepared.

Photo Credit: Kelley Vollmer Bruso

Misunderstand me not, this information did not lend itself to superficial surmising, or anything ridiculous like that.  But we’re talking about Max Roach, who happens to be one of my biggest cultural heroes.  Though I had not known Max Roach personally, he was close to my heart, symbolically.  The social and political underpinnings of his artistic expression and his inventiveness as a modern jazz pioneer, place him as one of the most significant African American figures of the last century.  I, like so many others, had attended his memorial service at the Riverside Church in Harlem three years earlier, and shared in the huge sense of loss and love the world felt with his passing.

Dara forgave, understood and found the humor in my sudden departure, and it opened up a wonderful discussion about family, and all of the dynamics and nuances that only a jazz kid can relate to.  The daughter and niece of jazz musicians myself, I felt a bond with Dara which propelled our neighborly association into an instant kinship.  Jazz’ll do that to you.

Growing up with such a distinctive patriarch is one thing, but Dara’s mother is a beacon all on her own; an Emmy award winning journalist, author and historian, with the nation’s first graduate degree in Black Studies, to be more specific.  Abundant fruits of such a parental powerhouse’s labor seem inevitable, and evidenced by Dara’s impressive resume, they are.  In addition to having spent years as a television producer for CBS News, TVOne, and BET News, Dara is the co-founder of Mosaic Digital Media.  She also, along with her four siblings (including her twin sister, Ayo) handles her father’s estate.  The saying, “To whom much is given, much is expected” comes to mind when I think about the massiveness of the latter.  Dara’s admirable level-headedness about it all seemed rooted in her very upbringing.

“My father is a musician with a very intense social political perspective on everything; his music, his life,” says Dara.  “[Yet] we grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut.  We were born in the City, then quickly moved to Massachusetts.  And then when I was a little kid, we moved to Greenwich, pretty much during a time when we couldn’t even go to the Greenwich Country Club because we were Black.  So you’re in this environment where you really are a kid [who’s like a] fish out of water.  I used to call us The Addams Family, because outside of my bedroom door in this huge mansion was a picture of Malcolm X…and that was the kids’ wing [laughs];  Malcolm X and all of these important figures in African American history.  So it was interesting.  I was walking between two worlds very early on.”

Dara with her parents and twin sister (courtesy of Dara Roach)

I’m not easily surprised to hear stories or experience incidents of modern-day racism, but I have to admit, I was taken aback that this type of legal, brazen bigotry had happened to someone in my peer group. And yet, it is Dara’s aforementioned calm demeanor about it which floored me once again.

“Because of who [my parents] were, so culturally identified, they realized this was something that has to change, and that bit of racism that we did feel was something they immediately discussed with us,” Dara explained.  “And even went as far as classism and racism within our own culture.  We weren’t allowed to be in Jack and Jill [of America].  And yes, we lived in the biggest house on the block, and [were] invited into these organizations…and nothing against Jack and Jill at all, but there were other Black families who were not invited because of their economic status.”  Being a child and dealing with such adult principals wasn’t always easy.  “Growing up with parents like that was kind of frustrating because every answer was no,” Dara reminisces with laughter.  “I wasn’t allowed to watch most TV shows, and thank God for The Cosby Show because that was about it!  But at the same time, they were trying to let us understand that we are who we are, we don’t tolerate discrimination, [and] we don’t tolerate any kind of generalizations…we just don’t tolerate it.”

The instilling of the level of fearlessness and confidence Dara describes, put the world at her fingertips, but professionally, Dara decided initially, she didn’t want any parts of entertainment. “It’s funny when you grow up around artists and musicians,” says Dara. “I remember when I first got into media, I was doing PA on film sets, and the question of whether or not I wanted to be in entertainment came up. But I wanted to keep my entertainment entertaining, and as long as you know these people and are behind the scenes, it’s not. I want be in a seat, in the orchestra, enjoying the show [laughs]. So I mean I love musicians, love my friends and family but sometimes you just wanna show up and be that wide eyed audience member, and not know that, ‘Well, this wasn’t supposed to be that way.’ So I said I’m going into news, which I did for many, many years… which is entertainment somewhat. It was a lot of fun, and now I don’t have a problem with it. I like the business of anything, whether it be music…. but at first I felt like I didn’t even want to be near it. I want to have fun, I want to enjoy it.”

However, having such a paramount figure like Max Roach for a father doesn’t quite give one a choice when it comes to being “on the scene”, especially in the wake of their passing.  As Dara explains, an understanding of the business and a solid, impermeable family foundation make it easier to deal with being responsible for the legacy a parent leaves behind.

Dara & Dad (courtesy of Dara Roach)

“It’s important to know that the responsibility of your legacy is the artist himself. If you do not make plans for your legacy, and you just leave it in your children’s hands to figure out, you are in trouble. Going through this process, which we haven’t even started, is a lot, if you haven’t made plans. And this is sort of like a PSA to musicians. There are people out there to help you figure it out. All artists, do it now. My father kept every piece of paper, and he has an amazing collection. He said he wanted to keep it together. We are doing that.” In terms of how these insurmountable tasks are divvied up, Dara says, “He put my older sister, Maxine, in charge of that and she’s been diligent in documenting everything that he held on to. We all participate in different ways, but she’s been very diligent and helpful. She’s also been very hands on in terms of preserving my father’s archives. You can also find someone who can help you through the process but you always want to be informed, and I think we’ve gotten really well informed, and we work together as a team.”

Among the many ways Dara and I relate, I have also felt the pain of losing a parent.  My father was a musician revered for his brilliance as a trumpeter.  The dichotomy between parent or human being, and legend can be a difficult one to process, especially once they have left us.  However, the carrying on of a legacy, which is probably the greatest responsibility a child can have, can also be one of the most healing tasks.

“Always keep our institutions in mind.  I think we should always keep our institutions in the loop,” Dara says regarding the sharing of jazz musicians’ tangible history.  “Some of them are newer, or not as well endowed but figure it out, I think that’s really important.  You want to make sure that you keep them in the loop despite experts who may not say this because they want everything to stay together — but if we don’t support our own institutions, who will?”  Dara is making good on this imperative philosophy, working with, for example, the Smithsonian, whose National Museum of African American History and Culture is slated to open in 2015.

“As well, I’m personally working on his digital legacy,” Dara announces. “So we are working on a website that’s going to honor him and keep his name and legacy out there. I realize, [for example], how twitter has exploded. Now, through the digital world, you can bring in and aggregate everything on Max Roach, so people are doing YouTube posts, or around his birthday, you always see a Twitter or Facebook, or Pandora spike. So we’re working on a site that is going to feed all of that in, and be like a living legacy. So everyday, we’re going to feed it by letting people see what you wouldn’t normally see from his collection. I’m really excited about that specifically, because I feel that’s another way that families can keep the legacies alive.”

Dara’s active participation is not only out of love for her father, and those who loved him, but a fierce protection as well. “You want to have a system for dealing with the fact that people are going to need certain things, whether it is photographs, book requests… people want interviews, people are writing books, they want this and that, and it’s important to have that public space, because one of the things that we’ve realized is that we have a responsibility to help people understand who he was and be accurate and if we’re not accessible, if no one even knows who to contact….like the Smithsonian contacted me through Facebook, which is great, but you want to be able to make that accessible so that people don’t have to look so hard and so that he can participate in things like the African American Museum at the Smithsonian. So that his legacy is involved when they are doing a book on jazz and bebop. You want to make sure that, even though he’s not here, he’s represented, and represented accurately. That’s a part that is really important to us — to keep his memory alive, and keep it accurate.”

Though I never had the honor of knowing Max Roach personally, who he was as a man had always shown brilliantly through his music.  Now, I can see through the beaming light of Dara Roach, who he was as a father.  “The biggest lesson learned from my father was to never underestimate your value.  Never pigeon hole yourself.  Embrace who you are and what your potential is.  My father is a person who believed in me and my ability to do anything, and I think that’s because he believed in himself and his ability to do anything.  He didn’t become “Max Roach” because he decided that he was going to let anybody tell him what to do.  We didn’t live in Greenwich, Connecticut because he decided that he was going to take whatever you want to give him.  So that idea of not compromising and knowing your value is the biggest lesson that he gave me, hands down.”♦

Read about one of Max Roach’s most significant albums, We Insist!, in my discussion with Christian McBride for the “Message In Our Music” series.

7 responses to “Growing Up Jazz Part 1: The Biggest Lesson

  1. thank you so much for this informative interview. it is very much appreciated from one who only slightly knew Max when he was with Abbey on Central Park West in the ’60s. i am blessed to have heard his music live starting in the ’50s and for as long as he was playing and “preaching”.

  2. Thanks for posting this! As a musician and the daughter of a musician, and the sister of a musician, though none famous, I grew up just like this. Listening to Coltrane, Basie, Nancy Wilson and Chaka Khan; not allowed to watch anything but the Cosby show on Thursday nights was a rule in our house too. My father wouldn’t allow us to join Jack and Jill either because he was too dark when he was a child. This article rings so true to me in so many ways. Thanks! I hope my music will inspire others as much as Max Roach’s did.

  3. It’s good to see that the music and legacy of Max Roach will be in good hands. It seems that the African American Museum at the Smithsonian is building a great jazz exhibit! He was on of America’s greatest innovators, and he’ll never be forgotten. I just wish I’d had a chance to see him play.

  4. Pingback: Celebrating One Year of ‘Alternate Takes’ | ALTERNATE TAKES

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