Monday, March 19, 2018

Joe Dodge - The Gordon Jack Interview

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Gordon Jack's interview with the late drummer Joe Dodge [1922-2004] first appeared in the January, 1995 issue of JazzJournal. Subsequently, he included it as a chapter in his seminal Fifties Jazz Talk: An Oral Retrospective [Lanham, MD, The Scarecrow Press, 2004], a book that has rescued a number of fine Jazz musicians from obscurity. 

I have often referenced trumpeter and bandleader Wynton Marsalis' assertion that "If you change the rhythm, you change the music." 

Wynton's point is underscored by Joe Morello's replacement of Joe Dodge in the drum chair of the Dave Brubeck Quartet in 1956.

The odd or unusual time signatures that became the hallmark of the Dave Brubeck hit recording Time Out with Joe Morello's famous drum solo on Take Five were simply not in Joe Dodge's baliwick. 

Instead of venturing out, so to speak, Joe Dodge was a stay-at-home drummer who loved churning out a steady beat to push, shove and inspire pianist Brubeck and especially alto saxophonist Paul Desmond unrelentingly forward.

The Brubeck quartet was never the same after Joe Morello joined it, nor was it, however, ever the same after Joe Dodge left it. Joe Dodge's forte as a drummer was time-keeping; few Jazz drummers have ever done it better.

Gordon has graciously offered his permission to reprint his fine piece on Joe Dodge which I have populated with photos and with the video tribute to Joe Dodge that you'll find at the conclusion of this feature.

© -  Gordon Jack/JazzJournal; used with the author's permission; 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 I 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 MonroeWisconsin, 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 II, 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’s 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.’”

The following YouTube features the Dave Brubeck Quartet performing Dave's original composition "Two-Part Contention" at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival. This recording was the first time I heard Joe Dodge play drums.

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