I was sorry to see of the recent passing of jazz drummer Joe Morello, who is probably most remembered for the years he spent as part of the enormously influential Dave Brubeck Quartet. Although saxophonist Paul Desmond and Brubeck himself got most of the attention, Morello — along with bassist Eugene Wright — helped create the sound that drew millions of new fans (including me) to modern jazz.
While growing up in Springfield, Massachusetts, Morello was a violin prodigy who was so skilled that before he’d even reached his teens he had twice soloed with the Boston Symphony. And yet, when he later met his idol, legendary violinist Jascha Heifetz, he decided he could never measure up — and he switched to drums. We’ll never know how things would have turned out if he’d stayed with the violin, but we do know that he became a jazz star.
By the time Morello joined the Dave Brubeck Quartet in the mid-1950s, he’d already spent some time working with solid jazz pros like Phil Woods and Art Pepper. But Brubeck’s combo was poised to start climbing toward stardom, and Morello helped fuel the rise with his solid backing of the group’s style of playing with unusual time signatures. By the time the quartet issued its iconic album — Time Out — in 1959, the stage was set. Although the album was intended as an experiment, it rocketed up the charts and its best-known track, “Take Five,” became a jukebox favorite all over America.
Morello spent more than a decade with the quartet and in later years would work with them often, but he also pursued his musical muse in other areas. He was a respected and honored performer, teacher, and leader of his own groups, although his eyesight — which had been impaired since birth — failed in later years. When he died recently in his New Jersey home he was 82, and is survived by his wife, Jean.