Joe Morello, drummer with Brubeck quartet, brought new rhythms to jazz, dies at 82

By Matt Schudel
Wednesday, March 16, 2011; 12:18 AM

Joe Morello, 82, who brought a dazzling rhythmic inventiveness to jazz drumming during his 12 years with Dave Brubeck, died March 12 at a hospital in Elizabeth, N.J. The cause of death was not disclosed.

Mr. Morello provided much of the energy that helped make the Dave Brubeck Quartet the most popular jazz group of the 1950s and 1960s. He developed the innovative rhythmic figure underlying the group's signature tune, "Take Five," which has remained one of the most memorable compositions in jazz since it was recorded in 1959.

The catchy tune grew from a five-beat pattern that Mr. Morello casually played backstage. Brubeck's alto saxophonist, Paul Desmond, wrote a two-part melody over the rhythm, Brubeck stitched the pieces together, and "Take Five" was a surprise hit that sold more than a million copies.

With an effortless technique derived from early training in classical music, Mr. Morello was considered a model drummer who could quietly support other musicians in the group, then burst out with percussion solos of breathtaking virtuosity.

He joined Brubeck's group in 1956 after working for two years with pianist Marian McPartland in New York. The rhythm section of Mr. Morello and bassist Eugene Wright was one of the most admired units in jazz until the quartet broke up in late 1967. Mr. Morello played on more than 60 recordings with Brubeck.

"Morello's polished virtuosity and marked creativity immediately made a major contribution to the quartet," critic and historian Ted Gioia wrote in his 1992 book, "West Coast Jazz."

"The group's high degree of visibility, its later experimentation with odd time signatures, its emphasis on daring improvisation - all these factors helped launch Morello to a position of preeminence in the world of jazz drumming."

During Brubeck's State Department-sponsored tour of 1958, Mr. Morello absorbed exotic rhythms and drumming patterns he heard in Eastern Europe, India and the Middle East. When the musicians returned to the United States, they applied new techniques in a series of albums that introduced different rhythmic ideas to jazz.

Previously, jazz tunes were mostly written in standard 4/4 time, or occasionally in 3/4 waltz time. With Mr. Morello in the drum chair, Brubeck broadened the rhythmic horizons of jazz to include a 9/8 pattern heard on the streets of Istanbul ("Blue Rondo a la Turk") as well as the 5/4 time signature of "Take Five."

When both tunes appeared on "Time Out," Brubeck and Mr. Morello showed that jazz could have the complexity of classical music yet retain a lithe, dancelike swing. Mr. Morello sometimes tapped the drums with his fingers to imitate the sound of the Indian tabla, and his solo on "Take Five" was copied by generations of drummers.

"Joe was a pioneer in odd time signatures and a vital part of the 'Time' series the Quartet made at Columbia Records," Brubeck said in a statement. "Drummers worldwide remember Joe as one of the greatest drummers we have known."

Joseph A. Morello was born July 17, 1928, in Springfield, Mass. Because of poor eyesight from birth, he spent much of his childhood indoors.

He became a violin prodigy. According to his Web site, he appeared as a soloist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra when he was 9. But after concluding that he would never be as good as Jascha Heifetz on violin, Mr. Morello turned to the drums at 15.

He worked with saxophonist Phil Woods and bandleader Stan Kenton and rejected offers from Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey before joining Brubeck in 1956.

His complex drumming patterns didn't sit well with Brubeck's saxophonist, Desmond, who angrily said, "Either he goes or I go." Much to Brubeck's relief, both Desmond and Mr. Morello stayed in the group and eventually became close friends.

After the quartet disbanded in 1967, Mr. Morello wrote books on drumming and gave lessons from his home in Irvington, N.J. Two of his better-known students were Danny Gottlieb, who often works with guitarist Pat Metheny, and Max Weinberg, the drummer for Bruce Springsteen and Conan O'Brien's late-night talk show.

After more than 30 operations to preserve his vision, Mr. Morello lost his sight completely in the 1970s. Yet he continued to perform, including occasional reunions with Brubeck, until after his 80th birthday.

His lone survivor is his wife, Jean Morello.

When McPartland met him in the early 1950s, she told Gioia for "West Coast Jazz," he was wearing thick glasses and "looked less like a drummer than a student of nuclear physics."

Then he began to play. "In a matter of seconds, everyone in the room realized that the guy with the diffident air was a phenomenal drummer. Everyone listened. His precise blending of touch, taste, and an almost unbelievable technique were a joy to listen to."

© 2011 The Washington Post Company