OCTOBER 16, 1973 – Drummer GENE KRUPA (b. January 15, 1909 in Chicago, Illinois as Eugene Bertram Krupa), died in Yonkers at age 64 from heart failure, though he also had leukemia and emphysema. He was buried in Holy Cross Cemetery in Calumet City, Illinois.The first drummer to be a superstar, Gene Krupa may not have been the most advanced drummer of the 1930s but he was in some ways the most significant. Prior to Krupa, drum solos were a real rarity and the drums were thought of as a merely supportive instrument.
With his good looks and colorful playing, he became a matinee idol and changed the image of drummers forever. He is credited with helping to formulate the modern drum set, being one of the first jazz drummers to use a bass drum in a recording session (December 1927). One of his bass drums, a Slingerland 14 X 26, inscribed with Benny Goodman’s and Krupa’s initials, is preserved at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.Krupa was born as the youngest of Anna (née Oslowski) and Bartłomiej “Bartley” Krupa’s nine children. Bartley was an immigrant from Poland. Anna was born in Shamokin, Pennsylvania and was also of Polish descent. Both parents were Roman Catholics who groomed their son for the priesthood.After the untimely death of his father when Krupa was young, his mother went to work as a milliner to support her family.
At around the age of 11, Krupa got a job running errands and cleaning windows at Brown Music Company, a music store on Chicago’s South Side. With the money he earned, Krupa decided to purchase a musical instrument, and he ultimately chose the drums, the “cheapest item” listed in the wholesale catalog. Taken with the idea of playing the drums, he searched his South Side neighborhood for the company of young musicians. In 1921, while still in grammar school, Gene joined his first band “The Frivolians.” He obtained the drumming seat as a fluke when the regular drummer was sick. The band played during summers in Madison, Wisconsin. “There were a few little bands in school that I got to hear at socials and tea dances,” the musician recalled in the book “Drummin’ Men.” “I’d watch the drummers and pick up what I could. After a bit, I got to make music with some of these fellows and substitute at the dances and socials.”Soon Krupa’s musical activities began to take precedence over his school work at parochial schools. As a result of his late-night musical activities, he often fell asleep during classes. In 1924, in an effort to placate his mother’ disappointment over his failing school studies, Krupa enrolled in St. Joseph’s College, a seminary prep school in Rensselaer, Indiana. At St. Joseph’s, Krupa studied under a classically trained professor of music, Father Ildefonse Rapp for a year but decided the priesthood was not his vocation, and decided to leave the school in order to pursue a career as a professional drummer.
In 1925, Gene began his percussion studies with Roy Knapp, Al Silverman & Ed Straight. Under advice from others, he decided to join the musicians union. “The guy said, ‘Make a roll. That’s it. Give us 50 bucks. You’re In.’” Living on the South Side, Krupa spent evenings searching for jazz in neighborhood cabarets and nightclubs, and also began studies with Sanford A. Moeller. He started his first “legit” playing with Joe Kayser, Thelma Terry and the Benson Orchestra, the Hossier Bellhops, and Ed Mulaney’s Red Jackets among other commercial bands. A popular hangout for musicians was “The Three Deuces.” All of the guys playing in Mickey Mouse bands would gravitate here after hours and jam till early in the morning. Gene was able to hone and develop his style playing with other jazz players such as Mezz Mezzrow, Tommy Dorsey, Bix Beiderbecke and Benny Goodman in these local dives. Krupa’s big influences during this time were Tubby Hall and Zutty Singleton. There were many other drummers (Ray Bauduc, Chick Webb, George Wettling, Dave Tough) who influenced his approach to drumming and other instrumentalists and composers such as Frederick Delius who influenced his approach to music.In the spring of 1927 Krupa discovered a talented group of young white jazzmen playing at a South Side movie house. Known as the Austin High Gang, this devoted coterie of musicians included banjoist Eddie Condon, saxophonist Bud Freeman, and Dave Tough, the premiere white Chicago drum stylist. Krupa “sat through two shows every night and three on Saturday to hear Tough on drums,” remembered Condon in his autobiography “We Called It Music.”Soon afterward Tough, in an effort to introduce his younger protégé to authentic jazz, took Krupa to see the great New Orleans drummer Baby Dodds. “Baby was the band’s central strength,” reminisced Krupa in “Drumming Men,” “the way he used the drums, the rims, the cymbals was just marvelous. I kept coming back to dig Baby, always showing my appreciation for the extremely musical things he was doing.
He was one of my main inspirations.”Krupa was so impressed by Dodds that he began to immerse himself in the study of black jazz. Dodds probably had the greatest influence on Gene in this period. Dodds’ use of press rolls was highly reflected in Gene’s playing, especially during his tenure with Benny Goodman.Austin High Gang member Milton “Mess” Mezzrow recalled in his autobiography, “Really the Blues,” how he and Krupa analyzed the rhythmic patterns of New Orleans drummers: “More than anything, it was the Negroes’ time and rhythm that fascinated us. I would sit there with Gene for hours, just beating out rhythms of Zutty Singleton and Johnny Wells until my hands swole double.” By 1927 Krupa was attending a regular jazz jam Session held at the Three Deuces, located across from the Chicago Theater; legendary sessions that included Austin High Gang clarinetist Frank Teschmaker, trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke, and Krupa’s future employer Benny Goodman.Also in 1927, Krupa was hired by MCA to become a member of Thelma Terry and Her Playboys, the first notable American jazz band (all-female bands excepted) to be led by a female musician.
The Playboys were the house band at The Golden Pumpkin nightclub in Chicago and toured throughout the eastern and central US.In December of the same year, Red Mckenzie assisted the Austin High Gang in landing a recording session with the Okeh label. Krupa made his first recordings with a band under the leadership of Red McKenzie and guitarist Eddie Condon. Billed as McKenzie’s and Condon’s Chicagoans, Krupa, Freeman, Teschmaker, Condon, bassist Jim Lannigan, and pianist Joe Sullivan recorded four sides: “China Boy,” “Sugar,” “Nobody’s Sweetheart,” and “Liza.” Expecting to use his entire drum set, Krupa became outraged when producer Tommy Rockwell demanded that he play the standard set-up: a snare and cymbals. Rockwell said “All right, but I’m afraid the bass drum and those tom-toms will knock the needle off the wax and into the street.” But at Mckenzie’s urging, Rockwell decided to allow Krupa to use his entire kit. “So they let Gene play the drums, and he beat the heck out of them all the way through the set,” described Jimmy McPartland in “Talking Jazz,” “It gave us a good solid beat.” Assessing the impact of the session, Condon wrote, “Krupa’s drums went through us like triple bourbon.”The success of the Okeh session didn’t just actually mark the first known recording of the bass drum in jazz music (Dodds beat him to the punch), but it defined the Chicago jazz sound, along with other recordings by musicians from the Chicago jazz scene, such as Bix Beiderbecke.
As Richard Hadlock pointed out in “Jazz Masters of the Twenties,” Krupa was the “biggest surprise” of these sessions, “an unknown, whose well-recorded drum work … rocked the New York Jazz cliques.” In 1928 Condon’s Chicagoans headed to New York to back singer Bee Palmer. When the job fell through, Krupa and the Chicagoans recorded sessions with trumpeter Red Nichols and trombonist Miff Mole. Krupa also appeared on six recordings by the Thelma Terry band that year.After playing with Nichols’s band, Krupa performed with the pit band for George and Ira Gershwin’s 1930 Broadway production “Strike Up the Band.” “Gershwin was crazy about his playing,” explained Max Kaminsky in “My Life in Jazz,” “because Gene was the first white drummer who could swing the beat so that the chorus girls could kick, in time.”Gene had never learned to read music and “faked” his parts during rehearsals. Glenn Miller assisted him by humming the drum parts until Gene got them down. After “Strike Up the Band” completed in January 1930, Hoagy Carmichael gathered several great musicians together for many historical sessions. Gene played on some legendary “jazz” recordings with Bix Beiderbecke, Adrian Rollini and Joe Venuti.Madhattan Room, 1937 Krupa played in one more pit band with Red Nichols for Gershwin’s “Girl Crazy.”
He then joined Russ Columbo’s band in which indirectly led to his joining Benny Goodman’s group. Benny Goodman urged Gene to join his band with the promise that it would be a real jazz band.In December 1934, he joined Goodman, where his drum work made him a national celebrity, starring with the Goodman Trio and Quartet, his tom-tom interludes on the hit “Sing, Sing, Sing” were the first extended drum solos to be recorded commercially. After joining, Benny soon became discouraged with the idea of having a successful jazz group. The band was relegated to playing dance music and Benny was considering packing it in. Upon the band’s engagement at the Palomar, Benny decided to go for broke and played their own arrangements. The audience went wild and the band took off. Audiences were demanding that Gene be featured in every number and Benny didn’t want to lose the spotlight to a sideman.The conflict with Goodman prompted him to leave the group and form his own orchestra shortly after the Carnegie Hall concert on January 16, 1938.Gene departed on March 3, 1938 and less than 2 months later formed his own orchestra. 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.
His band went through several incarnations during its existance and at one point even featured a string section with 30 to 40 members. In the 1930s, Krupa also became the first endorser of Slingerland drums. At Krupa’s urging, Slingerland developed tom-toms with tuneable top and bottom heads, which immediately became important elements of virtually every drummer’s setup. Krupa developed and popularized many of the cymbal techniques that became standard. His collaboration with Avedis Zildjian developed the modern hi-hat cymbals and standardized the names and uses of the ride cymbal, crash cymbal and splash cymbal.During this time Krupa authored his own book titled “The Gene Krupa Drum Method”(1938) and began an annual Drum Contest (1941). The contest attracted thousands of contestants each year and saw drum legend Louie Bellson as the first year’s winner. Such fine players as Vido Musso, Milt Raskin, Floyd O’Brien, Sam Donahue, Shorty Sherock, and the excellent singer Irene Daye were assets to the Krupa Orchestra and “Drum Boogie” was a popular number but it was not until 1941 when he had Anita O’Day and Roy Eldridge that Krupa’s big band really took off.Among his hits from 1941-1942 were “Let Me Off Uptown,” “After You’ve Gone,” “Rockin’ Chair” and “Thanks for the Boogie Ride.” Krupa appeared in the 1941 Howard Hawks comedy film “Ball of Fire” in which he and his band performed an extended version of the hit “Drum Boogie,” (sung by Barbara Stanwyck, whose singing was dubbed by Martha Tilton) with Roy Eldridge also featured. He composed the song with trumpeter Roy Eldridge. As an encore, he played a tamer version of the same song using matchsticks as drumsticks and a matchbox as a drum while Stanwyck and the audience sang along.
Another appearance was in William Dieterle’s faux jazz history “Syncopation.”In 1943, Krupa was arrested for possession of two marijuana cigarettes. He was charged with local and federal charges (contributing to delinquency of a minor) and was given a 90-day jail sentence for the first and convicted of the second. He served 84 days of the local sentence (time served for a crime for which he was not guilty). He was exonerated and acquitted of all charges when it was proven that he was framed, as the prosecution’s key witness, John Pateakos had been paid to testify falsely against Krupa. Pateakos returned to prove that he wasn’t a minor, that he had dodged the draft, and that he had been instructed by federal agents to leave after the first conviction. He recanted his earlier testimony.During this time, Roy Eldridge led Krupa’s band and eventually had to break up the group. After Krupa got out of jail, he briefly joined up with Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey before putting together another big band in the middle of 1944, this one with a string section. Krupa’s groups of the early 1940’s were often criticized as being too commercial but his big band was one of the first in the mid-forties to introduce Bop arrangements with the help of Gerry Mulligan and the playing of trumpeter Red Rodney. Gene managed to keep the full band together until December of 1950, when most big bands had already fallen apart. He kept a smaller version of the big band together through 1951.Tenor saxophonist Charlie Ventura and pianist Teddy Napoleon had a trio hit in “Dark Eyes” (1945), Anita O’Day returned for a time in 1945 (scoring with “Opus No. 1”) and, although his own style was unchanged (being a Dixieland drummer at heart), Krupa was one of the first swing big bandleaders to welcome the influence of bebop into his group’s arrangements, some of which were written by Gerry Mulligan (most notably “Disc Jockey Jump”).
Among the soloists in the second Krupa Orchestra were Don Fagerquist, Red Rodney, Ventura, altoist Charlie Kennedy, tenorman Buddy Wise, and in 1949 Roy Eldridge.Krupa made a cameo appearance in the 1946 film “The Best Years of Our Lives.” His athletic drumming style, timing methods, and cymbal technique evolved during this decade to adapt to changing fashion, but he never adjusted to the bebop style of jazz. He appeared in several motion pictures including “Some Like it Hot” & “Beat the Band,” becoming a sort of matinee idol. His noted likeness to Tyrone Power and musical fame was a magical combination in the eyes of Hollywood.Krupa married Ethel Maguire twice: the first marriage lasted from 1934 to 1942, the second from 1946 to her death in 1955. As the 1940s ended, Count Basie closed his band and Woody Herman reduced his to an octet. Krupa gradually cut down the size of his band in the late 1940s, and from 1951 on he led a trio or quartet, often with such sidemen as Ventura, Napoleon, Eddie Shu, Bobby Scott, Dave McKenna, Eddie Wasserman, Ronnie Ball, Dave Frishberg, and John Bunch.He also began studying tympani with the New York Philharmonic’s Saul Goodman (1951). Norman Granz then hired Krupa and drummer Buddy Rich for his Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts. The two drummers performed at Carnegie Hall in September 1952 (due to contractual reasons, Krupa was first billed as “The Chicago Flash”) and it was issued by Verve as “The Drum Battle.” The two drummers faced off in a number of television broadcasts and other venues and often played similar duets with drummer Cozy Cole. Krupa and Rich recorded two studio albums together, “Krupa and Rich” (Verve, 1955) and “Burnin’ Beat” (Verve, 1962).During the 1950s, Krupa often played at the Metropole near Times Square in Manhattan. In 1954, he returned to Hollywood to appear in the films “The Glenn Miller Story” and “The Benny Goodman Story.”
That same year, he partnered with Cozy Cole to open a drum school in New York City. In two years, the school averaged 135 to 150 students per week, expanding Gene’s influence into the drumming community at the grassroots level.In 1959, the movie biography “The Gene Krupa Story” was released with Sal Mineo portraying Krupa, and the film included a cameo by Red Nichols. He remarried that year to Patty Bowler. They produced two children, Mary Grace and Michael, but were divorced within ten years.After a heart attack in 1960, Gene focused on leading trios and quartets. He continued to perform in famous clubs in the 1960s, including the Showboat Lounge in northwest Washington, DC. Increasingly troubled by back pain, he retired in 1967 and opened a music school, but had occasional reunions with Benny Goodman. His students included Peter Criss of KISS and Jerry Nolan of The New York Dolls. Doug Clifford of Creedence Clearwater Revival cited Krupa as an inspiration.His second marriage also fell apart.
During his hiatus, Krupa practiced and coached his baseball team. In 1969, Gene began a series of anti-drug lectures and clinics for Slingerland Drums, and returned to the stage in 1970. Ironically his final recording was led by the same person who headed his first appearance on records, Eddie Condon. In the early 1970s Krupa’s house in Yonkers, New York, was damaged by fire. He continued to live in the parts of the house that were habitable. In 1972, he appeared at a jazz concert series sponsored by the New School in New York with trumpeter Harry James and the saxophonist Gerry Mulligan. The presumption was that the 500 or so audience members were drawn by Mulligan’s contemporary appeal, but when Krupa took a 16-bar break during the second song, audience members leapt to their feet in appreciation. He occasionally played in public in the early 1970s until shortly before his death.
One of his last and most memorable performances was a reunion concert with Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton and bassist George Duvivier at Carnegie Hall for the televised “Timex All-Star Swing Festival” on October 23, 1972, where he played three numbers including “Avalon” and a rendition of “I’m A Ding Dong Daddy” that found him completely stealing the show. His last public appearance was in Saratoga Springs, New York.Gene Krupa will forever be known as the man who made drums a solo instrument. He single-handedly made the Slingerland Drum Company a success and inspired millions to become drummers. He also demonstrated a level of showmanship which has not been equaled. Buddy Rich once said that Gene was the “beginning and the end of all jazz drummers.” Louie Bellson said of Gene, “He was a wonderful, kind man and a great player. He brought drums to the foreground. He is still a household name.”In 1978, Krupa became the first drummer inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame. The 1937 recording of Louis Prima’s “Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing)” combined with Waller’s “Christopher Columbus” by Benny Goodman and His Orchestra featuring Gene Krupa on drums was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1982. Krupa is considered “the founding father of the modern drumset” by Modern Drummer magazine.