The Master at 100: Understanding Max Roach

Sean Murphy
4 min readJan 11, 2024


While there is much to admire and recommend in the excellent documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, especially for young creatives or academics who want to better understand — and appreciate — mastery and what it involves and requires, there’s one sequence that has stayed with me. The apprentice chefs are on rice duty before they even touch fish, and this doesn’t involve a single shift, or a week, or even a year. It’s three years of making rice in order to earn one’s place at the sushi station, where one might spend another five years training. And better still, all this obsessive training and refinement of craft isn’t to make a particular piece of fish taste better or different; it’s to obtain the necessary skills to be sufficiently prepared, to indeed be worthy of the appropriate pieces of fish. In Jiro’s kitchen, the presentation is simple, unpretentious, authentic to the point of resembling something more spiritual than culinary. Therein, generations of the highest achievement teach us, lies the secret. Which is: there are no secrets; there is repetition, respect, compulsion, perfection.

Thinking of this rough algorithm is, it seems, at once more eloquent and immediate than the by-now tired cliche of 10,000 hours. But let’s consider 10,000 hours as a reasonable baseline for approaching expertise in a particular task — that emphasis on repetition and consistency the key to fathoming how one upshifts from good to great. It’s also a useful corrective for our contemporary discourse, where shorts cuts and “hacks” have replaced what we might simply call old-fashioned discipline. We see the ideal baseball swing or the method actor’s award-winning scene, or even the deceptive simplicity of a smart phone’s interface and forget it’s invariably what happens — and for how long — behind the scenes that makes the most complex movements seem unforced, inevitable. How many free throws did Michael Jordan shoot, alone in a gym or in a dusty driveway in all kinds of weather? How many lines of dialogue did Hemingway write before he arrived at his minimalist style, still imitated more than a century after it made him famous (and infamous)? How many times did his brush touch a canvas before Van Gogh began to master the ways color can invoke mood and feeling? How many times did Max Roach hit a high hat before he became the most brilliant and accomplished drummer in history? Well, if during any routine practice session, he’d touch each instrument in his small kit one hundred times, which is an exceedingly conservative estimate, that would make about 36,500 times a year, meaning in less than three years he’d already have surpassed the vaunted 10,000 milestone. It’s safe to say he struck that high hat many, many more times than 10,000, and this was before he became one of the avatars of the bebop movement which revolutionized not only jazz, but popular music — making waves that crashed during and after rock music’s heyday, and can still be heard sampled in rap music decades later, in contexts unimaginable when they were first recorded.

All of which is to say, while it seems obvious Max Roach had prodigious gifts and an ideal sensibility, it was his obsessive quest to understand every facet of his drum set that elevated him. He possessed seemingly all the critical requirements to be a meaningful artist: he had the talent, which he respected and harnessed; he was restless; he was a supreme accompanist and also leader (in addition to being the best drummer, he was also a remarkable composer); he also was a mentor, and ceaselessly sought out young talent to nurture, encourage, and accompany (one thinks, inevitably, of Booker Little and Eric Dolphy in particular) . And he was creatively peripatetic: from bebop to hard bop and post-bop to the full-on percussion symphony — replete with respectful and tasteful nods to African heritage — his work with seminal combo M’Boom, and then as the elder statesman, he was always dignified, involved, present — preternaturally cool in ways only the very chosen few, who have put in the time, counted the gigs, named the names, moved the mountains, brought the heat, supplied the light, lent the might, carried the torch, and kept the faith can be.

Author’s note: Read a full biography — or better still, a discography — to understand the proper scope of his achievement, and check out some of his work, below.

The ocean is not this deep.

Outer space is not this vast.

Reality is not this real.

Max Roach and M’Boom.

This is music.

This is life.

This is genius.




Sean Murphy

Executive Director, 1455, @1455LitArts. Avoiding quiet desperation by any means necessary