My middle son soon turns twelve and has been playing trombone for almost two years. I’m surprised. I thought the horn would go the way of coin collecting and origami. Instead, he’s turned into an incipient jazz snob – Count Basie and Dave Brubeck. Actually, less Brubeck than the other members of his best-known quartet – alto saxophonist Paul Desmond (composer of “Take Five”), bass player Eugene Wright and drummer Joe Morello – especially Morello.
Michael contemplates a shift from trombone to drums. My boss’ husband, a gifted guitarist, let him flail away for a few hours on his vintage set of Pearl drums and gave him a set of sticks. Until we get him his own drum kit for his birthday this summer he practices paradiddles on the coffee table and almost any other surface that makes a noise when struck. He’s transferred my Brubeck CDs to his mp3 player and listens for hours.
Whitney Balliett, longtime jazz writer for The New Yorker, was a hobbyist drummer who idolized Big Sid Catlett. Not long after Morello left Marian McPartland’s group and joined Brubeck in 1956, Balliett wrote (Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz 1954-2000):
“On Thursday evening, Joe Morello, the drummer of the Dave Brubeck Quartet, displayed—in a long series of four-bar exchanges with his cohorts—a fresh, decisive imaginativeness, a sense of rhythm, and quick, shifting emphases that recalled some of the snap, pop, crackle of Sidney Catlett.”
The “fresh, decisive imaginativeness” Balliett lauds in Morello is rare among drummers, especially those raised on rock, who confuse their sticks with riveting guns. In Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond (2005), Doug Ramsey quotes Brubeck:
“Joe could do things I’d never heard anybody else do. I wanted to feature him. Paul objected. He wanted a guy who played time and was unobtrusive. I discovered that Joe’s time concept was like mine, and I wanted to move in that direction.”
Desmond, a master of the alto, objected to what he called Morello’s “adventures” and deft fondness for fast tempos. Relations in the band were tense but Morello proved himself even, eventually, to Desmond. Ramsey writes:
“Morello’s advent laid the groundwork for the adventuring that allowed the Brubeck group’s success with unorthodox time experimentation.”
Of all instrumentalists, drummers with a sense of nuance and subtle drive most resemble poets. Morello, who lost his eyesight in the nineteen-seventies, died last year at age eighty-two.