Joe Morello: One of jazz's most celebrated drummers, who made 60 albums with Dave Brubeck

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The Independent Online

The Dave Brubeck Quartet of the middle 1950s was, internationally, the most popular small jazz group. Its drummer, Joe Morello, toured the world with the band for more than 12 years and became a happy combination of scintillating showman and accomplished technician. So he pleased both the punters who loved spectacular drum solos and the discerning musicians who could see the way that he held together and lifted the Quartet's music.

Initially the saxophonist andcomposer Paul Desmond had encouraged Brubeck to take Morello intothe Quartet.

"Paul told me we should hire Joe Morello," Brubeck said. "He said Morello was a fantastic drummer who always played softly with brushes."

Morello recalled: "I'd heard Brubeck's band at Birdland. The spotlight was on him and Paul. The bass player and the drummer were out to lunch in the background somewhere. I told Brubeck that I wanted to play, wanted to improve myself. He said, 'Well, I'll feature you.'"

However, once Brubeck complied, Desmond turned against the drummer almost instantly and threatened to leave the band if Morello wasn't replaced. Morello's first job with Brubeck was a week at the Blue Note club in New York. On the first night Brubeck let the drummer take a solo, for which he was immediately given a standing ovation by the audience. Desmond left the stand. When Brubeck went to find him Desmond gave him an ultimatum.

"Morello goes or I go."

"Well, he's not going," Brubeck told him.

Desmond, one of the most delicate soloists in jazz, wanted a drummer who simply kept time and was unobtrusive. Morello had an idea for a more expansive role for himself. After travelling on tour with the band journalist Robert Rice wrote in The New Yorker: "Bloody war was likely to rage whenever the Quartet played, with Brubeck doing his best to mediate between Morello on the one hand and the bassist Norman Bates and Desmond on the other. Morello would play some passage that Desmond considered to be in abominable taste, and Desmond would express his feelings by blowing a strident parody of it on the horn – and then become doubly incensed when the audience, as often happened, cheered the horn passage.

"On one occasion, in what he now sees as a fairly infantile gesture of defiance, Morello took a drum solo at such an exaggeratedly fast tempo that Bates had to play in half time, Desmond simply walked off the stage and even Brubeck's neck got red with fury. At the end of that concert Desmond strode over to Morello and said 'All right. I'll take a full-page ad in Down Beat saying that I can't play fast. Will that satisfy you?', and he strode way again."

Despite the apparent impasse,over the months Morello and Desmond first reached a compromise andthen built a magnificent partnership which was perhaps epitomised when the Quartet first recorded Desmond's composition "Take Five" and Morello played a brilliant drum solo whilekeeping up the demanding and eccentric 5/4 time signature throughout.He and Desmond became inseparable and fielded questions like, "How many of you are there in the Quartet?"When they arrived at a countryfair where they were due to play in the open, the man on the gate stuck his head into their car and said, "Where's the piano?"

"From then on we knew which way the hole sloped," said Brubeck.

When the bassist Gene Wright replaced Bates late in 1957 the classic Brubeck group had come together. "Right away Joe and I were as one," Wright remembered. "It was like Jo Jones and Walter Page with Count Basie. Joe Morello and I locked up immediately. Joe's out of New York and he had that thing – Ben Webster and all those guys loved him because he had that little extra thing you need."

Morello had poor sight from birth and in his later years became blind. When this happened he continued to work and teach until his death.

Of French extraction, he'd been taught the violin as a child. When he was 15 he met the violinist Jascha Heifetz and it was brought home to him that he could never match Heifetz's playing, so he switched to drums. He became inseparably friendly with a young local guitarist, Sal Salvador, and with an alto saxphone player, Phil Woods, both to remain his lifelong friends and, like Morello himself, to achieve international fame.

Morello moved to New York in 1952, where he played with many big names including Art Pepper, Jay McShann, the guitarist Johnny Smith, and, for a short time, Stan Kenton. He joined the trio led by the English pianist Marian McPartland in 1953. McPartland had been resident at New York's Hickory House for some years. She recalled the night she first met Morello and asked him to sit in with her.

"I really don't remember what the tune was, and it isn't too important," she said, "because in a matter of seconds everyone in the room realised 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. His technique was certainly as great (though differently applied) as that of Buddy Rich."

At the end of his time with McPartland, Morello was fought over by Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey, who both wanted him in their bands, but he chose to join Brubeck instead. He appeared on more than 120 albums, 60 of them with Brubeck's Quartet.

After leaving Brubeck he led his own groups in New York and took up teaching. He toured as a drum instructor for the Ludwig Company and in the '90s for DW Drums. He wrote for drumming magazines and published instructional books including New Directions in Rhythm (1963) and Rudimental Jazz: a Modern Application of the Rudiments to the Drum Outfit (1967). Some of his solos were transcribed for the book Off the Record: a Collection of Famous Drum Solos by Marvin Dahlgren.

Joseph A Morello, drummer, bandleader and teacher: born Springfield, Massachusetts 17 July 1928; married 1954; died New Jersey 12 March 2011.