Monday, January 20, 2020

Joe Morello - An Interview with Les Tomkins

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

“Any good Jazz musician has developed from hard work and hard thought, a personal conception. When he improvises successfully on the stand or in the recording studio, it is only after much thought, practice and theory have gone into that conception, and it is that conception which makes him different from other Jazz musicians. Once he knows what he is doing, in other words, he can let himself go and find areas of music through improvisation that he didn’t know existed. Jazz improvisation, therefore, is based on a paradox – that a musician comes to a bandstand so well prepared that he can fly free through instinct and soul and sheer musical bravery into the musical unknown. It is a marriage of both sides of the brain ….” 
- Eric Nisenson, Ascension: John Coltrane and His Quest [p. 53]

“I let myself go. I find as I go along, I feel like I’ve learned from many people, and yet I’m told that I’ve influenced other musicians. I hardly believe I’m as talented as some others. Someone with talent possesses a kind of facility and plays well as early as 16 or 17 much better than I could play at that age. I had to practice a lot and spend a lot of time searching and digging before I got anywhere. And because of that, I later became more aware of what I was doing, I wasn’t an imitation. I found myself with a synthesis of the playing of many musicians. From this something came out and I think it’s really mine.”
- Pianist Bill Evans, as told to Jean-Louis Ginibre

“The finger technique, practice method and of the drummer other drummer’s rave about- the Dave Brubeck quartet’s inimitable Joe Morello.” 
- Les Tomkins, Jazz writer and critic

This interview appeared in the January 1963 edition of Crescendo Magazine. It is a rare find and the transfer to the blog format took a bit of doing. Yet, it was worth the time and effort to represent it on these pages due to Joe's special qualities as a Jazz drummer. He was also a marvelously kind and giving human being. Attending one of the clinics he taught for Ludwig drums was like spending time in Jazz Drummer Heaven.

“The amazing Joe Morello beat out impressive patterns on his practice board to illustrate and embellish his statement to me on drumming in general and his unique contribution in particular.

“Yes, I’ve used the same [drum] set-up for I guess the last ten years - except that I added another cymbal about a year ago. They [Ludwig drum kit] hold up well under successive one-nighters and that silver colour is sort of a good luck thing.’

‘Sticks? I usually don’t change them around and added my own a while back. I couldn’t find one that had the action that I like so I fooled around and made some, had them turned for me and they became my model. And it’s not too bad, although they have been coming through kind of thin lately.’

Joe added ruefully - ‘The new Buddy Rich model is similar to mine - only a little heavier.

When I asked him how he tuned his drums he said that [trombonist, composer, and arranger Bill Russo had posed the same query to him a few nights earlier. ‘He liked the snare drum sound and wondered if I had any trouble turning them over here [At the time of this interview, Joe may still have been using cow hide heads on his drums and they would have been affected by England’s wet climate].’ I told him: “Not too much.”

‘There was one night on the tour when we arrived late and I didn’t have the chance to check the drums. The small tom-tom sounded like a tympani.

‘But usually when they arrive at the hall they get accustomed to the temperature inside. And so when I get there about fifteen minutes before the show, I tighten them up and tune them to my liking.

‘There’s not really a set way of doing it. The only thing I suggest on tuning is that I keep the snare drum head fairly tight and the batter head [bottom snare drum head] a little looser. A lot of people go around turning their drums a fifth and a fourth - b-flat on the bass drum and so on. I’ve never bothered doing that. I just tune them so that they sound good to me.

Inevitably, I brought up Joe’s seemingly-magical finger technique to find out how long it has been a part of his playing and how he set about perfecting it.

‘This finger control thing is something that started a long time ago in the French Conservatory. That was the first school to utilise this way of manipulating the sticks.

‘I never studied in France or anything but years ago in my hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts, I used to sit for hours trying to figure out how they could sustain this single beat with the left hand.

‘Before that it used to be all stiff wrist, much like a lot of the boys here in England are doing it. They are holding it stiff, which is not the way to do it.

‘I was just trying to figure, letting the stick rebound real loose - by itself. Of course the teacher I was with at the time said “No, you must never let the stick rebound.” ‘This was supposed to be wrong. There was a taboo on the thing.

‘Then Louie Bellson came through with the Tommy Dorsey band. He was playing this way. He got it from Murray Spivak in Hollywood, who used to teach it quite well. [Murray taught privately for many years in his clinic and was the drum master other drummers went to when they had problems with their playing]. Louie had a good understanding of it. So I talked to him and he gave me the basic principle of it, which opened a lot of doors for me.

‘I took it upon myself to analyze it and to develop it to suit my own personality in playing. That is to say I adopted it anatomically to fit what I can do with my hands. I do it a little differently from Louie - and I think everyone else does because it is sort of an individual thing.

‘Ever since that time, Louie and I have been getting together periodically to discuss this.


I’d like to mention another teacher here, who is dead now, but who in my opinion was the greatest drummer in the world - thought I can’t stand the term when applied to Jazz drumming. He was Billy Gladstone. He was a fantastic drummer. He had all these things going. He was the best exponent of it. [Billy Gladstone was a famed Broadway show drummer who often shared the percussion platform with Max Manne, the father of Jazz drummer Shelly Manne, with whom he became close friends].

‘He was a great influence as far as my hand development, technique and sound are concerned. He taught me a lot and helped me tremendously. Swinging drum solos weren’t “his cup of tea” - but for touch, technique and speed, he was the closest to a genius I’ve ever seen.

‘For the past four or five years, I’ve been in the process of writing a book about finger control. I’ll probably never finished it. Murray Spivak told me he’s been trying to write a book since 1951. It’s easier to demonstrate than put on paper.

‘The principle is relatively simple, although the application is a little more difficult. The stick is propelled with the finger instead of the wrist and arm. All you are doing is rebounding the stick with the first finger. But it has to be done with control. There must be no tension in the arm and hand, so as to get a loose handhold between the thumb and third finger.

‘The best way to practice it is to get a full turn of the left wrist, letting the stick bounce freely. As you close your first finger down, you’ll feel the pull. It’s a matter of sustaining that. It takes considerable practice over long periods.

‘I’ve been reasonably successful with it although for the last six months, I haven’t had time to devote to a practice schedule to keep it in shape.

‘The technical part of drumming is strictly physical. It requires a certain amount of training and exercise each day to maintain a decent technique.

The Tympani Grip

‘The tympani grip? [Matched-sticks grip]. There’s nothing wrong with doing it this way if you like it. This is a natural way of holding the stick  For me - I feel very comfortable playing the orthodox way, especially when I’m behind the drum set. I have the high-hat cymbal on one side and everything and I feel cramped if I don’t do it this way. I’m used to this way, but I’m not opposed to the other way.

On rules and their flexibility - ‘There are several different stages in one’s development. The beginner should stick to the rules. You can’t break the rules unless you know them.

‘Once you know the rules, you can alter them to suit your personality. But when you are first going to a teacher and he says “Do it this way,” you should say: “But it’s easier this way.” It might be easier at that moment but in the long run you might be heading for an endless pit. There are certain basic rules anatomically for playing drums that should be adhered to. Eventually there will be individual characteristics that will sneak into your playing.

On teachers as opposed to books: ‘Printed matter is great - it has pictures and text, as far as that goes. But a teacher can demonstrate a thing for you. That’s the difference. All you have with a book is a visual notation of an idea - but you can’t hear it. Whereas a teacher is telling you and showing you at the same time, so you can hear how it should sound.

‘You may see something written down and do it as written, but you may not be executing it the way the author had in mind. The teacher can tell you this. Hands and wrists vary a lot, so everybody has different problems. In the initial stages, a teacher can help you to solve them.

‘ It’s important to get a good teacher. There are very few people who have done anything worthwhile on drums who haven’t studied first including, Louie Bellson (who is a very schooled musician), Buddy Rich and Max Roach. A lot of Jazz drummers will try to create an image and say: “I never studied or practised.” But if you use your head this is a lot of nonsense. It’s like my saying: “I don’t eat for five weeks at a time.” You’d laugh at me.

Joe went on to speak on a more personal level. He explained his purpose in practicing: ‘I never practice hot licks. I practice for development. My practice board is like an exercise bar, like a boxer with a punching bag - strictly for developmental purposes.

‘Now when I’m playing - from practicing so much and studying - my hands will respond to whatever I want to do - within reason.

‘I don’t think I’ll ever reach my goal. I hear some things and I may never reach them. I would like to develop flawless technique which would allow me to play what I want to play anything that comes into my mind.’

He outlined his attitude about working in a rhythm section: ‘When I am playing Jazz drums, I try to complement all that is going on around me. If it is an exciting group, you let your feeling take over. If I feel that it requires accents with the left hand and with the bass drum - fine. If I feel that the mode of the music calls for straight rhythm, I’ll play just that. There are no set rules. Again, it’s individualism.

‘I don’t believe that a drummer show throw in a flurry of accents and bass drum kicks if they are meaningless. I don’t think this makes any sense.

Joe referred to the difficulty of writing Jazz feeling into an arrangement: ‘A drum part for a big band - or any group in the Jazz idiom - is written more as a cue sheet. You have all your cuts where the band stops. You might also have a two-bar pick up. And usually they will mark in just the brass figures in the band.


‘Now this is where interpretation comes in - and a teacher can take you over a lot of these hurdles if he knows anything about Jazz interpretation.

You take four eighth notes. They will be written one after another and the brass will phrase them in more of a 12/8 feeling. But if the arranger has to sit down and break each measure down into 12/8 time and put the triplets in, the measure would be eight inches long.

‘So this is something that a drummer has to get used to - learning how to see one thing and phrase it differently.

‘Reading is very important today. Drums have developed to such a degree that it’s no good anymore for a fellow to just pick up the sticks and beat out a hot drum solo. Today, the drummer adds tonal color to the band. He’s playing more with the band. He’s more of an integral part of it and he’s depended on more than he was years ago.

‘Years ago a drummer was just seen and in a lot of cases wasn’t heard and didn’t mean anything. When they hired the band they’d day: “I want seven musicians and a drummer.” Now the drummer has to be a musician, too.’”

Here’s more of Joe’s brilliant drumming in a 1961 video featuring the classic Dave Brubeck Quartet in a performance of Castilian Blues.

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