I’ve been saying goodbye to too many of my old friends lately. The latest one to go was Joe Morello, whose obit was in the last issue of Allegro.
I met Joe when I joined Marian McPartland’s trio at the Hickory House on 52nd Street in February 1954. We got along great as a rhythm team, and became good friends right away. He was a magnet for young drummers, who gathered to meet Joe between sets at the Hickory House, and many of them became his students. Since we were on the bandstand with Marian six nights a week for a couple of years, we learned to play well together, and were well known in New York. We were hired so often by musicians who heard us with Marian’s trio that she often joked about deserving a percentage of our outside earnings.
With his spectacular technique, Joe was immediately an object of attention for many jazz writers, and he grew uncomfortable when they compared him to Max Roach, Louis Bellson and Buddy Rich. To deflect such comparisons, Joe invented a fictitious drummer named Marvin Bonessa, who he said could cut them all. He said that Marvin was a recluse who never recorded, and never played in New York. Marian loved the joke, and she and I backed Joe up, agreeing that Bonessa was the greatest. Some of the New York jazz writers wanted to look him up and do interviews, but Joe discouraged them. “He hates publicity,” Joe would say. “Just wants to play and be left alone. I don’t even know where he lives now… out in the Midwest someplace.”
Marian gave Joe a featured spot with her trio, but she knew that she wouldn’t be able to keep him at the Hickory House forever on the salary she was able to provide there. Joe got nibbles from Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Stan Kenton, etc., but the one that intrigued him the most was an offer from Dave Brubeck to join his quartet. Joe had often talked to me about wanting to play with hard swinging players like Phil Woods, Zoot Sims and Clark Terry. When he asked me what I thought about his accepting Brubeck’s offer, I advised: “Don’t do it, Joe. You’ll go with Dave, become a big star with him, and you’ll never get to play with those other guys.” Well, Joe didn’t take my advice, and it worked out just fine for him.
During recent years I often played with Joe at the Shanghai Jazz, out in Madison New Jersey, and at Trumpets, in Montclair. it was always fun to play with him, and to enjoy his sunny disposition. In his last days, he was still always surrounded by drum students. The population of drummers who have studied with him must be huge. That, and his recordings, make a good legacy from a good man.
Tony Quarrington, a jazz guitarist in Toronto, got this story from pianist Norm Amadio. When Norm was playing with Lester Young at the Colonial Tavern in the 1950’s, he discovered that Lester had an aversion to calling tunes by their names. He preferred indirect allusions. For instance, he would say to Norm, “Push me! Push me!” to let Norm know that he wanted to play “I Can’t Get Started.”
John Welch, president of Sofia Violins in Indianapolis, Indiana, came to New York in the 1950’s as a trombone player. On an Internet interview, he tells this story:
I got into New York, stayed at the West Side YMCA. It was Sunday, and I went to the Village with my trombone. At a place called the Open Door, there was a sign in the window saying “jam session,” and to me that meant anyone could play. I went in, and they were playing the blues in F, so I got out my trombone and got up on the back of the stand and started playing tailgate trombone, very tastefully. So the piano player turned to the rest of the musicians and said, “‘Cherokee,’ in E.” Well, I didn’t know Cherokee, and I don’t think I’d ever played in the key of E in my life, so I just went back to my table and laid my horn in my case. A guy came over and started unscrewing my horn and putting it away in the case, and he said, “Kid, you are obnoxious!” The band was Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Bud Powell, Max Roach and Charles Mingus. And the people in the club are looking at me like cancer has just walked into the room. I was a naïve farm kid, I don’t think they got through to me. I was just waiting for another blues in F. But the sax player, Bird, came right to my table and said, “Hey, kid, don’t you let these people get to you. You’re a really good player, and you just keep going ahead.” I love to tell that story because it’s an example of what a magnificent human being that man was.
Brian Nalepka sent me a parable of the times:
A public union employee, a Tea Party activist and a CEO are sitting at a table with a plate in the middle holding a dozen cookies. The CEO takes 11 of them, then turns to the Tea Partier and says, “Watch out for that union guy… he wants a piece of your cookie!”