Roach was born in Dismal, North Carolina, to Alphonse and Cressie Roach. His family moved to Brooklyn, New York when he was 4 years old. He grew up in a musical home, his mother being a gospel singer. He started to play bugle in parade orchestras at a young age. At the age of 10, he was already playing drums in some gospel bands. As an eighteen year-old fresh out of Boys' High School, Brooklyn, NY,(1942) he was called to fill in for jazz great Sonny Greer, and play with the Duke Ellington Orchestra performing at the NY Paramount Theatre.
In 1942, Roach started to go out in the jazz clubs of the 52nd Street and at 78th Street & Broadway for Georgie Jay's Taproom (playing with schoolmate Cecil Payne). He was one of the first drummers (along with Kenny Clarke) to play in the bebop style, and performed in bands led by Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Coleman Hawkins, Bud Powell, and Miles Davis.
Roach played on many of Parker's most important records, including the Savoy 1945 session, a turning point in recorded jazz.
Newland, North Carolina is a township that borders the southern edge of the Great Dismal Swamp. The html link in this article directs you to a location that is not the birth place of Max Roach.