Jazz Drummer Morello Dies

Legendary jazz drummer Joe Morello, whose virtuosity and command of odd time signatures made him an integral part of the Dave Brubeck Quartet on such classic recordings as “Take Five” and “Blue Rondo a la Turk,” has died at age 82.

Family members said Morello died Saturday at his home in northern New Jersey. A cause of death was not immediately available.

Brubeck said the loss of his friend “came as a complete shock to me.”

“Many people consider the rhythm section of (bassist) Eugene Wright and Joe Morello in my quartet as being one of the most consistent, swinging rhythm sections in jazz,” Brubeck said in a statement e-mailed to The Associated Press. “Drummers worldwide remember Joe as one of the greatest drummers we have known.”

Morello’s decision to join Brubeck’s quartet in 1956 paved the way for the leader’s experiments in unusual rhythms on a series of groundbreaking “Time” albums in the late ’50s and early ’60s that earned popular and critical acclaim.

“Joe was a pioneer in odd time signatures and a vital part of the “Time” series the Quartet made at Columbia Records,” said Brubeck. “His drum solo on ‘Take Five’ is still being heard around the world.”

Brubeck got the inspiration for “Take Five” after hearing Morello playing a 5/4 beat while warming up backstage before a concert with alto saxophonist Paul Desmond. The pianist asked Desmond to write a melody in 5/4 time for a tune that would feature a Morello drum solo. Brubeck suggested combining two themes that Desmond wrote to create “Take Five,” which became a surprise Top 40 hit on jukeboxes and one of the best-known jazz recordings.

Raised in Springfield, Mass., with impaired vision from birth, Morello initially studied the violin before becoming a drummer in his teen years.

He eventually made his way to New York City, where he played with many leading jazz musicians over the years, and first came to prominence for his work as part of pianist Marian McPartland’s Hickory House Trio in the early ’50s.

“I’m going to miss him terribly. He was a wonderful man, a wonderful drummer, a great educator” said McPartland, who has hosted “Piano Jazz” on National Public Radio for years. “When we first started playing together (along with bassist Bill Crow), you could see that Joe was going to be a star because he was terrific in every possible way. And pretty soon, he was so in demand, and he felt he had to move on.”

In 1956, Morello turned down offers to join the Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey bands to go on a temporary tour with Brubeck’s quartet after the pianist promised to feature him more prominently than was typical for jazz drummers at the time.

At their first concert, Brubeck gave him a drum solo, and Morello ended up staying with the pianist for 12 years. Morello won Downbeat magazine’s best drummer award for five years in a row.

Morello recorded more than 60 albums with the quartet, starting with “Jazz Impressions Of The U.S.A.” and “Dave Digs Disney” in 1957. He was with the quartet on its 1958 State Department-sponsored tour that took the group to 14 countries, including Poland, India, Turkey, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq.

That tour inspired Brubeck to explore unusual time signatures on the experimental 1959 album “Time Out,” which became the first jazz album to sell more than 1 million copies. Besides “Take Five,” it also included “Blue Rondo a la Turk” based on a complicated 9/8 rhythm that Brubeck heard Turkish street musicians playing. Morello’s drums were prominently featured on such tracks as “Everybody’s Jumpin'” and “Pick Up Sticks.” On the follow up 1961 album “Time Further Out,” Morello soloed using only his drumsticks on another Brubeck classic, “Unsquare Dance,” in 7/4 time.

After Brubeck disbanded the quartet in late 1967 to focus on composing extended orchestral and choral works, Morello turned to teaching and writing instructional books while making occasional guest solo appearances and performing with his own group in the New York area. His discography includes more than 120 albums.

Friends say he truly enjoyed helping young musicians and teaching them their craft.

“He did so much for so many people, he should be recognized for the important person he was. Music was his life, he truly loved it,” said McPartland.