Today, we see pop music people everywhere, all the time. They have become instant celebrities and anything they say or do, even if it happens to be infantile (and it often is) makes the newspapers and television chat shows, even television news programmes. It wasn’t always like this. Back in the 1930s and 40s, pop music people were outside the mainstream of news. But there was at least one exception. The most popular of pop music back then was jazz ... more accurately, one particular style of jazz. This was swing music, which was for a while a powerful force in popular culture. One swing era musician who transcended the musical press and became headline news was Gene Krupa. He made non-musical headlines not only nationwide but even internationally - no mean feat in those pre-Internet, pre-television days. With his handsome presence both on-stage and on-screen (movie screens, that is), he provided a lasting visual image of the swing era. Unfortunately, and unfairly, this was not always for the best of reasons.
Gene Krupa might not have been an inspired innovator who changed the sound of jazz; put another way, neither his fans nor he himself would ever have claimed him to be a musical genius like Louis Armstrong or Charlie Parker. But he did change the image of jazz and especially he changed the role of the drummer in jazz bands of all kinds. His performing persona was wild, perhaps the gesticulations were overwrought; and when allied to a sensationalized phony drugs-bust in California in the 1940s a lasting impression was forged of the jazz drummer as spaced-out crazy. It was a false impression. Not only was it false when the image was formed, it clung on through the rest of his life and even today, among the ill-informed, it clings on. This is very sad, not only because this image was wholly inaccurate and highly inappropriate when it was formed, but also because it obscures the fact that Gene Krupa was a dedicated, hard-working musician, whose love for jazz was deep and sincere. As for that overwrought gesticulator - that wasn’t a part of a stage act. He was like that in the recording studio, even in the rehearsal room. It was a genuine outward reflection of the sheer enthusiasm with which he played his music.
Gene Krupa’s playing style, his music, his personality, his behaviour on-stage and off-stage, were all shaped by the times in which he first became a jazz musician and almost from the outset he made a mark on jazz, one that was to be lasting and which remains recognizable through to the present day. In some ways, this persistence is remarkable because at almost any point in his career it is possible to cite other drummers in jazz who were in one way or another better at what they did. Consider some of these names: alongside him in his early Chicago-style days was Dave Tough; in the early years of the swing era there were Chick Webb and Jo Jones; later in that same era was Tough again, and Buddy Rich. But Krupa’s work with Benny Goodman helped make the swing era an unequalled highpoint of the era - especially when playing in Goodman’s Trio and Quartet. His own big bands were never less than good and in the case of that of the early 1940s, which included Roy Eldridge and Anita O’Day, it was second to none. When bop came in, although Krupa was quickly overtaken by Kenny Clarke and Max Roach and all those who came along in their wake, he encouraged his sidemen and arrangers, notably Gerry Mulligan, and in the late 1940s he fronted a fine and very successful boppish big band. Krupa remained a headline attraction through the following decades, whether leading his own small group, playing in reunions of the Benny Goodman Quartet, duelling with Buddy Rich on the Jazz At The Philharmonic circuit, or leading specially-formed studio big bands to recapture past glories.
Much of the energy and excitement of his performances can be heard on record thanks to the regular reissue of some of his work. Among these CDs are:
Benny Goodman: The Complete RCA Victor Small Group Recordings (RCA Victor 68764), a 3-CD re-mastered compilation of the music that helped define the swing era; Benny Goodman: The Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Concert (Avid Entertainment AMBX 151), not only a swing era highpoint, but much more besides, including soundtrack music from the 1955 movie, The Benny Goodman Story;
The Gene Krupa Story (Properbox 1), a 4-CD set that ranges through his big band work from the mid-1930s until 1947; The Complete Capitol Recordings Of Gene Krupa & Harry James (Mosaic MD7-192), a 7-CD set, which includes his 1946-7 recordings; Gene Krupa Plays Gerry Mulligan Arrangements (American Jazz Classics 99020), late 1940s and a 1958 revisit;
Jazz At The Philharmonic - The Beginning (Charly Le Jazz CD 41) and The Drum Battle (Verve 559 810-2);
Drummin’ Man (Retrospective RTR 4174), a double album that ranges from early years through to JATP tours; Gene Krupa In Concert (DBK Jazz 70015), where he sits in with a Chicago traditional band in 1971; Live At The New School (Chiaroscuro CD[D] 110), recorded on 3 April 1972 with old pals Eddie Condon and Wild Bill Davison, along with Kenny Davern and Dick Wellstood; Live At The New School (Chiaroscuro CD[D] 297), recorded on 17 April 1973 with his then current small band, just a short while before his death on 16 October 1973.
Some, maybe most, of the foregoing CDs might be hard to find, but they are well worth searching for - maybe on-line second-hand sources will be your best bet.
Good places to visit for more information on Gene Krupa are Joe Pagano’s Gene Krupa Reference Page and that of my near-soundalike-namesake, Bruce H. Klauber, whose site is also the place to go for Krupa rarities on Bruce K’s own DBK label. You should also look there for videos, including Gene Krupa: Jazz Legend. If some of the videos are in US format it worth noting a UK-format source, Hudson Music Europe.
Despite the star status he enjoyed during his lifetime, there have been few books on Gene Krupa. The two that are most comprehensive are: Gene Krupa: His Life And Times by Bruce Crowther (yes, that’s me) and The World Of Gene Krupa by Bruce H. Klauber (that’s the other Bruce).
Here again, second-hand sources are perhaps your best bet.