Joe was born on July 17, 1928, in Springfield, Mass. Having impaired vision since birth, he devoted himself to indoor activities. At the age of six, his family’s encouragement led him to study violin. Three years later, he was featured with the Boston Symphony Orchestra as soloist in the Mendelsohn Violin Concerto. At the age of twelve, he made a second solo appearance with the orchestra. But upon meeting and hearing his idol, the great Jascha Heifetz, Joe felt he could never achieve “that sound”. So, at the age of fifteen, Joe changed the course of his musical endeavors and began to study drums.
Joe’s first drum teacher, Joe Sefcik, was a pit drummer for all the shows in the Springfield area. He was an excellent teacher and gave Joe much encouragement. Joe began sitting in with any group that would allow it. When he was not sitting in, he and his friends, including Teddy Cohen, Chuck Andrus, Hal Sera, Phil Woods and Sal Salvador, would get together and jam in any place they could find. Joe would play any job he was called for. As a result, his musical experiences ranged from rudimental military playing to weddings and social occasions. Eventually, Mr. Sefcik decided it was time for Joe to move on. He recommended a teacher in Boston, the great George Lawrence Stone.
Mr. Stone did many things for Joe. He gave Joe most of the tools for developing technique. He taught Joe to read. But most important of all, he made Joe realize his future was in jazz, not “legitimate” percussion, as Joe had hoped. Through his studies with Mr. Stone, Joe became known as the best drummer in Springfield, and rudimental champion of New England.
Joe’s playing activity increased, and he soon found himself on the road with several groups. First, there was Hank Garland and the Grand Old Opry, and then Whitey Bernard. After much consideration, Joe left Whitey Bernard to go to New York City.
A difficult year followed, but with Joe’s determination and the help of friends like Sal Salvador, Joe began to be noticed. Soon he found himself playing with an impressive cast of musicians that included Gil Melle, Johnny Smith, Tal Farlow, Jimmy Raney, Stan Kenton and Marian McPartland. After leaving Marian McPartland’s trio, he turned down offers from the Benny Goodman band and the Tommy Dorsey band. The offer he chose to accept was a two-month temporary tour with the Dave Brubeck Quartet, which ended up lasting twelve-and-a half years. It was during the period that Joe’s technique received its finishing touches from Billy Gladstone of Radio City Music Hall.