That Drummin’ Man

January 11, 2009 at 1:31 am (good people, jazz, Jim D)

We’re coming up to the centenary of the birth of Gene Krupa – the most important and influential drummer of the Twentieth Century. He was born on January 15th 1909. BBC Radio Two are doing a splendid series of programmes, introduced by Stuart Copeland (but written by Russell Davis), to celebrate the great man’s centennial. Krupa died of leukemia 1n 1973, shortly after a fire had destroyed his house and a lifetime of memorabilia.

Now, it’s certainly true that Krupa’s commercial success was in large part because he was white. Even in his heyday (the thirties and forties) there were other drummers (Chick Webb, Jo Jones, Sid Catlett, for instance) with more technique and better time-keeping (Krupa tended to race tempos). But they were black, so would never make it to the top in US showbiz in those days. His fellow white Chicagoan Dave Tough had more subtlety and a lighter touch, but was an unreliable alcoholic.

But Krupa had something, even though it’s difficult to define what it was. I’ll have a go:  he was by far the world’s best-known drummer by the 1950’s, when people like me were growing up. Therefore a whole generation of  drummers were directly influenced by him and the glamour he brought to drumming. The film “The Gene Krupa Story“, in which Krupa was portrayed by Sal Minio, inspired Carl Palmer and myself, amongst many others.

It’s also said (and I must admit, I helped perpetuate this myth, by posting it – in good faith – on Wickipedia), that Krupa was the first drummer to record using a full drum kit (on the McKenzie & Condon’s Chicagoans session of 1927): not true. Baby Dodds (for certain) had recorded with a full kit a few months before, and it’s even suggested (on the basis of aural evidence from the records) that the very first jazz records by the Original Dixieland ‘Jass’ Band in 1917  featured a full drum kit (including bass drum), played by Tony Sbabaro (aka Spargo). Krupa did, however, bring the full drumkit to the centre-stage (so to speak) and was the first white percussionist to bring the Afro-American style (particularly with regard to the use of tom-toms) pioneered by Baby Dodds and Zutty Singleton, into the  commercial mainstream.

But none of that stuff really matters.

What matters is that Krupa brought the Louis Armstrong sense of 4/4 swing to jazz percussion in the late 1920’s; that he was a progressive  both musically and socially (a vigorous anti-racist, and close friend of black musicians like trumpeter Roy Eldrdge and fellow-drummer Cozy Cole).

When, in 1943 a young employee of Krupa’s Orchestra framed him for narcotics possession, Krupa took the rap, served his time without complaint, and on his release, more or less began again as a side-man first with Tommy Dorsey and then his old boss Benny Goodman.

He was always a gentleman, supporting musicians – black and white – in hard times, and always crediting his influences. When questioned, he always cited Baby Dodds as his first and most important influence,  and would tell interviewers “don’t forget to mention Baby.” Then there was the famous “Battle of the Bands” at the Savoy Ballroon in 1937, when Benny Goodman’s (white) Orchestra faced up to local heroes Chick Webb’s Orchestra (black) at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. Goodman’s outfit was at the height of its commercial success, powered by Krupa’s drumming. But the consensus was that Webb’s band won the day. What really impressed the Harlem audience was when Krupa – the most famous and successful drummer of the day – crossed the floor and bowed down before Chick Webb’s drums. The crowd went wild, both because of  Webb’s victory and because of Krupa’s magnanimity. Krupa later said, “I was never cut by a better man.”

But what made Krupa so special? I was trying to explain to a colleague (and sax player) in the pub tonight. The best I could come up with was: “dynamics – light and shade: he was a master of that. He also listened to the horns, and responded and initiated.  He was musical, and even his solos followed the tune of the song he was playing, And – most importantly – he was instantly recognisable. He had his own unique style, that danced (something he got from Baby Dodds) and makes him a Great in a way that superior technicians like Buddy Rich and Louis Bellson are not.

Here he is, taking over from the great Afro American drummer Big Sid Catlett (who plays first):


..and here’s the brilliant “Let Me Off Uptown”, with Anita O’ Day and Roy Eldridge:


1 Comment

  1. Jim Denham said,

    More interesting stuff on Krupa (including a demonstration of his technique) from British drummer John Petters, here:

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