It was actually as a violinist that drums meister Joe Morello began his musical life at age five in his hometown, Springfield, Mass. A musician's musician, Morello (79), who now teaches and conducts jazz clinics in the US and Canada, has appeared on over 200 recordings. Still, it's safe to say his place in jazz history is as the drum-beating heart of a now-legendary quartet of piano great Dave Brubeck. From 1956 through 1967, Morello, Brubeck, alto sax great Paul Desmond and bassist Eugene Wright vastly expanded the audience for jazz by bringing it to colleges and in doing so also advanced the cause of racial integration both onstage (Wright was black) and in their audiences.
Because of what Morello dismisses as "a little trouble with my vision" from early childhood on he was unable to see well enough to read music. He simply memorized everything by ear. Drawn to "timpani and all those things" he became a regular at a local vaudeville theatre where he'd always sit near the drummer. At home he played on the back of a kettle until by hawking Christmas cards he earned enough to buy a snare drum. By 16 Morello was playing in "dives and dumps" with older musicians. "Then I started getting good jobs in hotels with quintets and Latin bands." When he was "around 19 or 20" buddies altoist Phil Woods and guitarist Sal Salvador talked him into going to New York.
Soon he was meeting musicians like Marian McPartland, who's remained a lifelong friend. One evening at the Hickory House where she was appearing, guitar ace Johnny Smith introduced himself and asked, "How would you like to play with me at Birdland for two weeks?" Morello's unhesitating response was "Who do I have to kill?"
Of his first for-real New York job he enthuses, "It was great! They had the name up on the marquee and everything. We were playing opposite Dizzy Gillespie." A tour of local clubs with Smith followed, then a stint with Stan Kenton's band and "two or three years" with McPartland. Morello remarks modestly, "I don't know. It came easy for me. I guess I was lucky." And then came a call from Brubeck. Morello had reservations about accepting his offer because "...I'd go into Birdland with Marian and the spotlight would be on Desmond and the piano and the other guys were in the dark. They weren't even on the billing. ...[Dave] asked me if I'd be interested in playing with his group. And I said well yah... But I want to be able to play. With the two [previous] drummers you have, you could get a metronome. You don't need me to do it. ...I told him I'd tour with him and that would be a good test. ...And he was very fair. He said he would feature me and he did."
Their first gig was for television in Chicago before a club date. Brubeck had sent Morello a couple of his albums and marked up three tunes, "...tunes with time and tempo changes with modulations from one to another. Which is basic. For me it was very simple... Brubeck arrived late and harried. There was no chance to rehearse. ...I said let's just do it. He was kinda amazed that I played with him and not one mistake."
Of the quartet Morello says pridefully, "Well that was a rhythm section that Dave will never have again." The quartet's Time Out album became and remains Brubeck's biggest seller, most famously for the tune "Take Five". But it's their 1963 Carnegie Hall album that Morello calls their best. Of that night he says, "Brubeck was nervous and said, 'It's Carnegie Hall!'" to which Morello replied, "Man, it's just a goddamn building!" A memorable part of the evening was "the drum thing'Castilian Drums'. I started to play and Gene whispered, 'You got 'em standing.' I just kept going and Gene said, 'they're standing AGAIN!' We got five standing ovations. I thought they were going to jump on stage. It was crazy!"
Of those Brubeck years Morello says, "Dave was a very interesting guy to play for. He was one of the most creative people I've ever seen. He wasn't playing what everyone else was trying to do. ...He said to me, what I want to do is all these different tempo changes and stuff. Do you think you could do that? And I said, shit yah, why not! ...There were various tempo changes that were very simple. He was so knocked out when I could play those things. It was easy. Because I always liked to delve into rhythm patterns and do crazy things. ...It came easy to me."
Now blind in one eye, Morello still teaches and holds jazz clinics and there's talk about a possible gig at Birdland. Of his music he says, "I sort of believe in the melodic thing. That people can hear some relationship to the music you're playing. ...the various pitches on the drum and you've got to build up to a climax ...And it's all improv. I never played the same thing twice."