Joe Morello, the drummer best known for his long tenure with the Dave Brubeck Quartet, died this morning at his home in New Jersey. Morello joined Brubeck in 1956, remained with the group until it disbanded in 1967 and later played with it in reunions. He joined Brubeck after three years in Marian McPartland’s trio. Earlier in the 1950s he worked with Gil Melle, Johnny Smith and, briefly, with Stan Kenton. His eyesight, always troublesome, began to fail in the later Brubeck years and by 1976 was gone. He continued to teach. It was not unusual for students from far-flung parts of the world to come to him for lessons.
When Brubeck offered him the drum chair after Joe Dodge left the quartet, Morello accepted on the condition that he be featured as a soloist. His solos became an attraction that, combined with Brubeck’s and alto saxophonist Paul Desmond’s established fame, helped make the quartet one of the best-known groups in jazz. That came about despite strong objection from Desmond, who had recommended Morello for the job. Desmond’s preference in drum accompaniment was for discreet time-keeping. At first, that is what Morello provided in rhythm partnership with bassist Norman Bates. “So, it went fine,” Morello told me in 2003,” then we went into the Blue Note for a week.”
From Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond, here are excerpts from the longer account of what happened.
That night at the club, Brubeck urged Morello to use sticks and assigned him a solo. Morello said that the solo got “a little standing ovation.” Desmond left the stand for the dressing room. “At the end of the drum solo, he just took off,” Morello said. When Brubeck got there at the end of the set, Desmond wheeled on him and presented an ultimatum: “Morello goes or I go.” Brubeck said, “Well, he’s not going.”
“Joe could do things I’d never heard anybody else do,” Brubeck said. “I wanted to feature him. Paul objected. He wanted a guy who played time and was unobtrusive. I discovered that Joe’s time concept was like mine, and I wanted to move in that direction. Paul said I had to get another drummer, I told him I wouldn’t. I didn’t know whether Paul and Norman would show up the next night. They came to a record session at Columbia in Chicago during the day, but they wouldn’t play. So Joe and I played for three hours. And they told me they were going to leave the group. And I said, ‘well, there’ll be a void on the stand tonight because Joe’s not leaving.’
“So, I went to the job and, boy, was I relieved to see Paul and Norman. But I wasn’t going to be bluffed out of Joe. It was not discussed again. That was the end of it.
What Brubeck described as an “armistice” went into effect, holding Desmond and Morello at arm’s length and continuing after Eugene Wright replaced Bates.
Brubeck was able to make the center hold through all the internecine battles over tempos, volume, and drum fills during Desmond’s solos. Despite their powerful disagreements about how Morello’s skills should be deployed, Brubeck was able to take advantage of the respect Morello and Desmond had for one another’s abilities. The respect was ultimately to grow into genuine affection, but that was at the end of a rough road.
“For a while it was uncomfortable with Paul,” Morello told me. “But as time went on, it worked out. We became very close and used to hang out together. The last four or five years we hung out quite a lot, actually.”
Morello’s skill with unorthodox time signatures allowed Brubeck to undertake the explorations in rhythm that he had long wanted to initiate. They led to the 1959 Time Out album and the group’s enduring hit “Take Five,” written by Desmond, which featured a Morello solo in 5/4 time. The piece became a concert feature for Morello, one that audiences demanded for the rest of the life of the quartet.
Joe Morello would have been 83 in July.
(Added on 3/14): On his JazzWax blog, Marc Myers includes another excerpt from the Desmond biography and a video of Joe demonstrating and explaining his basic brush technique.
(Added on 3/16): On the Brubeck Brothers website, Danny Brubeck writes:
Through a stroke of pure luck, the first drumming I consciously witnessed was Joe Morello’s. He started playing in the Dave Brubeck Quartet in 1956 (when I was only one year old) and played in my dad’s group until 1967. By that time, I was all of 12 and a drummer recording and performing in my own right, thanks to his influence.
To read all of Dan Brubeck’s tribute, go here.