Joe Morello: 1928 – 2011

Joe Morello, one of the greatest and most famous drummers of his time, died on March 12. He was 82.

On purely a technical basis, he was the equal of Buddy Rich and Louie Bellson. In terms of fame, he was a member of what could have been described, at the time, as the jazz equivalent of The Beatles: The Dave Brubeck Quartet. Morello was with Brubeck from 1956 until 1967. Dave Brubeck’s group was among the most famous in jazz, even
appealing to those who might have not liked jazz before or since.

Much of this was due to Morello. It was Paul Desmond’s composition, “Take Five,” featuring Morello’s soloing, that was said to be the first, million-selling record in jazz history. And he won the prestigious Down Beat magazine poll as “Number One Drummer” in 1962, 1963 and 1964.

Born in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1928, he first played violin before switching to percussion. He played in the New England area with the likes of Phil Woods, Sal Salvador, and in 1950, the big band of Glen Gray. Morello moved to New York City in 1952, making a name for himself in jazz circles with the groups of Johnny Smith, Gil Melle, and briefly with Stan Kenton. His three years with pianist Marian McPartland’s trio, a group based at the Hickory House in New York City, from 1954 to 1956, really put him on the map. In 1956, he joined Brubeck.

From the start, Morello didn’t have it easy. Though reports vary, it has been said that he was close to being blind for years. He lost whatever limited sight he had in 1976.

Things with Brubeck also were not always easy. He clashed with alto saxophonist Desmond initially. Morello and his solos quickly became audience favorites, which did not thrill Desmond at all. Musically, Brubeck, bless his heart, had a tendency to rush, and it was up to Morello and bassist Gene Wright, who “locked in” no matter what was happening, to keep Brubeck in tow.

Though Morello easily adapted to Brubeck’s use of odd time signatures, the fact was, when the tune called for it, Joe could swing that band into bad health. Listen to “Pennies from Heaven” on the Quartet’s 1963 album recorded live at Carnegie Hall. You could swear it was Buddy Rich back there.

Joe Morello was probably the most famous teacher in drumming history. He toured extensively as a clinician for the Ludwig Drum Company, and Ludwig published many of Joe’s method books. How Ludwig let him go is beyond me. In the 1960s, two drummers were responsible for selling thousands of Ludwig sets: Ringo to the would-be rockers, and Joe Morello to the jazz students.

He was one of the prime exponents of the controversial concept of “finger control”—whereby the movement and velocity of sticking is controlled by the fingers—and his many, many students swore by him. The great Danny Gottleib, possibly Joe’s most famous student, idolized him. When I caught up with Dan in Philadelphia about ten years ago—he was backing the great jazz singer, Chris Connor—all he could talk about was Joe. He even offered to sponsor me if I studied with Morello.

Despite his blindness, he remained very, very active in the post-Brubeck years. There were a few reunions with Brubeck, Marian McPartland and Sal Salvador, the participation in one of the first “Burnin’ for Buddy” tribute recordings, a bunch of local gigs in the northern New Jersey area, and a very busy teaching practice.

Joe Morello was interviewed many times through the years in jazz and percussion journals, and always came off as a modest, self-effacing artist, though aware of his influence and place in history. He knew that the problems with his sight may have limited the scope of his career—if only because he couldn’t take heavy reading gigs—but he was never bitter.

For those not familiar with his playing, I urge you to check out his work with Brubeck, and on film and video via “Legends of Jazz Drumming,” “Classic Drum Solos and Drum Battles,” and “Jo Jones and the Drum Stars.” All are available here.

If anyone personified the title, “Legend of Jazz Drumming,” it was Joe Morello. He was one of the great ones.

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