When it comes to technique, Joe Morello is in a class by himself.
I’ll never forget one night about three years ago when I went to Joe Morello’s home to work on the text for his book Master Studies. We were going over the section dealing with ostinatos, and Joe was playing one of the exercises: 8th notes with an accent pattern. “Once you get this happening with your right hand,” he explained, “you can play whatever you want against it with your left,” whereupon he began to play sevens with his left hand. I had been working with the ostinato section myself, and I was finding it a challenge to play anything with the left hand without losing the accent pattern in the right, so it was somewhat irritating to watch Morello playing sevens against the ostinato with no apparent strain. And so I said—somewhat sarcastically, I must confess— “Yeah, and then you could play triplets on the bass drum.” In all innocence Joe replied, “Sure, you could do that,” and began tapping his right foot in triplets along with what his hands were doing. And then, as if to add insult to injury, he said, “Of course, when you do stuff like this, you should keep the hi-hat going,” with which he proceeded to tap out 2 and 4 with his left foot.
I’m by no means the first person to have a run-in with Morello’s formidable technique. Jim Chapin likes to tell stories about Joe at the Hickory House in the ’50s. It seems that he would approach various big-name drummers and ask them to demonstrate certain techniques. After observing what the person did, Joe would ask, “Is this it?” and play it back twice as fast. When confronted with this story, Morello admits that it happened but offers an explanation. “I know it sounds like I was being a wise guy, but actually I was just naive. I came to New York in awe of all these drummers I used to read about, and I assumed that they knew a lot of things that I didn’t. When they would show me things, I thought that they were just playing them slow so that I could see what they were doing. I gradually came to realize that some of those people really didn’t have a lot of technique.”
Joe, however, was fascinated with technique, and to this day he has continued to study and develop it. But to dismiss Morello as a mere technician is to miss the point of his musicality. As his landmark recordings with the Dave Brubeck Quartet amply prove, Joe’s technique is merely the vehicle that is used to carry his ideas. Perhaps Joe’s mentor, the great George Lawrence Stone, expressed it best in a letter he wrote in 1959: “I consider him to be one of the finest and most talented executants I have ever heard. I am indeed proud of him. In addition to the more obvious attributes of speed and control, he has a most highly developed sense of rhythm and that feeling of (and for) jazz, without which all other endowments fail. In other words, to put it crudely, he possesses that uncanny sense of ‘putting the right sound in the right place at the right time.'”
RM: You have spent many years developing extraordinary technique, and people have asked you, “Where are you going to use this stuff?” What is your answer to that question?
JM: I suppose you don’t really need it. My feeling is that the technique is only a means to an end. It opens your mind more, you can express yourself more, and you can play more intricate things. But just for technique alone—just to see how fast you can play—that doesn’t make any sense. In other words, technique is only good if you can use it musically. It’s also useful for solos, so you can have the freedom to play what’s in your mind. When you’re playing on the drumset, you don’t say, “I’m going to play page 12 in the such-and- such book.” You just play from the top of your head, but you know that, if you’re going to go for something, nine times out of ten it will come out. The players who have limited facility don’t want to take chances because it won’t happen. I can see it from teaching drummers who have been playing for a long time. We’ll play fours together, and they’ll struggle to get something simple out. I’ll say, “Look, I know what you’re trying to do, but you blew it because you don’t know the instrument that well.” The more control you have of the instrument, the more confidence you will get, and the more you will be able to express your ideas. That’s basically it. Technique for just technique alone—forget it. If you can’t use it musically—if you’re just going to machine gun everyone to death—that’s not it.
RM: Obviously you’ve spent more time than most really looking into the subtleties of technique. Do you remember what it was that got you so interested in exploring technique to the extent that you explored it?
JM: Originally, I wanted to be a classical drummer— classical snare drummer and timpanist and the whole thing. This was my whole bit. Before that, I played the violin from when I was five years old until I was about 11 or 12. Then I heard Heifetz, and after that, I wasn’t happy with the way I played. But I always liked the drums, and I always could play those little corny things like any kid did with pots and pans. Then I studied with Joe Sefcik in Springfield—a vaudeville drummer. My father didn’t want me to study drums at all. He got sick of paying for violin lessons, so he said, “If you do any- thing, you’ll have to do it on your own.” So I used to go down to the vaudeville theater every week, see the movie, sit right in the front, and I got all Sefcik’s brush beats down. All that stuff came easy to me.
Meanwhile, I was listening to Gene Krupa. Sefcik told me about him, so I picked up on some of his things, caught him in person a few times, and I was impressed with that. I liked the big bands and that whole thing, so I started collecting records. I listened to Basie’s band with Jo Jones, and then one day I heard Tommy Dorsey with Buddy Rich. There was this blaze of triplets and this driving kind of thing that just knocked me out. I had never even heard of Buddy Rich. I started listening to more of the Tommy Dorsey things and researching that. That, I think, was an inspiration. I said, “That’s really the way I want to play.” I was only 15 or 16. So that was my main inspiration to see how far I could take it. I always felt that, if one person could achieve a facility like that, anybody could if he or she wanted to.
RM: I find it interesting that hearing people like Buddy Rich inspired you to go after technique. But when you searched it out, your teachers were not jazz drummers like Buddy Rich, but people like George Lawrence Stone and Billy Gladstone.
JM: That’s right—exactly. I’m glad you brought that up. See, when I went to Stone, I thought it was kind of fun just to bang around on the drumset, but I never really took it that seriously. I wanted to do all the classical things with Stone. We were working on that, and then I wanted to go on timpani and xylophone. He said no. It was like the rude awakening. He said, “Joe, you don’t see well enough. When you play timpani or mallets, the music is too far away. You also have to watch the guy with the stick. Look, Krupa studied with me. He’s innovative. You’ve got that same thing. Why don’t you try that route? “It really kind of hurt my feelings, because I wanted to be up there with the tuxedo and the long tails playing very serious music.
RM: You could have joined the Modern Jazz Quartet.
JM: [laughs] Yeah, but I thought classical music was where it was at. So I went along with Stone’s idea, and I started thinking along those lines. That was about the time that I heard Rich and Krupa; I listened to Krupa before then, but I figured I’d never really be able to do that. I listened to Buddy for his powerhouse kind of playing with the Dorsey band. Then I started listening to people like Sidney Catlett, J. C. Heard, and then, of course, Max Roach and Kenny Clarke. Max influenced me a lot, because he used the technique in a linear way, rather than strictly a speed kind of thing. He played little melodic phrases, and I try to incorporate that in my playing, whether it’s obvious or not. I like to do little speed things at the end, but I’ve got to do the playing first. Roy Haynes, too, influenced me a lot. He’s probably one of the most creative drummers I’ve ever heard. I think he’s fantastic.
So these are basically my roots, and the things I started listening to and developing. I think I’ve taken a little bit here and a little bit there, and put it together in my own way like everyone does. When I was a kid, I used to do great imitations of solos like the ones Gene did. Then we had a group in Springfield in my formative years. It was Sal Salvadore, Phil Woods, Hal Sera on piano, and Chuck Andrus on bass. We would have jam sessions and imitate everybody. Phil would play all the Bird licks, and I would play all the Max Roach things. It was Sal and Phil who really pushed me to go to New York. I had a rough time when I first went there, but a couple of drummers like Mousey Alexander and Don Lamond were very encouraging to me.
RM: During the era you came up in, most of the technique-oriented drummers, like Rich and Krupa, were associated with big bands. Why did you choose to go the small-group route?
JM: When I came to New York City, basically big bands were on the way out. Before I went with Marian McPartland, I was playing with Johnny Smith’s group and I got the call to do the Stan Kenton thing, because Stan Levey had to go back to Philadelphia for some operation—his appendix or whatever. So I went to speak with Stan, and he said, “You’ve got the job.” I said, “You never heard me play.” He said, “I’ve heard enough people talking about you. I know you can do it. Shelly [Manne] talked about you.” So I went with the band for about three-and-a-half weeks. I enjoyed it. By the first three or four days, I had the whole book down. I loved it. I could really play out. That was a loud band.
Anyway, after that, Marian McPartland hired me, and I stayed with her for three years. Then Bellson came in to see me at the Hickory House. He was leaving Dorsey to go out with Pearl Bailey. He said, “Why don’t you audition for the band? Tommy’s been through about 50 drummers, and none of them cut it.” They were playing bebop drums with a big band, which didn’t make it. Dorsey wanted someone who could play the solid bass drum and all that. Of course, I grew up listening to that band; I knew most of his tunes. So I went down to the Cafe Rouge, sat in with the band, and Tommy liked it. “It was great. You’ve got the job.” They were doing summer replacement for the Jackie Gleason show. I told him that I had a little difficulty reading. He said, “Don’t worry, as long as you can see me out front,” which I could. But the manager was playing games, so that thing didn’t go through because of the financial thing. The manager was really trying to do a number on me, but Tommy didn’t know that.
Then the Goodman thing came up. I was still with Marian. Benny Goodman wanted to get a band together, and he was going to do a tour of Europe or something. So Hank Jones called me and said, “Why don’t you audition with the band?” They were auditioning guys like Gus Johnson, who had just left Basie’s band. I figured, “Man, if they don’t like him, what are they going to think of me?” So I went down and played with Benny. It was a typical Benny Goodman rehearsal—just Hank Jones and I, with just a snare drum, a pair of brushes, and a cymbal. So in comes Benny with a little hat on and a clarinet. He didn’t say a word—the usual. That’s a whole book in itself talking about Benny. So he wanted me to go with the band, but he was rehearsing at 9:00 in the morning, and I was working at the Hickory House until 4:00 A.M. and wouldn’t get home until 4:30. I made a few rehearsals, but we were playing these old charts, and I told Benny, “I don’t think I sound good with this band.” His answer was, “It’s not you, kid. We can keep time. The band can’t. “So he’d stop and rehearse the saxes and trumpets without a rhythm section. Anyway, that didn’t work out.
So then around that same time, I got a call from Brubeck. All at once everything was coming down—all these bands. He was working over at Birdland, and he wanted to talk to me. We met at the Park Sheraton Hotel. He started telling me that he wanted to make changes. He and Paul Desmond had been coming into the Hickory House and seeing me play. He liked my brushwork, so he offered me a situation. At first I said, “Well, I really don’t know if I’d sound good with your group, because the drummer you have just stays in the background. The spotlight is on you and Paul, and the drummer and bass player hardly ever get mentioned. I never heard a four-bar break from the guy.” That was Joe Dodge—a nice man. He said, “No, I’ll give you all the freedom you want. I’ll feature you in the group.” This was around July. He said, “Can you join the group in October?” I said, “I guess so.” He said, “When I get back, I’ll send you a telegram, and then you send me a telegram of confirmation.” So I did.
Meanwhile, at the end of August I got a call from the Tommy Dorsey office. The manager said, “Okay, come down and get your uniform. Tommy went through another 20 drummers. You’ve got the job.” I said, “I’m going with Brubeck.” He said, “You don’t want to play Birdland all your life, do you? Look what we did for Buddy Rich. Look what we did for Louie Bellson.” I said, “You didn’t do anything for them. They just added to the band,” which I think was true. It was typical manager talk.
So that’s how I ended up with Dave Brubeck. When I first joined, we didn’t rehearse. I flew out to Chicago and did a TV show. He sent me a couple of records. He said, “Memorize a few of these tunes.” I had one of these little, tricky polyrhythmic things where they’d go into three, then four, then two and all that, which was very simple for me, because I used to do that in Springfield, Mass. He wanted to sign a contract after the first couple of dates. I said, “No. Why don’t we wait? After the three-month tour, maybe we’ll hate each other.” [laughs] It worked out good, and I stayed for 12 1/2 years.
So that’s how I got with the small group thing, because I would have loved to have played big bands. You could really hit the drums more and just lay it down with all the brass. I loved all that. I would have learned a lot, I’m sure. But I won’t say that I got stuck with the small groups. On the contrary, I would say it was great, because Tommy died, and Benny Goodman just would go out periodically. If he got sick or had a hangnail, he would chuck the whole band, go back to his place in Connecticut, and go fishing or something. Here I was making very good money at the Hickory House for those days, and I was recording for different people during the day. I was happy as a lark. I didn’t want to go on the road for 400 bucks a week. I was burning in town. I was already doing some teaching, if you can believe that. I think I was born with drummers coming up with the “I want to study with you” routine. I can never understand that, because I’m basically a performer, not a teacher, although some people think I am. It’s nice to teach. It’s rewarding to see kids start to bloom out and open their minds a little bit. So that’s the long-winded story about how I ended up with the small groups.
They both have advantages. With the small group, naturally you have more freedom. With a big band, you’re more locked into the chart, obviously. Every night you’re going to play—not the same fill, but the same kicks are coming, where you lead the band in and so on. But with a small group, there’s much more flexibility, because there’s more of an interplay. A big band is more like driving a stagecoach, holding the horses together. Your time feeling has to be strong. The small group is much more interplay and it’s looser. You can use your dynamics more. They both have their advantages, but I think that, if you know the drums well enough, you should be able to play both ways—both styles.
RM: Certainly, the Brubeck group gave you more opportunities than most bands—for one thing, the whole time-signature thing Brubeck was into.
JM: Yeah, he wrote a couple of little drum things. He treated me well. Of course, Paul Desmond didn’t really appreciate it at the time. We opened up at the Blue Note after we did that TV show. We did a couple of one-nighters. I’ll never forget it. I’d do a little drum solo, and the people would stand up and clap—the whole thing. The second night, after the drum solo, Paul stomped off the stage and went up to the dressing room. Dave broke the set, went up and said, “What’s the matter?” Paul said, “Either he goes or I go.” So Dave said, “He’s not going. This is what I wanted.” Paul and I talked about this while he was alive, so we hashed the whole thing out. It was no big deal, but at the time it was somewhat of a shock, because he was the star of the group. So all of a sudden, here’s this kid with glasses getting standing ovations, and that was kind of hard for him to take. But he stayed right on through, and we actually became very close friends. During the last seven or eight years of the group, we always hung out together, but at first it was hard for him to share the spotlight with someone else.
RM: You and Paul went to see the movie Psycho together, right?
JM: [laughs] That was funny. At the time, we had a bass player named Norman Bates. He had great intonation and played beautiful lines. Anyway, we were on the road somewhere, and Paul said, “Did you see the movie Psycho!” I said no. He had seen it in some other town, so he said, “I’m going to take you.” I said, “I don’t want to go see it. What’s so…?” He had this big smile. He said, “You’ve got to come.” I said, “I don’t really feel like it. I’ll stay here and practice or relax.” He said, “You’ve got to come see it. “This guy dragged me to the movie. We got in and the theater was really quiet, except for Paul and I going, “Hah, hah, hah, hah, hah!” The people thought we were nuts. Norman Bates—and here Norman was in the group. So we got back, and I said, “Norman, have you seen Psycho!” We both got on his case. Norman Bates, man. I’ll never forget that.
RM: Probably your most famous solo is from “Take Five,” which you recorded with Brubeck. One of the things I like about that solo is that the rest of the band continues to play behind you, so that the solo sounds like part of the same tune. A lot of times, it seems that the tune stops, the drummer does a technique demonstration, and then the tune starts up again.
JM: When people use the word “technique,” they usually mean “speed.” But there was a solo that had very little speed involved. It was more space, and playing over the barline. It was conspicuous by being so different. And they kept the vamp going behind me. I do that a lot when I play; I’ll have the bass player walk a line behind me, and I’ll try to keep the tune in my mind and play around it.
I know what you mean about the tune stopping, the drummer playing something totally unrelated, and then they come back in. I don’t like that too much. “Take Five” was a different thing. It was never intended to be a hit. It was just a throwaway. Paul wrote it for me because I wanted some- thing in five, and we needed something to end the concerts with. Drum solos were good to end with because, like Paul said, “What are you going to do after a drum solo, shoot off a cannon?” So “Take Five” was just a little thing for me to do at the end, and suddenly it took off. We made a short version for a 45, and the thing sold eight million copies. People still ask for it whenever I play.
RM: After all this time, what’s your perspective on the Brubeck years? What do you think you accomplished? Do you feel that the group earned a place in history?
JM: Oh there’s no question. I think I joined it just at the time it was going to make it. A lot of people feel that I contributed to part of its success then, and I guess maybe I did to a degree. Now I listen to the little things we used to do and they sound so simple, but not too many people were doing that kind of thing back then. It had some real good moments, and of course, it took me around the world four times. It gave me that exposure. In those days, we played to between 3,000 and 5,000 people a night—100,000 a month maybe, which is good exposure—in the various concert halls and all the festivals and so on and so forth. Musically, at times, it was very rewarding, and other times, it was a bit tense, because Dave is not the easiest guy to play with. His time sense is not that strong. Dave was noted for taking a classical approach to jazz. He was always trying to merge the classical aspect and jazz. He’d get off on either these ultra-Chopinistic things or real pounding heavy chords. Dave could swing real good if there was nobody around and you were just sitting down and playing a tune. You’d get a nice feel, but as soon as the curtain would go up, he’d get extremely nervous. He’d have a tendency to really beat his foot a lot and he’d accelerate and accelerate. It was very hard. A lot of drummers couldn’t play with him. He’d speed up and they’d speed up. It was the same with the bass player, because Norman would follow Dave rather than the drummer. At times when I first joined, I thought it was me. The thing would start, and by the time we got to the end of the tune, it was a lot faster. So I let it go the first time. The second time, I let it go again, but the third time, I leaned in on the cymbal and just kept the bass drum going. Finally, during the break, I said, “Hey man, something’s wrong here. You better watch.” I felt like I was all by myself. When [bassist] Gene Wright came on the band, that was a good move because Gene listened with me. We just locked in. If Dave started going somewhere, he’d have to come back, because he’d be out there by himself. The other rhythm sections would go with him, which is not the answer. Not that it has to be metronomic, but you don’t take a medium tempo and end up twice as fast. However, I’d rather see somebody rush than slow down. At least that shows life. When you start slowing down, it’s death.
It had some good moments. All in all it was great. We played the White House a couple of times. We played for the Shah of Iraq. In fact, they had a coup a week after, and they found the king hanging on a post. I like to think it wasn’t our music that caused it.
RM: It was while you were with Brubeck that you “tricked” Billy Gladstone into teaching you. Do you want to tell that story?
JM: Sure. See when I was working with Marian’s group in New York, I’d caught Gladstone once or twice at Radio City Music Hall. I liked the sound, and the way the drums came out was so beautiful. He was a magnificent drummer—a genius. So then he left Radio City and was living in Newark on 7th Street. I was living in Newark at the time on Grove Street. Boy, I contacted him right away, and at first, he didn’t want to teach. Finally, he said, “Come on over.” So I took a couple of lessons with him. Then I went out of town, came back, and took a couple more lessons with him. I must have taken maybe 10 or 12 lessons with him. I really tried to observe everything he taught me. I really hung onto every word.
Then I left and went to California with Dave. San Francisco was our home base. We’d go out for three months, come back, spend four or five weeks there, and work the Blackhawk a couple of nights a week. So I came back from this tour of the Pacific Northwest and My Fair Lady was in town. I knew that Billy went out with the road show of My Fair Lady with the original cast—Rex Harrison and all those people—so I ran down to the opera house but the guy wouldn’t let me in backstage. I felt like a real groupie. “I want to see….” “No, you can’t come in, kid.” So I waited. Finally, Billy came out. “What are you doing?”—blah, blah, blah. I walked him back to his hotel, and he said, “I’ll get you into the pit. You can come down and sit right next to me.” So the next night I sat this far from him and watched him do the whole show. After the show, I invited him up to my place for coffee. I said, “I really want to study with you. I’ll pay you a hundred dollars a week. I really want to learn that technique.” He said, “Why do you want to learn it?” And I said, “Because of the sound that you’re getting.” The control—he could play single strokes as fast as anybody I’ve ever seen. It was like a blur. It looked effortless. I said, “I want that kind of control, because I can use it.” He kept saying, “What you do is fine.
You don’t need to study with me.” So I had a little practice pad on a stand. I picked up the sticks and started playing real stiffly. He said, “No, no. That’s not it.” He grabbed the sticks and started to demonstrate his stroke. Then he looked up, and I was just breaking up. He said, “You really want it bad.”
So every night, he’d come up and work with me, and we’d talk. He said I was one of the few people who understood his technique. I must have studied with him every night, and the guy wouldn’t ever take a cent for it. He said, “No, I just want you to have it.”
RM: Can you describe the key things you got from Gladstone? What was his technique about?
JM: It’s difficult to describe in words. Billy never wrote a drum book because he said that it was easier to demonstrate than to talk about. It was a highly individualized style. His whole thing was relaxation, and that the sticks do half of the work for you. It’s hard to explain. I could say that it involves touch—how to get a sound out of a drum. The thing I wanted from him was the touch, the sound, the relaxation, and the motion. Everything was natural body movement.
I’ll tell you what the first lesson was like. He picked up the stick, and his hand was in a totally natural position. In other words, when your hand is relaxed, your thumb isn’t squeezing against your first finger, and your wrist isn’t at some funny angle. Billy didn’t really go into all of this, but I had gotten the same thing from Stone. The stick just rests in the hand in a very natural, relaxed position. So Billy’s first lesson consisted of making a stroke with the right hand.
RM: Here’s a guy with phenomenal technique, and I suppose that you could play pretty well, too, at this point. Yet instead of showing you a bunch of hot licks, he just wanted to hear one note with a good tone.
JM: Yep. He demonstrated a slow, relaxed, flowing kind of movement, and you could hear the wood ring when he struck the pad. That was the first lesson— getting the ring of the wood. The average person chokes the stick, and that comes through on the drum.
I had such luck with Larry Stone and Billy, because they were real good teachers—not only good teachers, but they could play, you know. They weren’t jazz drummers; they didn’t profess to be. But Billy had technique that wouldn’t quit. There’s one thing that I show the kids when they think they have something together. I’ll say, “Play a four-stroke-ruff paradiddle for me.” It was in the old Krupa book years ago, and Billy could play that thing at 120. That seems impossible; how are you going to get four notes in there at that one point? But he did. At first I just thought that he was buzzing the stick, but he played it for me on two different surfaces. One time I was working on that just to challenge myself—not that I’d ever use it. I had that up to l15, I guess. He had all kinds of facilities. That’s basically it. When I do my teaching now, I try to pass on these old techniques.
Again, you can have all the technique in the world, and if you don’t use it musically, it doesn’t make sense. You should learn as much as you can about the instrument, and then go out and play at every opportunity. Even if it’s in a polka band, you can make a polka swing. It’s all music. That’s what I really mean about technique being one thing, but you have to be able to use it. That’s what makes someone like Buddy so phenomenal. He has the facility, and still he can play with taste. He can play with a trio if he wants to. I think he prefers to play big band; that’s where his forte is. But he can play as soft as you want. There’s a guy who’s got the facility to do his little solo things. No one can do his things the way he does, but that’s him. That’s his personality.
Also, find the best teacher that you can, and be sure that the teacher can do what you want to learn. There are so many teachers out there who are unqualified. Just going through a million books will not help you. The objective of a good teacher is to bring out the creativity of the pupil. Some teachers insist that a student play a certain style. Let the students be themselves, and develop their talent.
There are so many people teaching out there who have never played. How can you show somebody something if you can’t do it? To me, there’s nothing worse than “armchair” jazz drummers who haven’t played a gig in 40 years, have 70 students, and are professing something that they have no idea about. They’ve never been on the road, never been in a recording studio, and never been part of a genuine musical situation. There are so many jive teachers out there.
And this thing about going through 75 books—I think it’s a shame that some teachers put students through that. I’ve had students who have studied with other teachers, have come in with 40 or 50 books, and couldn’t play one of them accurately. They had no idea about keeping time, no idea about phrasing . . .This is a shame. I hate to imagine how many people out there are going through this kind of thing. I just want to tell people to beware of those kinds of teachers. If you want to play, go to someone who can do it.
RM: A few minutes ago, you said that you consider yourself a player and not a teacher. I think there are an awful lot of people who do consider you a teacher. What’s your philosophy about teaching? What do you want to give students? What should they be coming to you for, and what shouldn’t they be coming to you for?
JM: Well I think a teacher, if you’re going to use the term, should give them knowledge of the instrument. Once they have that, they can use it the way they want to use it. My training was basically classical snare drum technique, but I used it the way I wanted to. So I try to show people how to develop a facility on the instrument. Some of them want to learn how to play jazz, and I have some expertise in that, so I can show them some things. But if they want to learn rock, I tell them to go to a rock drummer. When Danny Gottlieb was in high school, he was playing some Thad Jones/Mel Lewis charts in the school jazz band, and he wanted to know how to approach that. So I sent him to Mel.
There’s only so much you can show someone in a studio. I can’t be a band. I can intellectualize on how to swing, and I can talk about it until I’m blue in the face, but you’ve got to hear it and you’ve got to experience it. That’s why I constantly say to all the students, “Get some records. Listen to the type of music that you like to play.” But basically, I don’t think you should go into a big, deep-thinking trip. If you can teach kids how to play, open their minds up to music . . . . First teach them how to hit the drum. You can show them the basic rudiments. I think they are very important. You don’t have to teach all rudiments. There’s more to it than just rudiments. “Rudiment” means nothing but “fundamental.” There are only three basic rudiments: a single-stroke roll, a double-stroke roll, and a flam. A paradiddle is nothing but two singles and a double. So basically, it’s to show them how to play, introduce them to various styles of music, play the different styles, listen to records, and learn to analyze what style their playing is. I think that’s really all that a teacher could do.
RM: After that, the student has to show some initiative. For example, when you studied with Stone, you would take the exercises that he gave you and, after learning to play them as written, you would then take them further.
JM: Right. When I was studying with him, I’d be doing the first three pages of Stick Control, for example, and after I learned to play the sticking patterns, I’d start throwing in accents in various places.
RM: So you were developing your creativity at the same time as you were first learning technique.
JM: Yeah, because it was boring to just do the same thing. I would always check these things with him to make sure I wasn’t doing something wrong, but he always seemed to like what I did. I tell my students, “Be free with these things. Create your own things.” The exercises in Master Studies are not the end of the book.
RM: Right. Throughout the book, you give hints as to how the exercises can be used in different ways, and you keep encouraging the readers to use their own creativity and imaginations.
JM: That’s what I really want to get across. I’ve got a couple of students who are beautiful “basement players.” One guy has incredible technique, but the kid won’t go out of his house to play. Great chops, but I can’t get him to go out and sit in, or even hear music.
RM: But on a more positive note, I heard Danny Gottlieb with the Pat Metheny Group for about two years before I found out that he was your student, so there’s someone who certainly developed his own creativity. Even now, when I listen to him play, I don’t especially hear Joe Morello in there.
JM: Now, that is a beautiful remark. Danny studied with me when he was in high school, then he went away to Miami, and then he came back and studied with me again. After all the time Danny has spent with me, he has a pretty good concept of my methods. So it’s really a compliment to me that he doesn’t sound anything like me. I never said to Danny, “Play it this way.” Oh sure, I showed him a few moves on the drums here and there, but I always left how he used the stuff up to him. “Play you, man; don’t play me.”
RM: Are there any common problems that students seem to have—common misconceptions?
JM: What I see a lot in the younger players who are coming up is that they’re more interested—especially the rock kids—in big drumkits, and they miss the idea of keeping time. That’s one thing I stress all the time—always keeping the tempo steady. That’s what it’s all about. They seem to be interested in the flash part of it, but not the musical part of it. That’s the hardest thing to get over. They’re fascinated with all the little nuances and cymbal techniques and all that, but lack keeping time.
Another thing is that I get a lot of students who have studied with other teachers, and they come in very, very tight. This one particular approach that’s being taught is this very tense fulcrum—squeezing the sticks and developing this muscle between the thumb and first finger. Drummers who have studied this for three or four years are so tight that they’re almost crippled. One guy had developed tendinitis and had to have an operation on his left hand. That doesn’t make any sense. So that’s another problem.
RM: Back when you were with Brubeck, when you had time off, you used to do a lot of clinic tours. I know that a lot of drummers from England have mentioned you in interviews. One of their earliest memories was going to a Joe Morello clinic.
JM: That’s interesting. We played over there with Dave—sometimes twice a year. There were a lot of drum fans around there. I used to let them all in the dressing room. I really feel that, if the people like what I do that much, I owe them some time. I can’t chase people away if they’re sincere. But the clinics for the Ludwig people—years ago, Bill Ludwig, Jr., asked me “Do you want to do a drum clinic?” I said in my joking way, “What’s a drum clinic? A hospital for sick drummers? What the hell does that mean?” Anyway, it got so that I was their top clinician for a while. I think I did more clinics for them than all their clinicians put together for a long time. I’m not doing as many now as I used to, because they’re using rock ‘n’ roll drummers now and I can’t blame them. That’s what’s selling the drums.
I’ve done a lot of clinics where someone will say, “Can you show me how Elvin Jones plays?” And I’ll say, “Do I look like Elvin Jones? I can imitate his style, but I can’t play like him any more than he can play like me.” See, playing is an individual thing, and boy, I’ll tell you, I respect anyone who can play. Anyone who has a reputation has earned it. I’m sure there are people who disagree with my playing, and there are some who think I’m the greatest thing that ever happened. That’s what’s so great about an art form. It would be awfully boring if everyone played the same. If everyone sounded like me, or like Elvin, or like Max Roach—what a drag. You would only have to own one record. It’s individual. You can’t like everybody. I certainly don’t like every drummer I hear. I appreciate if someone has earned any kind of reputation, but I prefer certain people over others.
RM: I would go so far as to say that one of our basic rights is to like or dislike whomever we want, no matter what anyone else thinks.
JM: Of course, man. People go around saying, “This cat can’t play like . . .” Back when I used to travel around, every town had a Joe Morello—someone who could play my style better than I could. There were people who could play just like Max or like Buddy. That’s a drag. Buddy has enough clones around.
RM: And I know for a fact that Buddy has absolutely no respect for his imitators. On
the contrary, he recently praised Mel Lewis by saying that Mel doesn’t sound like anyone else.
JM: Yeah, and I respect that. I enjoy hearing Mel do what he does. But then again, wouldn’t it be a drag if everyone played like Mel? Elvin doesn’t sound like anyone else. Elvin’s got that primitive thing. That’s his personality, and God bless him. Philly Joe was another great drummer, and he didn’t sound like Max or Elvin. Roy Haynes never got the recognition he deserved, but he has his own thing.
RM: Are there any younger drummers that appeal to you?
JM: Sure. Carl Palmer is good. Neil Peart seems to know what he’s doing. Bruford is a good player. Peter Erskine is an excellent drummer. I think Simon Phillips does a magnificent job on his bass drums. Of course, for every Simon Phillips there are 500 others.
RM: Wasn’t that always true? Weren’t there hundreds of drummers playing bebop besides Max, Philly Joe, Kenny Clarke, and those guys?
JM: Yeah, but the thing about those hundreds of drummers was that they were imitators. Max created his own thing. Roy created his own thing. They took things from other drummers, but they used those things to create their own styles. I’ve taken from Gene Krupa, Jo Jones, Buddy, and Max, but I don’t play like any one of them. So the point is that you can’t like everybody, but you have to respect what they do.
I’ve heard people say, “Well, this cat doesn’t swing,” or “This drummer swings more than that one.” Again, I think “swing” and “feel” are individual things. There is not just one way to swing. Shelly Manne had a beautiful feel. That comes from inside. Max has swing; Roy has it; Buddy has his own way. It’s a feeling from inside that you project through the drums.
I don’t have the end-all and know-all of the drums. For me, it’s ever unfolding. There’s a lot out there that I don’t know, but I’m trying to do the best I can. The main thing is to be original. Stone used to say, “The secret to failure is to try to please everybody.” You can’t. I went through a period where I tried, and I used to get really upset. After a while, you realize that you can’t please everyone. Another of Stone’s little axioms was, “The secret to success is an unbeaten fool.” I asked him what that meant, and he said, “It means you’re too dumb to quit.” [laughs] You’ll be criticized and put down, but you keep coming back and trying again.