Roach along with Kenny Clarke pioneered the use of the ride cymbal rather than the heavy bass drum in maintaining a fixed pulse, which allowed for complex polyrhythms and greater versatility on the drum kit.
He possessed a highly developed improvisational technique founded on swift interactions between pitch and timbre, and had a spectacular skill in maintaining multiple rhythms at once. By age 30, a panel of 100 jazz musicians declared him the greatest drummer ever.
Born on January 10, 1924 in Dismal, North Carolina, Maxwell Lemuel Roach began playing drums in a gospel bands at 10. His mother was a gospel singer and religious music played a significant in role in his studies. He moved to Brooklyn at age 4 and later went to Manhattan School of Music.
At 16, Roach started jamming with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and others at Monroe's Uptown House and Minton's Playhouse in Harlem, elaborating the bop style.
From his late teens on, he played regularly with quintets headed by Gillespie and Parker, and in 1943, made his first recordings with tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins. He also performed with Louis Jordan and Henry "Red" Allen, and from 1948-50, recorded with Miles Davis.
In 1954, Roach led a quintet with Clifford Brown, a collaboration tragically cut short two years later when Brown and fellow band member Richie Powell were killed in a car accident. The group's brief existence, however, resulted in groundbreaking recordings of hard bop, such as Study in Brown and At Basin Street.
Later recordings into the 1960s heralded free jazz; Roach occassionally excluded the piano, performed independent drum solos, and used unconventional forms.
Also significant during this time was his partnership with Oscar Brown, Jr. on We Insist! Freedom Now Suite, a work created for the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, and one of several projects through which he espoused black activism.
In 1962, Roach married singer Abbey Lincoln, with whom he had already recorded many albums. He also began writing for television, film, classical orchestras and Broadway musicals. He formed in 1970 a ten-person percussion ensemble called M' Boom Re: Percussion, and later recorded with Anthony Braxton, Abdullah Ibrahim, Archie Shepp and Cecil Taylor. In 1972, he joined the faculty of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Roach kept exploring new avenues of music making in 1980s, giving solo and duet concerts. He also performed with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Alvin Ailey and Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Companies, New York Break Dancers and with rapper Fab Five Freddy.
In July 1988, Roach became the first jazz artist to receive a MacArthur Fellowship ("genius grant"). "The roundness and nobility of sound on the drums and the clarity and precision of the cymbals distinguishes Max Roach as a peerless master," wrote Wynton Marsalis shortly afterwards in a New York Times essay.
Roach recorded his last album, called Friendship, with trumpeter Clark Terry in 2002. He is survived by three daughters and two sons.