I have had the privilege of seeing and hearing some incredible drummers in my lifetime. Because of the physicality and endurance required to play the drums, I don’t recall seeing very many drummers smiling, laughing and having so much fun while they are playing. Until I saw Gene Krupa, that is! While I never had the opportunity to witness Gene’s prowess and exuberance live, the video clips that I have seen along with the audio recordings that I’ve heard paint a picture in my mind of a kid playing with his favorite toy and enjoying every single second in the process!
Gene was born in the windy city of Chicago on January 15, 1909 and was the youngest of nine children. He started out on sax in grade school and switched to drums when he was eleven. Being that Gene’s parents were very religious and groomed him for the priesthood, he attended various parochial schools and upon graduation, went to St. Joseph’s College for only one year. The call of the drums became too loud for Gene to ignore and he abandoned the notion of becoming a priest.
In 1925, Gene started studying percussion with Roy Knapp, Al Silverman and Ed Straight. Following advice of some friends, he joined the musician’s union. “Make a roll. That’s it. Give us 50 bucks. You’re in.” His first “real” gig was plying with Joe Kayser, Thelma Terry and the Benson Orchestra. Gene got the opportunity to develop his style playing with other jazz players such as Mezz Mezzrow (his real name?), Tommy Dorsey, Bix Beiderbecke and Benny Goodman at a local dive known as The Three Deuces. Mr. Krupa’s main influences during this period were Tubby Hall and Zutty Singleton. The drummer who had probably the greatest influence on Gene was the great Baby Dodds. Dodd’s use of the press rolls was very reflective in Gene’s playing. Where Gene began to distinguish himself from all other drummers was his departure from being just a time keeper. He interacted with the other musicians in the band and introduced the extended drum solo into jazz. His goal was to support rest of the band and to create his own role within the group.
Gene’s innovation did not end with just his remarkable playing, though.
He is also considered the father of the modern drum set since he convinced H.H. Slingerland, of Slingerland Drums, to make tunable tom-toms. Up to this point, tom-toms had “tacked” heads, which afforded little ability to change the sound. This new drum design was introduced in 1936 and was termed “Separate Tension Tunable Tom-Toms.” Gene was a very loyal endorser of Slingerland Drums from 1936 until his death. Cymbal manufacturer Avedis Zildjian also enlisted Krupa’s expertise in developing the modern hi-hat cymbals. The original hi-hat was called the “low-boy” which was a floor level cymbal setup which was played by the foot-not very practical for stick playing. But wait-there’s more! Gene’s first recording session mated him once again with his old pal innovation in December of 1927. He was noted as one of the first drummers to record with a full drum kit. The common conception among recording engineers at the time was that the bass drum and tom-toms wouldn’t record well and “knock the needle off the wax and into street.” These sessions were issued as McKenzie’s and Condon’s Chicagoans. Gene blew this thinking out of the water and his recordings sounded exceptional.
In 1929, Gene moved to New York and was recruited by Red Nichols. He, along with Benny Goodman and Glen Miller, performed in the pit band of the new George Gershwin play “Strike up the Band.” As great as Gene was, he never learned how to read music and “faked” his parts during the rehearsals! Miller helped Gene out by humming the drum parts until he got them down (that he did!). After “Strike up the Band” completed its run in 1930, Hoagy Carmichael assembled several great musicians for many historical sessions. Gene played on some legendary “jazz” recordings with Bix Beiderbecke, Adrian Rollini and Joe Venuti. Krupa played in another pit band with Red Nichols for Gershwin’s “Girl Crazy.” He then joined Russ Colombo’s band which led to his joining Benny Goodman’s group.
Benny convinced Gene to join his band with the promise that it would be a real jazz band. However, after joining, Benny became discouraged with the idea of having a successful jazz group (Huh?). The band was relegated to playing dance music and Benny was considering leaving. At the band’s engagement at the Palomar, Benny decided to take a risk and play the band’s arrangements. The audience went nuts! Goodman featured Gene prominently in the full orchestra and the Goodman Trio and Quartet. The Trio was possibly the first working small group which featured black and white musicians.
On January 16, 1938, the band was the first “jazz” act to play at Carnegie Hall. Gene’s classic performance on “Sing Sing Sing” has been heralded as the first extended drum solo in jazz.
After the Carnegie Hall performance, tension began to rear its ugly head between Gene and Benny. Tension is a very useful force in music-but not in bands. Audiences were demanding that Gene be featured in every number and Benny didn’t want to lose the spotlight to a sideman. Consequently, Gene left Benny’s band on March 3, 1938 and formed his own orchestra less than two months later.
His band was an instant success upon it’s opening at the Marine Ballroom on the Steel Pier in Atlantic City during April of 1938. During this time, Gene authored his own book
Entitled “The Gene Krupa Drum Method” and began an annual Drum Contest in 1941.
The contest attracted thousands of contestants every year and saw a fairly decent drummer as its first winner. You may be familiar with his name-Louie Bellson!
As a result of Gene’s skyrocketing popularity, he appeared in several motion pictures including “Some Like it Hot” and “Beat the Band”, becoming a sort of matinee idol. His noted likeness to Tyrone Power and musical fame was a winning combination in the eyes of Hollywood.
Alas, Gene’s shining star would begin to fade. In the summer of 1943, Krupa was arrested in San Francisco on a bogus drug bust. He was charged with possession of marijuana and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. He was sentenced to 90 days, of which 84 were served and was later cleared of all charges. Roy Eldridge led Gene’s band and eventually had to break up the group. Gene briefly teamed up again with Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey before reforming his own band. Krupa’s groups on the early 40’s were criticized as being too commercial. However, he managed to keep the full band together until December of 1950, when most big bands had already fallen apart.
After breaking up his band, Gene wasn’t sure where to go next. He then formed the Gene Krupa Trio and followed the very popular be-bop trail. The Gene Krupa Trio was one of the first acts recruited by Norman Grantz for his “Jazz at the Philharmonic” concerts. The JATP dates introduced the famous “Drum Battles” with Buddy Rich in October of 1952 and the subsequent studio recordings on the LP “Krupa and Rich” in 1955.
Ever the student, Gene began studying tympani with the New York Philharmonic’s Saul Goodman in 1951. Along with Cozy Cole, Gene formed the Krupa-Cole Drum School in March of 1954. In 1959, actor Sal Mineo portrayed Gene in the film “The Gene Krupa Story.” While the story line was loosely based on the facts of Gene’s career, the outstanding soundtrack was recorded by Krupa.
Eventually, back problems and a heart attack would force Gene into retirement in 1960 for a number of months. After recuperating, he joined the reunited Goodman Quartet for several live dates. Once again, however, poor health and a rocky second marriage forced him into retirement again in 1967 announcing “I feel too lousy to play and I know I must sound lousy.” In 1969, Gene began a series of anti-drug lectures and clinics for Slingerland Drums. The drive to drum spurred Gene to come out of retirement in 1970, reform the Quartet and be featured at Hotel Plaza in New York. Gene’s last commercial recording was in November of 1972, titled “Jazz at the New School” with Eddie Condon and Wild Bill Davidson. Gene’s final public performance was with a reunion of the old Goodman Quartet on August 18, 1973.
Gene’s once bright light finally went out on October 16, 1973 when, after being plagued by leukemia and emphysema, he died of a heart attack and was laid to rest at the Holy Cross Cemetery in Calumet, Illinois.
It is very evident to me that Gene Krupa was not only a very gifted drummer-he was also a very generous giver. He gave himself totally to playing drums, improving drum design, looking for and teaching other aspiring drummers and changing the mindset of how to record drums. Again, Gene seemed to be having so much fun doing what he obviously loved to do. I leave you with this mind blowing clip of Gene Krupa. Please watch it in it’s entirety for a very hot ending! Rest in peace, Gene.