Chops Master and Musical Poet

Joe Morello

Joe Morello inspired thousands of drummers during his long career, which spanned from 1957, the year of his first recording session with Dave Brubeck, to 2011, when he passed away. Morello’s legacy reached a wide spectrum of players. His technical skills were off the charts. His mastery of finger control was legendary, his touch and feel were superb, and his speed was incredible. But Morello never let technique overpower his playing; he used it as a tool to help him express his musical ideas.

One of the most obvious examples of Joe’s masterful and musical approach to the drum solo can be heard in the classic song “Take Five” by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Joe could have easily filled every measure with technical fire and flare, but instead he crafted a very musical solo that took advantage of space. Sometimes what you don’t play means as much as—or more than—what you do play. Ask any of today’s top jazz drummers about Joe’s “Take Five” solo, and you’ll likely hear it praised as a masterclass in pacing and control, a reminder to all of us to let our solos breathe.

Morello also had a playful side to his personality. He knew he had chops to spare, and every once in a while he’d remind us of that. When I was in my early teens, I was lucky to go to the Newport Jazz Festival in my home state of Rhode Island. On the Saturday of the festival, there was a session from noon until 5 p.m. that was just for drummers. Practically every major name in the business came out and played for fifteen minutes, including Elvin Jones, Buddy Rich, Louie Bellson, Art Blakey, and Max Roach. They did their thing, pulling out all the stops and really cranking away. Then Joe came out. Not wanting to be bested by his peers, about halfway through his solo he smiles, reaches into his pocket with his right hand, pulls out a handkerchief, and wipes his forehead with it—all while doing a steady roll with his left hand around the drumset. That blew away me and everyone else in attendance.

I met Joe and his wonderful wife, Jean, in his later years. In 2009, he wanted to sell some of his gear, and my good friend Danny Gottlieb suggested he speak with me. I was glad to help. We organized a Joe Morello Day that November at my New York store. The idea was to have him come in and just let each of his fans spend a few minutes with him. Joe was worried that no one would come, but we had about 150 people visit that day. It was great to see how much he was still appreciated by so many drummers.

Steve Maxwell is the owner of Maxwell Drums and Fork’s Drum Closet, and he is president of Craviotto Drum Company.

by Steve Maxwell