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.”


A Long Warm Up

Later is right — much later. Brubeck described the situation as an armistice between the two, but it was more akin to a tense ceasefire. In a New Yorker profile of the quartet, Robert Rice wrote, “... bloody war was likely to rage whenever the quartet played, with Brubeck doing his best to mediate between Morello on the one hand and Bates and Desmond on the other.”

Morello easily conquered polyrhythms and the unorthodox time signatures that Brubeck was determined the quartet would master. A standard observation among drummers was that Morello’s feet were a touch faster than Buddy Rich’s. Morello had made it clear that he was not going to hide his formidable technique beneath a bushel. Brubeck could not have agreed more. Desmond’s standard for drumming matched Lester Young’s -— “Just a little tinky-boom. No bombs, Prez.” That dream seemed to be over.

Bates recalls the atmosphere on the stand: “Now, they’ve got Joe Morello,” Bates said, “and he rapidly adjusted himself away from the very well-integrated, consistent piano of Marian McPartland, but, without that as a model, he didn’t know what to do. Joe had to learn how to adapt himself by not participating in Dave’s excursions. So, we found Joe, during Dave’s solos, studying the ceiling while knitting softly with a pair of brushes until it was his time to shine, which was a solo. Well, when he’d catch Paul playing a repeating phrase of some kind that had some rhythm content to it, some simple pattern, Joe, as soon as he recognized the pattern, would join right in and play something that was in his mind appropriate and called for. Paul didn’t like that at all,” Bates said. “He didn’t want to be shoved, or muscled, or bound, or confined.”

“For a while it was uncomfortable with Paul,” Morello remembered. “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 phrasing and inflection were uncannily like Desmond’s when he said that.

“I think the world of Paul, “Morello said. “No, it was more than that. I loved the guy.”

The Infamous “Take Five”

After “Take Five” became one of the most familiar pieces of music in the world, Desmond tired of questions about it and amused himself by concocting stories of the piece’s origins. His favorite version linked it with his gambling habit. He told people that he was inspired by the rhythmic sounds that slot machines make — down, back, click-click-click.

“Have you ever heard that?” Brubeck says, laughing. “I read that somewhere and I said, ‘Come on, Paul, no.’ It was Joe Morello who gave him that rhythm.”

Morello said that in concert he used to go into 5/4 time in the drum break of a Brubeck piece called “Sounds Of The Loop,” which the group recorded in 1956 on Jazz Impressions Of The USA.

“I’d just mess around in five,” Morello said. “Go from 5/4 to 7/4, and I guess they hadn’t heard that kind of thing before, so I kept saying, ‘Come on, Dave, why don’t you write something in 5/4?’ He never did, so Paul said one night, ‘Oh, s__t, I’ll write something.’ We were rehearsing up at Dave’s house one time, and Paul came in with that. So, we recorded the thing in the studio at Columbia, and I think it was the first take or the second take, and Dave was playing the vamp. I got more comments on that darn drum solo. I hear it every day somewhere, so it was a very lucky thing. It was my idea. Everybody made a lot of money but me.”

The same summer that the Brubeck group recorded “Take Five,” drummer Max Roach’s quintet was playing a 5/4 blues called “As Long As You’re Living.” They recorded it for Mercury Records a few days after the Brubeck Time Out session. Members of the Roach band have accused Morello, Brubeck, and Desmond of stealing the idea when both bands were playing a festival in Detroit. As for why the Brubeck record became a massive hit and Roach’s did not, Roach’s tenor saxophonist, Stanley Turrentine, told writer Ben Young, “It seems like they held our record back, and put that ‘Take Five’ out there, man, before they put out ‘As Long As You’re Living.’ His scenario ignores the commercial reality that when it comes to sales, major record companies do not collude; they compete.

Roach’s bassist, Bob Boswell, came closer to the answer: “The only thing that I could say, and not being derogatory about it, was the fact that Brubeck’s tune wasn’t as involved as ours. Ours was based on a 5/4 blues,” Boswell told Young, “but his was based on just a couple of chords. They played the head of the tune, and then they let the head of it go. And they stayed right on those changes. They stayed right on the vamp in 5/4 and played off of that vamp. But see, ours was based on the entire blues, and we played off the whole blues, the 5/4. So ours may have been a little more intricate for the public at that time, and the public snapped his up because it was a little more simple to grasp.”

“Take Five”’s popularity came as a surprise to everyone involved; Desmond, who composed it; Morello, who inspired it; Brubeck, who, as Morello requested, “kept that vamp going”; bassist Eugene Wright, who loved playing in 5/4; and, most of all, Columbia Records, which hated the idea until the company realized that it had been looking a prize-winning gift horse in the mouth.

“We are innocent of trying to make a hit record,” Brubeck told DownBeat. “When I get most skeptical about so-called popular music, and the public, and the radio stations, I think about “Take Five” and “Blue Rondo” and feel that the public can go for some pretty good things.”


The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s odd time excursions, widely denigrated at the time by music critics, were hugely popular with fans and the general public, thanks in no small part to the stellar drumming of Joe Morello, who would navigate those time signatures with ease, always swinging hard and making musical that which a lesser drummer would have been simply unable to play. He had remarkably fluid technique, speed, and, most importantly, taste. His playing is a benchmark that generations of drummers can only hope to approach.

“Unsquare Dance”
Here’s a little ditty in 7/4 with a phrasing that at the time probably sounded out of place anywhere other than Greece. There is a bass and handclap ostinato that outlines the phrasing of 2+2+3. Morello enters the tune after the groove is established and plays a dancing rhythm on his tom rims, which are hard panned left and right. Musically, he lightly accents the riffing along with the handclaps. Morello embellishes these patterns with triplets and flam taps. At this tempo it’s easy to see how he once became the rudimental champion of New England.


“Bossa Nova, U.S.A.”
Here’s one way to play a bossa nova — if you have stellar technique. For the opening, Morello plays a snare pattern that outlines the 3+3+4+3+3 bossa nova pattern but adds a rim-click immediately following each accent, creating an echo effect that at first may make you think they added a percussionist for the song. Later, he plays the accented snare pattern but doubles the accents on his ride. It’s easy to see how his lessons with George Lawrence Stone and Billy Gladstone paid off. To put his hand technique in a modern perspective for our younger readers, this is equivalent to effortlessly playing an accented blastbeat pattern for a couple minutes at 208. Oh, and his feet were fast too.

Bossa Nova {pagebreak}

“La Paloma Azul [live]”
If you thought John Bonham was the first drummer to solo with his bare hands, think again. Morello often soloed barehanded (though Papa Jo Jones preceded them both) and used light finger taps in softer songs. For this track, Morello plays a soft rumba groove with his fingers on the snare. The wires are off, creating a conga sound. He lengthens his finger rolls in the second line and adds a rim-click to the pattern. If he’s playing the bass drum, he’s feathering it so lightly I can’t hear it, probably doubling the upright bass part on counts 1, 3, and 4.

La Paloma

“Blue Rondo A La Turk”

This song has a Turkish 9/8 time signature phrased as three bars of 2+2+2+3 phrasing and a fourth measure that uses 3+3+3. Morello varies his pattern between the ride bell and shoulder of the cymbal, and his accents closely follow the piano rhythm. He plays this with the snare wires disengaged. Later, the song shifts to a laidback 4/4 swing groove that greatly contrasts with the urgency of the 9/8 section.

Blue Rondo {pagebreak}

“Castillian Drums”
This excerpt from the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s ’63 recording At Carnegie Hall displays Morello’s truly incredible hand and foot technique. “Castillian Drums” features Morello in a fascinating ten-minute drum solo, and this snippet occurs near the finale. Check out the tempo of this section!


“Take Five”
The 5/4 groove that made Morello a drumming icon and made odd time signatures cool. We decided not to transcribe the famous solo here in order to focus on some of Morello’s lesser-known performances. But fear not — you can check out Wally Schnalle’s excellent, complete transcription of the “Take Five” drum part at

Take Five