Thursday, August 6, 2009

Joe Dodge: The Drummer as Time-Keeper

© - Steven A. Cerra; Introduction copyright protected; all rights reserved.
For most of the decade of the 1990s I lived in San Francisco, CA and worked for a large, London-owned insurance brokerage as a reinsurance intermediary. Reinsurance is the type of insurance that insurance companies, among others, purchase to lay off some of their risk.

Harry Denton, the proprietor of The Starlight Room which is currently located at the top of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel in downtown San Francisco’s Union Square, was and is a big fund-raiser for the city’s Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

Each year, the San Francisco Cystic Fibrosis Foundation holds a major fund-raiser in the form of a concert and/or party. Obviously the successful sale of tickets along with having a good time is the point of the whole thing.

Reinsurance involves huge commissions because of the size of the premiums involved with the coverage it places. It therefore came as no surprise that Harry Denton as Chairman of the San Francisco Cystic Fibrosis Foundation solicited our company’s regional President for a significant donation and a “volunteer” to serve on his planning committee for its annual fund-raiser.

Although I did my best to take a step backwards when volunteers were sought, as one of the more junior members of the firm at that time, I was “elected” [the boss pointed at me] as its representative. The fact that I was also one of the few brokers who actually lived in the city didn’t help my efforts to opt out of the assignment.
Our company had privileges at The Bankers Club. These private dining rooms are so called because they are located atop the Bank of America headquarters which are housed in one of the tallest buildings in the city at California and Kearny Streets [i.e.: San Francisco’s Financial District].

As a result, not only was I appointed to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation Planning Committee in the fall of 1993, I was to also serve as its host using our Bankers Club membership as the place where the group staged its meetings.

As most of its natives know, October is San Francisco’s most summery month, and it was during an October picture perfect day at the top of one of the tallest buildings in the city that I met Joe Dodge who was admiring one of the many splendid views of the city from The Bankers Club’s vantage point.

Although Joe had retired from active involvement in financial and banking endeavors a decade earlier, he still had many friends in that community who knew that he was now affiliated with a musical group called “Swing Fever.” It was therefore easy to understand why he had been chosen as the “entertainment representative” on the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation Planning Committee [CFFPC].

As Joe continued to stare out at the magnificent view, I continued to stare at him until he noticed and asked: “Do we know one another?”
The engaging and friendly manner in which he asked this question finally shook me out of my stupor and I muttered: “I was a big fan of your shoes.”

Joe looked down at his feet and then back up at me and said: “Whaddya mean ‘was,’ I’m still wearing them?”

To which I then said: “No, not those, the ones on the album cover.”

To which he responded, not unsurprisingly: “Huh?”

Since other members of the CFF planning committee began arriving, I said, “If you have time for a cup of coffee after the meeting, I’ll explain.” Joe said, laughingly: “You got a deal.”

When the committee meeting ended, Joe came up to me and said: “OK, what gives?”

I asked: “Do you remember the shoes that you were wearing on the cover of the Columbia album that you shared with Jay and Kai that was taken at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival? [Columbia CL 932; Sony CD SRCS 9522].

He laughed and said: “Are you kidding?”

“No,” I said, “and I drove my parents batty looking all over the shoe stores in downtown Providence, RI for a pair of tan, suede Chukka boots.”

Joe asked: “How old were you at the time?”

I replied: “Around thirteen,” to which he said: “I guess kids can get pretty intense about some things at that age.”

Joe and I spent the remainder of that October afternoon chatting away in a Bankers Club private dining room with a view that looked out at a Golden Gate Bridge that was silhouetted against a cloudless blue sky as a backdrop.

I shared with him my background in Jazz drumming including the fact that I had studied with Victor Feldman and Larry Bunker and how I came of age during the Los Angeles Jazz scene of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

He asked if I got over to Shelly Manne’s club and I replied that I lived fairly close to it and frequented it often. He shared with me that Shelly was one of his all time favorite drummers and that he caught his group at The Blackhawk during the 1958 gig that produced the famous multi-LP/disc set which was recorded at that legendary San Francisco Jazz Club.

I found him to be a modest man, very unassuming, with a handsome face whose main features were a engaging smile and sparkling eyes. I hadn’t realized what a big man he was: tall as well as broad as he had filled out nicely over the years.

I told him how disappointed I was when, after scurrying down to The Rhode Island School of Design auditorium to be first in line to buy a ticket to the 1957 fall concert by the Dave Brubeck Quartet that had just been announced in The Providence Journal, I took my front-row aisle seat the night of the concert just in time to hear the announcement that the drummer that night was going to be someone called “Joe Morello.”

Joe replied “I’ll bet you weren’t disappointed for long,” and I said: 

“You’re right, but I wanted to go home and burn my drumsticks after the shock of seeing and hearing Joe Morello in action that night.”
Joe said: “A lot of us felt that way; some drummer, huh.”

I agreed, but also expressed to Joe that I always felt that his playing was more accessible for us mere mortals than Morello’s which had a level of technical and artistic brilliance that many of us strive for, but that few of us ever achieve.

Joe was genuinely surprised by my compliment and I went on to share further that while technical prowess on the drums is something that other drummers can admire, I always felt that most listeners found it overbearing and didn’t really appreciate what was being put on display.

“Just playing time is a lost art,” I said. “I could practice to what you played to emphasize the various tempo changes on Brubeck’s Two Part Contention on the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival album and really develop a ‘feel’ for what you were doing because you kept it so simple.”

“Time-keeping is a lost art, Joe,” I declared, “and so are time-keeping drummers.”

Joe said he couldn’t agree more but “who wants to listen to that when they can watch all those fireworks.”

To which I responded: “Once Elvin Jones and Tony Williams made the scene, drummers began to overplay, and unlike Morello, or Rich or Bellson, most drummers don’t know how to construct long drum solos that are interesting and even when they do, most Jazz fans don’t know how to listen to them.”

“There’s a time and a place for assertive, if not aggressive drumming, but it doesn’t fit all styles and every situation,” I said. “Look what you did with I’m in a Dancing Mood on that album; that jaunty, little ditty just cooks along because of the way you handled it.”

Throughout our conversations [there were two more following later committee meetings] Joe seemed genuinely surprised that I both knew so much about his playing and found so many aspects of it that were rewarding to me.

We both agreed that other drummers finding fault with Joe Morello’s playing was tantamount to saying that the Pope wasn’t a good Roman Catholic.

During these talks, I didn’t specifically ask him about the reasons why he left the Dave Brubeck Quartet, but he discussed them in much the same way that he described them to author Gordon Jack in Fifties Jazz Talk: An Oral Perspective [Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, 2004].

My conversations with Joe took place a year after Gordon interviewed Joe in 1992 and it appeared that some of what was covered in that interview was still on his mind. Gordon didn’t publish his interview with Joe until 2004, the year of Joe Dodge’s death.

As the editorial staff of JazzProfiles began work on this feature about Joe Dodge, a few months ago it received a telephone call from the Italian Jazz pianist Dado Moroni who was elated.

We talked at length about a previous e-mail Dado had sent in which he expressed the following about a June 19th & 20th gig that he had recently completed at The Kitano [a New York City hotel, bar & grill located at 66 Park Avenue at 38th Street] with his trio:
“New York was a total success, my friend. The place was packed and everybody showed up to greet us: Peter Washington, Lewis Nash, Russell Malone, Lew Tabackin, Bill Goodwin, Jed Levy, Donald Vega, Don Friedman, Charles Davis, Cedar Walton, Duduka Da Fonseca and so many other cats I couldn't even try remembering...they were saying that nobody had heard that way of playing trio at least in the last 15 years!”
Dado’s reference to the trio sound that “nobody had heard in the last 15 years” harkens back to exactly what Joe Dodge and I were talking about during those 1993 conversations in San Francisco.
It basically has to do with the drummer keeping time and staying the heck out of the way of the pianist and allowing him to improvise uninterruptedly with the proper rhythmic support [which includes an occasional boot in the backside where necessary].
For years, now, Dado has been pulling what remains of his hair out, while contending with well-meaning, but nonetheless, over-bearing and over-playing drummers whose style resembles a combination of Elvin Jones & Tony Williams run riot! As a result, his playing has become more physical as he has had to contend with these artillery barrages coming from the drum chair, not to mentioned rushed, cluttered [with an array of unfinished ideas], and clich├ęd [no time to think and, as a result, falling back on easily available phrases].
Implicit in the situation that Dado has been contending with and with my San Francisco discussions with Joe Dodge is the ability of the drummer, supposedly an accompanist, to change the way musicians play and the way a group sounds.
To put it another way, and to take nothing away from the magnificence that is Joe Morello on drums, the Dave Brubeck Quartet [DBQ] and especially Paul Desmond in the context of the DBQ, never sounded the same after Joe Dodge left the group in 1956.
Music takes place in Time.
And when that time is metered in an even-handed, steady way it creates a rhythmic flow over which the soloist can express improvised ideas with a reassurance that the metronomic time will always be there and altered only with an occasional accent or underscored point of emphasis.

For a soloist like Paul Desmond who constructs very convoluted and complicated inventions, the drummer as time-keeper is particularly important and it is no wonder that he and Joe Dodge struck-up a lifelong friendship both musically and personally.
As Wynton Marsalis has commented about Jazz: “Change the rhythm and you change the music.”
This is exactly what happened to the Dave Brubeck Quartet after Joe Morello replaced Joe Dodge on drums, a change that was even more rhythmically aggravated when Dave decided to embark on his unusual [odd] time-signature musical quest.
Joe Dodge seemed very sensitive about the latter when he expressed that he didn’t think he could have played these odd time-signature and therefore would have held the quartet back.
“Back from what?,” I asked and continued: “We both know that the ‘Time This & That’ recordings were more held back by the difficulty of getting any kind of rhythmic swing going while playing them than by what the drummer was doing. Take Blues Rondo a la Turk with its mesmerizing 1-2, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2-3 pattern in 9/8 time or the Time Out 5/4 pattern that’s really played as 1 bar of 3 / 4 and 2/4 combined. Sure this was trail-blazing stuff for its time, but how many people are playing in these time signatures today?”

Joe offered: “Yes, it seems that either Dave or Morello were pounding out those odd meter riffs while Paul was doing his best to solo something interesting over them.” On the other hand, in fairness to the DBQ’s initial achievement, we also concurred with Ted Gioia’s pronouncement that:
“… the burst of creativity with the 1959 release of Time Out is nothing short of staggering. This was not only the most financially successful album of Brubeck’s career, but also an immense artistic success. … This album is still a delight to listen to a generation later, and not just because of the odd meters – others have come to master them with greater ease since 1959 – but because of their winning incorporation into a series of exceptional and fresh sounding compositions. Perhaps no other jazz album of the decade exuded so much enthusiasm and such a sense of unbridled fun.” [West Coast Jazz, p,98].
Unfortunately, it seemed to both of us that the uniqueness of playing in odd time signatures soon wore off as the format became formulistic for the DBQ well into the 1960s.
But it was also easy to agree that the quartet with Joe Morello also put out a lot of great music in albums that they made during together during the 1960s that did not use this format such as Angel Eyes, Bossa Nova USA, West Side Story and Anything Goes: A Tribute to Cole Porter.

While none of these recordings were strictly-speaking purely time-keeping settings for Morello, more often than not, they found him laying down a straight-ahead beat that produced the kind of linearity in the solos of Brubeck and especially Desmond that was more commonplace when Joe Dodge was the DBQ drummer in the mid-1950s.
On these recordings, it seem to us that there were also more displays of the give and take between Desmond and Brubeck or what Gioia describes as “… the ability to anticipate one another’s moves ….”
In a sense, as Morello eased off the accelerator a bit, things had come full circle back to the style of time-keeping drummer that allowed for Desmond’s lyricism to flourish, Brubeck to once again explore modern compositional devices in his solos and for the group as a whole to settle into a groove.
Almost on a make-a-wish-basis, Joe and I brought up Morello’s lay-it-down-and-stay-out-of-the-way brushwork on These Foolish Things - what has to be one of the most beautiful in-performance solos that Paul Desmond ever recorded. It is on the 1957 Jazz Goes to Junior College Columbia LP that was made not too long after Morello joined the DBQ.

Joe Dodge smiled and said: “You have no idea how many times I heard Paul launch into beautiful solos like that on ballads. Playing behind Paul when he was in full flight was one of the greatest pleasures of my time with Dave’s group. And don’t forget Paul’s solo on One Moment Worth Years which is another beauty on that album.”
Interestingly, when Paul Desmond went on to make recordings under his own name the drummer of choice for his quartet was more often than not Connie Kay, who, for many years was the primarily time-keeping drummer for the long-lived, Modern Jazz Quartet.
Joe smiled and recalled that when he asked Paul about his choice of Connie as his drummer, Paul’s reply to Joe was that “he reminds me of playing with you without that damn Chinese cymbal.”
[A cymbal with drilled holes in which rivets are installed and whose rim is flanged or turned up to depress the normal, ringing overtones. Some have referred to its sound as playing on a metal trash can cover, hence the origin of its more modern name – a Trash Crash Cymbal].
Sadly, the days of the time-keeping drummer are over. As tenor saxophonist Bill Perkins once commented to me: “These days when I call a ballad on a club date, I expect a bottle to come flying over my heard.”
But it was certainly fun to spend a few days in the fall of 1993 with Joe Dodge, one of the fine time-keeping drummers of the modern Jazz era, and to be able to emphasize to him that I thought his playing helped bring out the best in the Dave Brubeck Quartet during the three years that he was with the group.

The tone and tenor of some other aspects of our talks are contained in the following interview that Joe gave to Gordon Jack Gordon Jack in Fifties Jazz Talk: An Oral Perspective [Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, 2004. pp. 73-77] which is reproduced as always with the provision that it is © copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Joe Dodge
“Joe Morello of course was the longest serving drummer with the Dave Brubeck Quartet. However, it was while his predecessor, Joe Dodge, was in the drum chair that the group first achieved unprecedented success and popularity, overtaking the George Shearing Quintet as the highest-paid group on the jazz scene. Dodge remained with the quartet from 1953 to 1956, and in each of those years, the readers of Down Beat and Metronome magazines voted for the Dave Brubeck Quartet as the most popular small group in America. Somehow Joe became disillusioned with his playing, and by the end of 1956 he decided to leave the quartet, despite Brubeck's entreaties to stay. This decision has always intrigued me, and in 1992 1 met Joe in San Francisco when he kindly visited my hotel to discuss his career. Joe, who is friendly and generous, came bearing gifts in the form of a cassette of an unissued 1955 performance of the Brubeck quartet, together with the latest release from his current group, Swingfever.

Joe Dodge was born on February 9, 1922, in Monroe, Wisconsin, but by 1926 the family had moved to San Francisco. Like many drummers of his generation, his first major influence was Gene Krupa, but he also listened to Jo Jones and Jimmy Crawford, and by the time he was with Dave Brubeck, his particular favorite was Shelly Manne, with whom he became very friendly. During World War 11, he played drums in the Coast Artillery band, where he met tenor player Dave Van Kreidt, who introduced him to Brubeck and Paul Desmond. After demobilization in 1946, he worked in dance bands around the Bay area, including a stint with the Steve Sacco big band, which featured Paul Desmond. He followed this with two years in a quintet led by guitarist Nick Esposito, and he also worked in a Dixieland band led by trombonist Jack Sheedy.
Tiring of life on the road, he took a day job working in a bank but still kept in touch with his friend Desmond, who arranged for him to play an engagement with Brubeck's octet as a temporary replacement for Cal Tjader. The octet was playing at the San Francisco Opera House, where they opened the show for Nat "King" Cole and Woody Herman. A few years later, in 1953 when Lloyd Davis decided to leave the group, it was Paul again who recommended Joe to Dave Brubeck. At first he was skeptical about leaving the security of the bank, and as Ted Gioia says in his book West Coast Jazz, his first reaction on being offered the job was to say, "You're sure you work steady?' Brubeck apparently told him that they had to fight for a night off, and Joe was soon to see what he meant, because starting in February 1954, they did sixty one-nighters in a row, mostly in colleges.

Joe is intensely self-critical, and looking back on his recordings with Brubeck, he told me that he is only satisfied with his playing on the first two albums he made with the group, Jazz at the College of the Pacific and the justly famous Jazz Goes to College. Thereafter, he apparently became more aware of what he considered his shortcomings, although these were not apparent to either Brubeck or Desmond, both of whom have been lavish in their praise of Joe's playing.

It was during the making of Paul Desmond's first album as a leader in October 1954 that Joe's doubts about his abilities began to surface. Dave Van Kreidt, who was playing on the date and was also responsible for the arrangements, was apparently quite a dominant personality, wanting Joe to play in a more aggressive, almost ‘Art Blakey’ style. Creating mountains of rhythmic propulsion behind a soloist was totally alien to Joe's concept, because he saw his role primarily as a timekeeper and accompanist. He felt this recording was his "downfall," although on re-listening to the album, it is difficult to see what upset him, because as usual his playing is tasteful and swinging. His desire to remain in the background and not interfere with the soloist's line extended to a reluctance to take drum solos. In this, of course he was the opposite of the virtuoso Joe Morello, who replaced him in the group. Paul Desmond, who surely could have been a successful stand-up comedian, has said that asking Morello to play a drum solo ‘was like issuing an air travel card to a hijacker!" Joe Dodge's view of Morello's playing is typical of his generous spirit, because he told me that Joe Morello could play more with one hand than he could with two.
In 1956 Joe was in the studios again with Paul Desmond, this time in a piano-less group featuring Don Elliott on trumpet and mellophone. Comedian Mort Sahl, who wrote the sleevenote for the album, has been the innocent cause of confusion to some collectors over the years by humorously referring to the drummer as "Joe Chevrolet." The confusion has now spread to Fantasy Records, who should know better: on their CD reissue, Joe Dodge is still "Joe Chevrolet."'
Joe was unlike many modern drummers, who are almost surrounded by their equipment. His kit was of minimal proportions while he was with Brubeck, being a bass and snare drum, two cymbals, and a hi-hat. A distinctive feature of his playing was the use of a fifteen-inch Chinese cymbal with rivets, which he used on medium and fast numbers.

In a recent correspondence Dave Brubeck told me: "The main enjoyment I had from Joe's playing was when he got on that big Chinese cymbal with the rivets. In 1993 I did a telephone interview with one of New York's big disc jockeys. I called the station because he had just played a 1950s track with Joe Dodge and Bob Bates on bass. He said on the air that this was his favorite of all the rhythm sections I had used in the quartet."
The group definitely lost a certain indefinable quality when Joe Morello took over the drum duties. This is not intended as a criticism of Morello, who had a superb technique and an immediately recognizable sound on both brushes and sticks.
However, while Dodge and, before that, Lloyd Davis were there, quietly concentrating on time-keeping, Brubeck and Desmond were free to indulge in improvised contrapuntal interplay, which was such a stimulating feature of their early work. Once Morello joined, this unusual neo-baroque approach was heard less and less. Indeed, as the years went on and the need to feature Joe Morello became more pressing, it seemed as though the great Paul Desmond was also heard less and less. He was obviously aware of this, because he once wittily observed, ‘You can tell which one is me because when I am not playing (which is surprisingly often), I'm leaning against the piano.’
In an unpublished interview with Bill Schrickell, who is an expert on the music of Dave Brubeck, Joe said that he was aware of resentment from some East Coast musicians, because of the success of the quartet. However, he remembers a package tour with Duke Ellington, Stan Getz, and Gerry Mulligan in November 1954. One night, Ellington was standing in the wings, watching the Brubeck group at work. The next morning, as they were walking to the train, Quentin Jackson said to Joe, ‘Man, you really killed Duke last night. He looked out to the stage and said, '”That's the picture of jazz."' Understandably, Joe has never forgotten just how good that remark made him feel.

In December 1956, unhappy with his own playing, Joe decided to leave the group and full-time jazz altogether. He had listened to the recording of the group's concert at the Newport Jazz Festival earlier that year, and his reaction to his playing was apparently, "Oh God, that's terrible." Once again, Joe is his own severest critic, because the subtle and unobtrusive way he copes with several tempo changes in "Two Part Contention" and "I'm in a Dancing Mood" show him at his very best. He also felt that drummers in many jazz groups were becoming too dominant, and this was a direction he did not want to follow. He lacked sufficient confidence in his playing at the time to continue with the high-profile exposure he was getting with Brubeck, and although the pianist did his best to persuade him to stay, Joe returned home to his family and a day job in San Francisco. He told me that he would not have had the technique to cope with the many time signatures Brubeck featured after Joe Morello joined, although it should be pointed out that Dodge is heard on one of the earliest examples of the quartet playing in two simultaneous time signatures. "Lover" was recorded on Jazz: Red Hot and Cool, where the piano, alto, and bass are in 3/4 and the drums are in 4/4. Dodge successfully handles his part and makes a significant contribution to the success of the arrangement.'

In 1957 Joe had a chance to return to the jazz spotlight when Stan Kenton telephoned with the offer of a job. Stan needed a temporary replacement for Mel Lewis, but unfortunately Joe decided to turn him down. From 1958 until he retired in 1981, Joe combined working in the liquor business with musical engagements in the evenings. One of these performances was recorded when he played with the Ralph Sutton Quartet, which included trumpeter Ernie Figueroa and Vernon Alley on bass at Squaw Valley Lodge, Lake Tahoe, in December 1959. For the past twelve years Joe has worked around the San Francisco area with a five-piece band called Swingfever, which includes the music of Ellington, Basie, Nat Cole, and Louis Jordan in its repertoire. He kept in touch with Paul Desmond until the altoist's death in 1977. and he still sees his friend Dave Brubeck. He played at Dave's fiftieth wedding anniversary in 1992 at the Claremont Hotel, Oakland, with many of the pianist's former colleagues. On hand were Bob and Dick Collins, Bill Smith, Ron Crotty, Dave Van Kreidt, Wyatt "Bull" Ruther, Gene Wright, Norman Bates, Jack Six, Lloyd Davis, Randy Jones, and Gerry Mulligan, who organized a marathon jam session that carried on into the early hours. Because of problems with deteriorating sight, Joe Morello was unable to attend from his home in New Jersey.
On his time with the Brubeck quartet, Joe told me, "I admire Dave very much and am thankful to him for having me join his group when he did. It was a great experience. I can't say enough about Paul, except he was my good friend and I miss him."
The last word on this somewhat unsung percussionist should come from his longtime colleague, the poetic genius of the alto saxophone, Mr. Desmond himself: ‘Don't ever forget Joe Dodge. A marvelous drummer.’”
[In 2002, a year or so before his Joe Dodge’s death, Fantasy Original Jazz Classics issued Volume 2 of Jazz at the College of the Pacific which makes available more of his wonderful drumming with the DBQ].