The Wizard Of Odd: Joe Morello

Joe Morello

The Dave Brubeck Quartet was one of the last jazz groups to achieve general popularity in the late 1950s and early ’60s, when rock and roll was dominating record sales, radio, juke boxes, and the ratings charts. The addition of Joe Morello, in 1956, made it possible for the pianist to put into action his plan to incorporate time signatures rarely used in jazz.

That led to the seminal odd-time tune “Take Five,” a rare instance of a jazz band in the ’60s having a hit record.

Morello grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts, where he was born in 1928. He, alto saxophonist Phil Woods, and guitarist Sal Salvador played together there during Morello’s high school days. He moved to New York in 1952 and worked with guitarist Johnny Smith and saxophonist Gile Melle. He subbed briefly for Stan Levey in the Stan Kenton band before he joined pianist Marian McPartland’s trio. Morello was tall and reserved, with thick glasses to aid his partial vision. McPartland wrote in her memoir that he looked “less like a drummer than a student of nuclear physics.”

When the Brubeck Quartet’s longtime drummer, Joe Dodge, gave notice in late 1956 that he was getting off the road to spend more time with his family, Brubeck took alto saxophonist Paul Desmond’s advice. He went to New York’s Hickory House to hear Morello with McPartland and bassist Bill Crow. Morello’s time, touch, and technique had dazzled New York musicians and fans. NBC-TV’s Dave Garroway, a canny jazz listener, said that Morello’s touch on his cymbals was like a butterfly’s wing. That fit Desmond’s standard for ideal drumming.

“Paul told me we should hire Joe Morello,” Brubeck recalls. “He said Morello was a fantastic drummer who always played softly, with brushes.” I went over to hear him with Marian and was knocked out.”

In 2003, Morello remembered Brubeck and Desmond coming into the Hickory House several times to listen to the McPartland Trio.

“I had been planning on leaving Marian’s group anyway,” Morello recalled. “There was an audition and an offer from Tommy Dorsey, but his manager got cute with money and while that was on hold, Dave called and asked if I would be interested in joining his group.” He and the pianist met at the New York hotel where Brubeck was staying.

“I told him the times I’d heard his band at Birdland, the spotlight was on him and Paul, and the bass player and drummer were out to lunch in the background somewhere. I told him I wanted to play, wanted to improve myself. He said, ‘Well, I’ll feature you.’”

When Brubeck returned from a tour, Morello said, he told Brubeck, “Let’s try it. Maybe you won’t like my playing and I won’t like the group. There’s no use signing anything until we’re really sure.” An exchange of telegrams confirmed their intentions.

Shortly after, Morello got a call from Dorsey’s manager, who told him that he had the job.

“He said, ‘Tommy’s going to give you the money.’ I told him it was too late, I’d just signed with Brubeck. ‘Oh, you don’t want to play in Birdland all your life,’ he said. ‘Look what we did for Buddy Rich and Louie Bellson.’ I told him, ‘You didn’t do anything for Buddy Rich and Louie Bellson. Look what they did for your band.’”

Finding The Time

Morello’s first job with the Quartet was scheduled for a Chicago television program. He listened to some of Brubeck’s recordings to familiarize himself with the tunes they would play, and then he flew to Chicago and went directly to the TV station. Brubeck, Desmond, and bassist Norman Bates flew in from one of their tour dates.

“They showed up about 15 minutes before air time,” Morello said. “We ran down some tunes. He’d sent me a couple of simple little tunes, time-change things, nothing serious. You listen to it once and you can do it. I think they were ‘I’m In A Dancing Mood,’ and ‘The Trolley Song.’ There was a little transition in the way of time — it was no big deal. Dave introduced me on TV as his new drummer. When it was over, Dave said to the guys, ‘Joe played these things like he wrote ’em.’ It was very nice. But, really, they were very simple. So, it went fine and then we went into the Blue Note for a week.”

It turned out that Morello’s and Desmond’s ideas about the proper role of a drummer in the quartet were at odds. On the first set at the famous club on North Clark Street, Brubeck suggested that Morello use sticks and gave him a solo. The audience reacted with what Morello described as “a little standing ovation.” Desmond left the stand. “At the end of the drum solo, he just took off,” Morello said. During the break, Brubeck found Desmond in the dressing room, armed with an ultimatum: “Morello goes or I go.”

“Well, he’s not going,” Brubeck told Desmond.

“Joe could do things I’d never heard anybody else do,” Brubeck says. “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. Paul knew that Morello was one of the greatest drummers who ever lived, but what he wanted was a steady beat. Some nights Joe would do more than that and Paul would say, ‘Please don’t do adventures behind me.’ Later, of course, Joe and Paul became very close.”

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