Courtesy of the William P. Gottlieb Collection

As part of its ongoing Black Hollywood series, the Carsey-Wolf Center held a screening of “Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes” on April 30, followed by a Q&A with director Sam Pollard. Wendy Eley Jackson, producer and lecturer in the UC Santa Barbara film and media studies department, moderated the Q&A.

“Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes” is a documentary about the life and music of the drummer Max Roach. Featuring interviews with Roach’s family and fellow musicians, the film paints a layered portrait of the musician. He is at once a loving son, friend and husband; an innovative artist committed to creating new music, irrespective of genre, and communicating his civil rights activism through it; a volcanic personality prone to fits of rage, especially following personal traumas.

Early on, Roach is shown saying, “‘Jazz’ is synonymous with n—.” Though shocking, this is a fitting expression of his approach to music and serves as a stark introduction to his outspoken character. Roach’s career was defined by his insistence on confronting issues of racial injustice through his music and transcending the boundaries of genre he felt were imposed by white critics. “Max Roach” traces Roach’s career from the time he started playing the drums, through his time as a sideman with saxophonist Charlie Parker and pianist Thelonious Monk, and the glory days of his legendary quintet with trumpeter Clifford Brown. During this time Roach developed and broke a heroin addiction, but his life was thrown into disarray yet again when Brown died in an automobile accident in 1956, leaving Roach devastated.

Despite personal setbacks, Roach never ceased evolving musically, though he sometimes unleashed his anger at his fellow musicians on stage. His 1960 album, “We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite,” consisting of original compositions and featuring his wife, Abbey Lincoln, on vocals, served as a potent rallying cry for civil rights both in America and abroad — causing the apartheid government of South Africa to ban it. Though Roach and Lincoln together were icons of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, with Lincoln becoming one of the first African American female celebrities to wear her hair in an afro, the couple separated in 1970, leading to further turmoil for Roach. 

Nonetheless, Roach rebounded to pioneer both pure percussion music and jazz-gospel fusion in the 1970s, and accepted a music professorship at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. In the 1980s, Roach diversified even further, performing with rapper Fab 5 Freddy. Roach led multiple ensembles across genres throughout the final decades of his life, and performed solo on various percussion instruments — even on just a hi-hat cymbal mount. When he died in 2007, his funeral at Riverside Church in New York City was attended by thousands of musicians, activists, literati and other mourners, including Maya Angelou.

After the film, Jackson engaged in a wide-ranging conversation with Pollard about his experiences as an editor, director and professor at New York University, before opening the floor to questions from the audience, which included students, professors and elderly community members.

Pollard recalled how he first broke into the film industry after becoming disenchanted with his chosen career path of becoming a businessman. His college advisor directed him to a year-long workshop with a public broadcaster in New York City that was seeking to involve more people of color in the media. At the end of the program, Pollard was hired to work as an apprentice editor for Bill Gunn on the film “Ganja & Hess” in 1972. Pollard recounted that when production ended, the film’s principal editor Victor Kanefsky told him, “Sam, I think you’re a very nice young man, but I don’t think you got a lot of talent,” sparking laughter in the audience. Nonetheless, Kanefsky hired him to be an apprentice assistant editor and, after three years of honing his skills under Kanefsky’s supervision, he struck out on his own.

Pollard has since worked on more than 70 films over the course of a career spanning more than 50 years. Almost all were commissioned by others, but “Max Roach” was his passion project on-and-off for 35 years. Pollard was first inspired to make the film after seeing Roach perform a hi-hat solo to a Langston Hughes poem while editing a documentary about Hughes in 1983. Bourne encouraged Pollard to make a film about Roach, but Pollard was perpetually unsatisfied with his efforts.

“I put the cut together in ‘87, ‘88, something like that, and I looked at the cut, and I hated the cut. And I showed it to Max and he didn’t respond in a really positive way. So I put it on the shelf for five years. And I pulled it down and I did some additional interviews … and I looked at it and I hated it again, I put it away for five years. I would do that every five years,” said Pollard.

In 2015, Pollard finally had the chance to finish the project when he partnered with fellow director Ben Shapiro, who had also done interviews with Roach, to raise money, finish shooting interviews with Roach’s fellow musicians and hire an editor. Selling the film to the PBS series “American Masters” for $350,000 allowed them to purchase music rights and archival footage, along with funding post-production. The film was released in 2023.

“This film is probably, in my body of work, one of the most important films I’ve done,” Pollard said of covering Roach’s music and activism in “Max Roach.” “It’s the only film I’ve ever made any money from,” he added with a chuckle.

As one audience member pointed out to a smattering of applause while asking Pollard about the challenges of approaching interviewees for “Max Roach”, some spectators may have come to learn about Max Roach, but many came to see Pollard speak about his own career.

In response to questions from both Jackson and the audience, Pollard discussed Roach’s life and career, Pollard’s other work—including several anecdotes that drew laughter from the audience, about his relationships with the interviewees seen in “Max Roach” and his work with Spike Lee—and Pollard’s favorites among peers in the film industry.

From his own oeuvre as both an editor and director, Pollard listed his favorites by decade from the 1970s through the 1990s: “Just Crazy About Horses”, “Style Wars”, Season 2 of “Eyes on the Prize”, “Mo’ Better Blues”, “Jungle Fever” and “Clockers” — the last three of which he worked on with Spike Lee. He also singled out the 2021 documentary “Citizen Ashe,” a profile of trailblazing African American tennis star Arthur Ashe, as his favorite of the sports films he’s worked on. When asked about other films he wants to make, Pollard spoke about his plans for an upcoming animated short film about saxophonist John Coltrane’s tenure in Thelonious Monk’s quartet, which Pollard identifies as a crucial turning point in Coltrane’s ascent to superstardom and sainthood.

Pollard cited Spike Lee as his favorite director to work with, Dede Allen as his favorite editor, and the films “Mingus: Charlie Mingus 1968,” “Jackie McLean on Mars” and “Let’s Get Lost” as his favorite documentaries about jazz. To aspiring filmmakers in the audience his advice was to watch movies and study them with care.

“The most important thing for anybody who wants to be an editor is to watch films… And don’t watch them once, watch them twice, watch them three times. I watch every film five times… because every time I rewatch a film… I see something else from an editorial perspective, in terms of rhythm, in terms of pacing, in terms of dramatic action,” he said. “Study the craft.”

After the Q&A, Pollard and Jackson departed to warm applause.