Joe Morello

Building a Teaching Business

From Breaking Ground to Finding Students


Joe Morello is a drummer not often written about. The last album to feature Morello was the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s 25th Anniversary Reunion. In the liner notes to that album Morello wrote, “It’s nice to be remembered when you’re old and gray.”But it’s hard to forget Morello, a musician who has played for the Queen of England and the President of the United States. A drummer who won the down beat polls and every music poll in Japan, Europe, Australia and South America five years in a row.About the liner notes Morello said, “It was actually supposed to be a humorous thing. Sometimes I get kind of down with it but not too much. It’s been good to me. It’s been a lot in such, a short time and now, as much as I enjoy taking it easy and doing what I want to do, I want to start playing again.”

Joe is currently fronting his own quintet which would be impossible without his friend and guide dog, Matthew, given to him by the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind, Inc. in Smithtown N.Y. The quintet has been performing in clubs in New Jersey and New York City.

Prior to this, Morello was a member of the Dave Brubeck Quartet in 1955 until 1968. During his stay with the Brubeck Quartet, Joe traveled extensively and when asked he touched on some of the realities of a musician’s life on the road.

“I’ve seen those kids. They’re dying to go on the road with a band. I guess they think it’s just a lot of laughs, a lot of wine, women and song.

“But man, after awhile you just get tired from traveling all day long and then you’ve got to get up there and do a thing. Four thousand people out there waiting to pick out all your mistakes and, if you don’t do something exactly like the recording they say, ‘Oh man, he is not that good…Brubeck? Naw, he can’t play. Desmond isn’t playing good.’ Then you go back to the hotel, have a couple of drinks, go to bed, get up and catch another seven o’clock plane, because you’re working for thirty-seven thousand people a week.

“With Brubeck, we used to do about ninety one-nighters and they weren’t all in a row! It was Dallas, San Francisco, Boston, Detroit, Miami to Houston…as if you had a map and threw a dart. Wherever it lands, that where you go.

“On the other hand I don’t think to see the things I’ve seen. I’ve been around the world four times. Been to just about every country in the world Met a lot of drummers, nice people and seen a lot of interesting things. They can’t take that away from me.

Commenting on the music scene today, Morello said, “most of these kids today and a lot of bands really haven’t any roots or foundation. That’s why I don’t teach too much anymore. Drives me right up the wall! I don’t take any beginners. Right away they want to know what’s being played in the hotels and clubs. And then you’ve got disco.”

In speaking about his teaching practice, Joe seemed amazed that he had students come to study with him in New Jersey from as far away as Arizona, Texas and Canada. He pointed out that studying with a “name” drummer isn’t necessarily more beneficial than studying with a competent teacher in your own backyard.

“All a teacher can really show you is how to play the drum. That’s all. I don’t care how much technique you’ve got or how little you have.

“I never used half of the technique that I have. I don’t need to. For what? Unless I’m feeling real hotsy-totsy one night. I’ll come on with the power a little bit if I’m up to it. Sometimes I feel like doing that. It’s good to know that I can do it if I want to, but normally I don’t knock myself out like that.

“I’d rather do my playing first and then if people want to see some fast licks I can do it. But, I like to do my playing first, then I’ll play for the crowd.”

I asked Joe to tell me about his early teachers, influences and aspirations.

“When I was in Springfield, Massachusetts, I studied with Joe Sefcick. He was a vaudeville drummer. He played the whole set, but he played a lot of snare. He was able to really play the drum.

“Then I went with Lawrence Stone and was playing all the club dates and commercial gigs in town. I became Springfield’s best drummer and learned how to read. If you go through two or three books and still can’t read, you never will. Notes are notes. It’s how you phrase them and interpret them.

“I used to practice a lot when I was younger. I couldn’t play baseball or football like the average guy, so it was fun for me to practice or go through books and things. I used to do a lot of reading.”

Joe Morello began his musical life as a violinist and said that his “claim to fame was playing with the Boston Symphony when I was about six or seven years old.

“Heifitz is my favorite musician but when I heard him I went home and cried. I figured I could never get that sound. That was it. No more violin.”

Joe found the drums easier to play and chuckled at the recollection of his vehement father saying that he would never spend money on drum lessons.

“It was so funny because I couldn’t even read. I memorized everything on violin. The teacher didn’t know until two years later that I couldn’t see the music.

“One of my favorite drummers was Davey Tough. He could keep a nice rhythm with the band. He hardly did anything with his left hand. He was straight ahead on the big cymbal, but he got it cookin.’

“I used to listen to Sidney Catlett, J.C. Heard! Heard was another fine drummer, and then Jo Jones, who is still a good friend of mine. Jo taught me a lot. I played opposite him for about six or seven weeks at the Embers. Jo used to play his bass drum open. He had a little twenty inch bass drum, snare drum, cymbal, hi-hat stand and one little floor tom.

“He’d get up on the drums with brushes and get that bass drum going. A good sound. I’d get up there and the bass drum would go boom, boom, boom. I sat down and watched that bass drum realizing I was doing something wrong. The only way you could play it was by pressing the beater into the head. Jo would play heel up, toes down. He’d been playing like that for so long that he could control it. I learned a lot about hi-hats from Jo. He would really get a breathing sound from his hi-hats.

“Roy Haynes is beautiful. One of my best friends. I love him. A great drummer! One of the most original drummers I think I’ve ever heard. He doesn’t sound like anybody but Roy Haynes, which I respect tremendously.

“Phil Woods and I grew up together. We used to play the commercial gigs in Springfield with Sal Salvador, Hal Sirah and Chuck Andrus, and on weekends we’d have sessions in a cellar or anyplace. We even got busted once for playing on a vacant airfield in the middle of the night!

“Phil went to Julliard and wanted me to go to New York. I thought those cats were too good. I could never make it down there. Finally, I went down a couple of years after everybody else. Sal was with Kenton on the road so I didn’t see him until I was there a couple of months.

“I went to New York and starved for about a year. I didn’t work at all. I started off living in a room for fifteen dollars a week, regressing to a nine dollar room and then a seven dollar room the size of a bathroom with no door on it. When Sal came through town he introduced me to some musicians.


“I went to Birdland and met Gil Melle and Marian McPartland at the Hickory House. I’d never heard of her before. She let me play a tune and liked the way I played the brushes.

“I used to see Marian at least twice a week. One night I walked in and Marian said, There he is! That’s him.’ This guy came over and asked, ‘Are you workin’ Friday?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘How would you like to come and start with me at Birdland?’ It was guitarist Johnny Smith.”

Morello played with Johnny Smith for several months when, “Kenton was playing Birdland and Stan Levy had to take about three weeks off. Kenton was looking for a sub and all the guys around New York were saying, ‘Oh man, I wouldn’t take that job, it’s like chopping wood.’ Sal said ‘Why don’t you go on the band?’ I decided to do it.

“The night before I left to go with Kenton I got this frantic call at The Embers from Jimmy McPartland. He said, ‘I hear that you’re going with Stan Kenton. Marian wanted to know if you’d join her group. How about two hundred to start off with? On the road it’ll be three hundred.’ I said, ‘I’ll take it!’

“It worked out that I had just one day left after Kenton to go to Chicago and join Marian at the Blue Note. Then I stayed with Marian for awhile. Everything seemed to fall into place. A lot of drummers would come by and say, ‘Ah man, you oughta be playing with guys like Zoot Sims. Marian don’t swing. She can’t play’…and all that.

“When I left that job, all those cats that had been putting me down wanted the gig. All those cats that were hanging around Charlie’s Tavern telling me how great they played were still on the outside looking in.”

Joe Morello is most noted for his small group playing but is an excellent all around drummer and enjoyed his short time with the Kenton band. “Kenton was a lot of fun. The first night I couldn’t play loud enough. At the end of the night man, I played so loud on the cymbals, rolling and everything as loud as I could play. And Kenton would smile and bring it up louder! “The guys were coming up and saying that it sounded good. I couldn’t hear! The brass was so powerful. But by the end of the first four days I had the book down pretty well.

“The funniest thing happened when we started off. They were calling off tunes while the band boy was fixing the drum seat. It was too low. I bent down and knocked over all the drum charts. Whoosh! So Stan shook his head and called out “A Train” and I just played a straight ahead kind of thing. I didn’t read anything.

“The chart is nothing more than a guide telling you when to start and when to stop. It’s just to let you know what the band is doing. That’s all. The idea is to hold the band together. You’ve got eighteen men and everyone is tapping their feet differently.”

Morello is also a tremendous soloist, but like Rich and Bellson there is a syndrome where an audience feels short changed if they do not get a twenty-minute drum solo. Morello doesn’t feel he has been caught up in that whirlpool.

“Those records like Louis versus Buddy — they get so monotonous after awhile. I’ve got one record done years ago with Max and Buddy. Max played very well but then Buddy drew him into a trap. And of course, Max is not equipped for that. He doesn’t play that way.

“As much as I respect what they’re doing,” Joe emphasized, “it makes a contest out of playing the drums. It lacks musicality. I mean, it’s nice to have two drummers that can play together. You can express yourself but then it gets to be a circus. I enjoy listening to it sometimes. I would be very happy to do something like that with Louis or Buddy. Technically it wouldn’t bother me at all.”

Speaking about technique and the development of it, Joe brought the whole mystique of practicing into focus. “Working out on a practice pad is like working out with a punching bag. You can work on that all day and get knocked on your butt when you get in the ring. It’s the same thing here. You get on a drum set and can get knocked on your butt. They hit back.

“The more facility you have the more it broadens your mind, because there are more things you can do. A lot of guys say, ‘Man, I can hear it but I can’t play it.’ That’s all technique is; the ability to play what’s on your mind. Take Mel Lewis for an example. Mel sounds good. Real good. I could never think of Mel playing like Buddy. It’s not Mel! He told me years ago that he heard Buddy and figured he could never play that good. He wanted to be a good service drummer. That’s what he is. He plays good with his band. He plays the heck out of that band. Reads anything. Does just what he has to do. Doesn’t overplay anything. That’s where he set his mind, that’s what he wanted to do.

“If Mel wanted to work up his chops, he’d still be playing as good as he plays, only he’d have more to work with. You’d see a great deal of difference in his playing. It’s the guy that doesn’t have the chops who tries to get in there, that sounds like a jerk. That guy shouldn’t fool with that. Don’t go into the kitchen if it’s too hot. Stay out. Just do what you do, that’s all.”

Lawrence Stone’s book Stick Control has been called “the drummer’s bible” by Louie Bellson. Joe studied with Stone and spoke about the influence that book had on his playing.

“I went through Stick Control with Stone and I teach it. But, I changed a lot of it through the years with Stone. The first part of the follow up book, Accents and Rebounds reflects some of my ideas.

“I get bored. Some teachers teach a paradiddle with no accents. Doing that for two hours would be ridiculous, so I add accents to make it more musical. Mix it up! Now it’s rhythmic. You can take a paradiddle and play it in triplets. You can take the first page of Stick Control and play it twenty ways. If you know how to use it you can teach Rock out of that book. You can teach anything out of that book! You can use it with bass drum substitutions. When you get on a set don’t say, ‘Well, I think I’ll play exercise twelve, page nine.’ Someday you’re going to run out of pages. Now what do you play?

“I wrote a book called Rudimental Jazz. The title is very corny. I never practiced a crossover in my life. Everything I’ve done in that department was trial and error. I’ve seen guys with what little I can see, do crossovers, and I’d say that it looked like this or that. I just figured them out when I wrote Rudimental Jazz.


“I’d take a five stroke roll in eighth notes, then triplets in a four bar break. Or, you could play all single strokes if you wanted to. When I take a kid through that book, he starts to figure out his own things. The idea of any book is to open a door and show you what can be done. Then do your own. Don’t play my crap, do your own things.

“When I was a kid, there was a record by Buddy Rich called Quiet Please with Tommy Dorsey’s Orchestra. Buddy was responsible for my wanting to play because I enjoy his playing. It was dynamic, powerful and fast. I could play that record and I thought, ‘I’m as good as that. What makes him so good?’

“I could always hear things easily. That’s one thing that I was lucky to have. The old man left me with something, I could hear pretty good.

“You know what happened? I’d be playing these little jobs around Springfield and do identical drum solos and they never sounded the same! It never sounded good. What you don’t realize at that stage is that the musician played it off the top of his head and probably never played it again. A lot of kids make that mistake even today. They try to emulate.”

Morello explained that it is not uncommon for people to approach him at concerts or clinics and ask how long it took him to memorize his drum solo.

“I like melodic playing which doesn’t mean you have to have a million tomtoms. I still use the old four-piece drum set. Maybe I could put it better by saying I like thematic playing. Theme development. If you start with a theme you can get into it. It just develops while you do it. There’s no mystery to it. Just do your drums.”

Offering some suggestions on drum teachers’ approaches with students, Joe said, “I think of practicing like different avenues or roads. When you start off you’ve got to learn how to play. Develop a certain control. Once a kid has control, you can say, ‘Okay, now which way do you want to go?’ Teach them rudimental things and how to apply them to a drum set. If you want to be a Rock drummer then go that way! I don’t want to make you into something you don’t want to be.

“When a student asks whether he’s holding the sticks right, I ask ‘How does it feel to you? Is it comfortable? If it is, then hold them that way.’ If it’s natural for him, why change?

“Some teachers stress a stiff wrist motion. They squeeze very tight and call it fulcrum. My answer is fulcrum all! They’ve got these bulging muscles (between thumb and index finger) and I don’t have any there at all. I don’t have any callouses. I must be doing something wrong! After three or four years of practicing with stiff wrist motion, they tell the kids to loosen up!

“I took a few lessons from Billy Gladstone. I think he was the greatest technician that I’ve ever seen in my life. He was what they call a ‘legitimate’ drummer. He had a method of practicing and playing where everything was loose. It’s like walking; if you had to figure out every muscle, you couldn’t move.

“I think it’s important for drummers to know the structure of tunes. That’s the trouble with a lot of drummers. They sound like drummers and not musicians because they don’t know where they are in the tune. It wouldn’t hurt drummers at all to study keyboard harmony and basic theory.”

Morello said that a lot of guys, “try too hard. I never expected to do this for a living. It was always easy for me and a lot of fun. A guy that can’t play is the first guy that’s always putting everything down. Nothing’s right except him. He’s got his thing together, y’know? The guys that can play usually don’t talk about it.

“I respect the person before the musician. All of the cats that are greater than thou and all that B.S., there’s no time for that. It’s a very short life. You meet a few friends and a lot of schmucks in this business.”

I asked Joe about the legends about him that have filtered down through history. About his constant woodshedding between sets at the Hickory House and practicing at the poolside while the rest of the Brubeck Quartet went swimming.

“I’ll clarify that,” he laughed. “Between sets at the Hickory House, a lot of drummers would come in. All of the cats that were on the scene at the time knew I had a few things going, and would ask, ‘How do you do it?’ So I’d show them. And once at a pool for a publicity picture in Miami, I was sitting with a practice pad.”

When Morello left high school he had scholarships to study music, but having studied so extensively before college, he didn’t feel a necessity for his studies at Julliard when he first arrived in New York. He told me a story that clinched his departure from academia.

A teacher had Joe studying the xylophone and one day Joe told the teacher, “I can play the heck out of the xylophone, but I can’t sight read anything, so what’s the use?” The teacher suggested helping Morello with his snare drum technique. This too seemed pointless.

In the ensuing argument, Morello’s teacher brought out a gut snare and called in one of his top students to play The Bolero. When the pupil had finished, the teacher turned to Joe and said “So. You think you can play that?”

“I played better than the kid, and it frustrated the heck out of the teacher. I did it with one hand and played it in the center of the drum which is the dead spot. But, I had control of the snare drum so that was the end of that. I quit.”

As far as his brush technique, Morello said that he never really practiced with them. “I listened to guys like Jo Jones. He used to play nice brushes. At one point, there were so many drummers asking me how I played brushes that if I started thinking about it, it would mess me up.

“You can’t please everybody. Who cares? The world’s a big place. There’s room for everybody. Trying to please everybody is the secret of failure. If you’re playing a commercial gig, you’ve got to do the best for the leader. If someone says, ‘Why don’t you play like so and so?’ I’ll say, ‘Why don’t you get so and so?’

“It’s very important to get to know yourself. Your inner self. You have the power, the ability within you to do anything you want to. A lot of people don’t understand that, but it’s true. My whole thing is simplicity.”

Backtracking to the subject of teaching, Joe commented on his approach to teaching on a pad, snare, or the entire drum set.

“I’d rather do corrective work than take somebody from the beginning. When a student comes in, I like them to play for me to hear what they can do with their hands. I put them on the set to see where they’re at, and then I’ll give them a choice. So, we work half on the snare drum or practice pad for development and then apply it. You have to be able to apply what you’ve learned to the set.

“I haven’t gotten into using records for teaching. For a long time I’ve felt records were bad because you learn to follow, and a drummer should never follow anyone. A drummer should lead. The drummer who follows a band shouldn’t be playing drums.

“If you’re playing a big band, you’ve got twelve or fifteen cats who’ve got their own conception of how the drums should be played. You can’t play fifteen different ways.”

Morello also had some business advice to offer the musician. “When you’re young, get yourself some kind of insurance or retirement plan. Go into stocks if you know a little bit about it. Don’t speculate. Buy solid things and just leave it there. And all you do is collect the checks. That’s what musicians don’t think of. They think it’s going to last forever. I haven’t worked a day in my life outside of this since I was about sixteen.”

In recent years stories have circulated stating that Morello was somewhat of an embittered recluse. The reason he hadn’t been playing was because he had lost his chops.

“As far as my chops being gone, no. Not gone. I can’t keep a single stroke roll for ten minutes like I used to, but who cares? Where are you going to use that anyway? When I was teaching, practicing and playing every night of the week my endurance was up.

“The rumours don’t bother me. I’m playing better musically than ever. I don’t know what they’re talking about. Chops. What do they mean? What do they want me to do? If I woodshedded two hours a day, my endurance would be back in two weeks.

“What are they judging me by? Do I have to prove it again? In the past 2 or 3 years my eyes got worse. The doctors said, ‘Don’t work.’ That is why I didn’t work the last couple of years. They tell me it’s alright to go back to work and start playing again.

“When the group first broke up I just did clinics. I still do them but not as much. There are new cats coming up and naturally the drum companies are out to push their instruments. So let the others have a shot at it. God’s been good to me. Give someone else a chance. I can still play if I want to play.”