By Andy Doerschuk
Published March 12, 2011
Joe Morello had a knack for turning lemons into lemonade. Born visually impaired, he was largely restricted from taking part in outdoor activities as a child – a crushing blow for most young men. Yet while other kids played stickball or tag in the park, he turned his attention to learning music, and went on to become one of the most famous drummers in the history of jazz.
Then, years later, after earning countless awards and accolades, Morello once again faced a difficult crossroads when his eyesight became so bad that he could no longer tour. So the legendary sticksman simply redirected his energy into drum education, taking on hundreds of students, composing a library of instructional materials, and developing a reputation as one of the greatest drum teachers of his era.
Joe Morello fought every step of the way, battling bandmates and physical limitations, never allowing anything to alter his path. But the drummer faced his final hurdle on Saturday, March 12, 2011, when he died of heart failure at his home in northern New Jersey, leaving behind legions of fans and followers whose lives were forever changed by this iconic drumming legend.
Joe Morello was born in Springfield, Massachusetts on July 17, 1928 – the same year singer Fats Domino, newsman Roger Mudd, and poet Maya Angelou were born.
Encouraged by his family, Morello first turned his attention to studying violin at the age of six. He developed so rapidly on the instrument that only three years later he appeared as a soloist in the Mendelsohn Violin Concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra – a feat that he again repeated at the age of 12.
Though his career as a violinist seemed well underway, it became unpredictably sidelined when Morello got the chance to meet and hear his idol Jascha Heifetz, a prodigy who had already gained international fame before immigrating to the United States from Lithuania at the age of 16.
Heifetz was considered one of the greatest violinists of all time, and was a celebrity of the day, appearing in films, making countless recordings, and marrying Florence Vidor, ex-wife of film producer King Vidor. Upon hearing Heifetz’s trademark sound, described as “intense and shimmering,” Morello had an epiphany. He told his parents that he would never be able to replicate “that sound” and, at age 15, announced that he wanted to become a drummer.
“I broke my father’s heart when he bought me a new violin at Christmas and I told him I didn’t want to play it,” Morello told Steve Smith in the Hudson Music video The Art Of Brushes. “I said, ’No, I don’t want to do it no more.’ He said, ’I’ll never spend another cent on lessons.’”
A LEGEND IS BORN
Undeterred, the boy began as so many other young drummers have – tapping rhythms on pots and pans. In the meantime, he saved money earned selling Christmas cards and finally bought his first snare drum. By the age of 16, Morello had accumulated the equipment and chops to begin playing gigs with older musicians. While he later described those early experiences as playing in “dumps and dives,” they were professional gigs, nonetheless.
His first teacher, Joe Sefcik, a show drummer in Springfield, nurtured his young student’s development. But he soon recognized he had a tiger by the tail, and recommended that Morello begin studying in Boston with George Lawrence Stone, the author of the seminal drum method book Stick Control For The Snare Drummer and teacher of such drumming luminaries as Gene Krupa and Vic Firth. “Stone taught that everything should involve natural body movements,” Morello told moderndrummer.com. “You have to learn the way your body works.”
“Every lesson was a joy to go to,” Morello was quoted on Stone’s Wikipedia page. “If you did something wrong, he had a way of letting you know about it, but without belittling you. He was a very gentle kind of man, and he had a good sense of humor. He had a way of bringing out the best in me.”
While studying with Stone, Morello would tinker with exercises from Stick Control, adding accents to the book’s innumerable patterns, which he would demonstrate for his teacher during lessons. His ideas inspired Stone to write his next method book, the equally revered Accents And Rebounds, which Stone dedicated to Morello. “He called me his ’star student,’” Morello said in a testimonial on the stonepercussionbooks.com website, “and for that I am forever grateful.”
Morello’s drumming career quickly turned a corner. He became the rudimental drumming champion of New England, and began touring with such artists as Hank Garland and Whitey Bernard. Although Morello had planned to pursue a “legitimate” career as an orchestral percussionist, Stone convinced his student that his future laid in the evolving sound of jazz.
Stone wasn’t the only person to offer professional advice. When Morello was still only 19, some of his Springfield friends (like saxophonist Phil Woods, and guitarist Sal Salvador, both of whom went onto illustrious musical careers) encouraged him to move to New York, where there was a greater number of opportunities for talented young jazz musicians.
A PIVOTAL DECISION
Morello moved to New York, but didn’t exactly hit the ground running. It was a much bigger pond than Springfield. Competition was fierce. After struggling to make ends meet during his first year there, he finally began to get occasional work with such artists as Gil Melle, Johnny Smith, Tal Farlow, Jimmy Raney, and Stan Kenton.
Then he broke through. New York jazz aficionados began to recognize Morello’s amazing skills in 1954, when the drummer began playing with jazz pianist Marian McPartland during her long residency at the New York City jazz club, The Hickory House.
“In a matter of seconds, everyone in the room realized that the guy with the diffident air was a phenomenal drummer,” McPartland wrote in her autobiography All In Good Time. “Everyone listened. His precise blending of touch, taste, and almost unbelievable technique were a joy to listen to … I will never forget it. Everyone knew that here was a discovery.”
Between sets, Morello would hold court with some of the city’s other top drummers, demonstrating his technique while sitting at a back table. Among them was the late Jim Chapin, who remembered other drummers trying to impress Morello with their fanciest licks: “Morello would listen intently, then say, ’Is this what you’re doing?’ as he’d play their licks back at them twice as fast.”
But while Morello’s technique has been honed to near perfection, he was hardly a showboat onstage, preferring instead to play the role of a tasteful accompanist. “When I started playing professionally, I always liked to play with dynamics, and not do the world's fastest thing,” he told moderndrummer.com. “I was always into playing more melodically. That's why I was influenced by Max Roach.”
After two years with McPartland, who remained one of Morello’s closest lifelong friends, the drummer decided it was time to move on. Word spread quickly through the jazz community that he was for hire, and offers to work with Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey, two of the prominent big band leaders of the day, rolled in.
Instead, he turned both down in favor of “temporarily” replacing drummer Joe Dodge during a two-month tour with The Dave Brubeck Quartet. Goodman and Dorsey were old school. Brubeck was trying to break the mold. “Dave wanted to do some things that the drummer couldn’t play; like he wanted to do polyrhythms,” Morello said in his NAMM Oral History. “He was trying to incorporate different rhythmic structures. In other words, you’d start off on one thing and then would modulate into another.”
And yet Morello didn’t exactly leap at Brubeck’s offer. “I told him the times I'd heard his band at Birdland, the spotlight was on him and Paul [Desmond, saxophonist], and the bass player and drummer were out to lunch in the background somewhere,” Morello said in the book Take Five: The Public And Private Lives Of Paul Desmond by Doug Ramsey. “I told him I wanted to play, wanted to improve myself. He said, ’Well, I'll feature you.’”
Brubeck’s instincts ultimately proved impeccable, but his decision to share the spotlight with his talented new drummer didn’t sit well with the band’s saxophonist, Paul Desmond, who preferred for the rhythm section to play a supportive role. “For the first three or four months, Desmond didn’t even talk to me,” Morello said in his NAMM Oral History. “He was so upset, because every time we’d do a drum solo we’d get a standing ovation – and they never got standing ovations!”
However, the new lineup’s sparkling chemistry was undeniable, and Desmond and Morello soon became close friends. Around this time, the drummer continued to fine-tune his chops while taking lessons with another world-famous drum teacher, Billy Gladstone, best known for his tenure at the esteemed Radio City Music Hall.
Morello made his recorded debut with Brubeck in 1957, on Jazz Impressions Of The U.S.A. The group toured the world and released a dizzying six more albums within the next year, mostly live sets like The Dave Brubeck Quartet In Europe. Morello was on top of the world, and yet the band hadn’t yet realized its greatest moment.
The Quartet’s 1959 release, Time Out, was a groundbreaking achievement in many ways. Envisioned as an experiment by Columbia Records’ president Goddard Lieberson – who was nonetheless concerned about its commercial potential – the album was a study in superimposing odd time signatures over a jazz backdrop. It turned out that Lieberson had little to worry about, as Time Out became the first jazz album to sell more than a million copies.
The record included the single “Take Five,” which came to life when Brubeck overheard Morello jamming with Desmond backstage over a 5/4 time signature. Brubeck asked the saxophonist to write a melody in 5/4, and conceived of the song as a showcase for an extended drum solo.
"Joe was a pioneer in odd time signatures and a vital part of the ’Time’ series the Quartet made at Columbia Records," Brubeck told ABC News. "His drum solo on 'Take Five' is still being heard around the world.”
Indeed – highly melodic, Morello’s solo employed rhythmic themes that the drummer developed throughout the performance, played with an easy feel that defied the song’s tricky 5/4 time signature. The song became an unlikely hit during the early emergence of rock and roll, and continues to be heard in films and television to this day.
Generations of drummers have studied Morello’s most famous performance. “Listen to ’Take Five’ today,” Terry Bozzio told happyhomelandstore.com. “That’s like 40 years old now, and it’s still one of the most tasteful, beautiful drum solos … Everybody in the world knows that song. Solo drumming, melodically, tastefully done, by a master.”
THE MASTER ASCENDS
Morello’s dominance among drummers was proven time and again in an impressive string of awards, including Downbeat’s Best Drummer award for five years in a row and the Playboy award for seven consecutive years. For an astounding five-year run, Morello won every significant drumming poll in Japan, England, Europe, Australia, and South America.
However, the drummer’s eyesight had deteriorated so much by the time The Dave Brubeck Quartet broke up in 1968, he decided to retire as a touring musician. Morello turned his attention to teaching, lecturing, performing clinics, writing drum method books like Master Studies, and producing instructional videos such as The Natural Approach To Technique. His roster of former students includes notable names like Danny Gottlieb, Max Weinberg, Gary Feldman, Patrick Wante, and Rich Galichon.
But while drummers for decades strived to learn the secrets of Morello’s masterful technique, he saw it as just one step in a larger process. “Technique is only a means to an end,” Morello told drummersrepublic.com. “The more control you have of the instrument, the more confidence you will get and the more you will be able to express your ideas. But just for technique alone – just to see how fast you can play so you can machine-gun everybody to death – that doesn’t make any sense. Technique is only good if you can use it musically.”