Reconsidering Gene Krupa, A Great Jazz Drummer Hiding in Plain Sight

Mar 15, 2018

Gene Krupa has to be one of the most misunderstood musicians in jazz history.

In his time, he was a drummer whose energetic charisma propelled him into a rare level of celebrity. A marquee star from the 1930s on, he appeared not only onstage but also in Hollywood films. In 1959 he was even the subject of a major biopic, The Gene Krupa Story, starring Sal Mineo. As an emotional psychodrama with drumming at the center, it’s an obvious precursor to Whiplash, the 2014 Damien Chazelle film.

Krupa’s reputation still looms large in pop culture: Rolling Stone recently put him at Number 7 in its list of the 100 greatest drummers of all time.

Yet among jazz critics and historians, and many musicians, it has become part of the received wisdom that Krupa was an unmusical drummer, and that he played too loud. At the most, it seems that Krupa gets credit — mainly via Benny Goodman’s anthem “Sing, Sing, Sing” — for popularizing the drum feature in jazz and pop.

It’s a problem all too common in jazz. It seems that if you gain a certain level of popularity, critics and musicians can turn against you. Along with professional envy, this seems due in part to an elitist belief that if so many people like your music, you must be doing something wrong. It’s also commonly stated that he was “old fashioned” — but considering that he was born in 1909, that’s hardly fair. He must be judged in the context of his era. In this installment of Deep Dive, we’ll listen closely to some musical highlights, making the case that he was a creative player with a wide dynamic range.

Krupa was born in Chicago on January 15, 1909. He was gigging in Wisconsin when he was asked to return to his hometown to join Thelma Terry’s band, in 1927.

Thelma Terry

Given that this is Women in Jazz Month, let’s talk about Terry a bit. A fine bassist almost eight years older than Krupa, she already had a lot of experience performing with a variety of dance bands. In fact, she may have been the first woman instrumentalist to lead a dance band. (She was certainly one of the first.) On the strength of her six recorded songs (one of which had an extra take), she was an excellent anchor whose playing was full of rhythmic variety and percussiveness.

Krupa made his first recordings in December 1927, with members of the all-white circle of players that jazz historians like to call “the Chicago school” or “the Austin High gang,” because most of them went to Chicago’s Austin neighborhood high school. Among them were cornetist Jimmy McPartland and guitar and banjo player Eddie Condon. (Krupa and Condon regularly claimed that these recordings were the first to feature a bass drum. They were mistaken about that: bass drums are clearly audible before then, starting with some of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band recordings in 1917.)

While she isn’t typically credited as a member of the Austin High gang, Terry had attended the same school a few years earlier, and probably lived in the area. It might even be how she knew Gene.

On March 29, 1928, Krupa recorded with Thelma Terry and Her Playboys (stylized as “Play Boys” on the record labels). The first number, “Mama’s Gone Goodbye” — a bit of a jazz standard that had already been recorded a number of times over the previous five years — begins and ends with a duet between his cymbals and Terry’s bass, which makes me think she and Gene enjoyed working together.

As for her playing on the track, listen for how she breaks up the rhythm at 0:30. Her rhythmically inventive bass playing is so prominent between 1:20 and 2:00 that this whole passage is essentially a bass solo with written sax solo and band accompaniment. In fact, she and Gene are the only ones improvising on this recording.

I’d like to note that on another recording from this session, “Starlight and Tulips,” there is what sounds like a vibraphone at 1:02. It was a new instrument at the time, so this was very likely the first time that one was used on a dance band recording. (It’s not played by Terry or Krupa, because they’re also audible.)

By the late 1930s, Krupa defined drumming for many Swing Era listeners, because of the unprecedented popularity he enjoyed in groups led by clarinetist Benny Goodman. His tom-tom introduction to Goodman’s 1937 hit “Sing, Sing, Sing” made him a household name, and a star in his own right.

Drummer Gene Krupa playing drums at Gjon Mili's studio.
Credit Gjon Mili / The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Krupa became so popular that he was the only drummer that many white Swing Era fans knew. This led to resentment among his peers, especially African-Americans, even though he loved African-American drummers. Gene consistently said that his main influences were the black artists he saw in person, primarily Baby Dodds and Chick Webb. (More on Webb in a future post.) But you can hear drum legend Jo Jones (a personal favorite of mine) “diss” Krupa on his 1974 album The Drums, an album of talking and playing. He says that all Krupa ever did was play a tom-tom beat, proceeding to demonstrate that beat from “Sing.”

But the evidence says otherwise. Here is Krupa playing “Sing, Sing, Sing” on Goodman’s famous Carnegie Hall concert 80 years ago, in January of 1938.

The first thing you notice is the energy that Gene Krupa brings to this band. Without Krupa, in my opinion, the Benny Goodman Orchestra would have been a very clean, very tight but not very exciting organization. His playing lifts them right off the ground.

Notice, too, how much variety Krupa packs into his opening riff. It’s obviously unfair to suggest, as Jo Jones did, that he just repeats a similar pattern.

But an even better example of how Krupa lifts a band is the opening number from the Carnegie Hall concert, “Don’t Be That Way.”

Goodman’s band (and Goodman himself) get off to a stiff start, and the audience sounds unmoved. But then, as you hear in this clip, Krupa starts dropping “bombs” — strong drum accents — and plays a two-bar break that lasts only three seconds but drives the audience wild. You can hear for yourself how they, and the other musicians, respond to Krupa’s drumming.

Krupa did like to play his bass drum and tom-toms, especially with a big band. But he could also play with a lighter touch, as he did in the same concert on “China Boy,” which he played with wire brushes. Listen to his unusual accenting as he drives the quartet. It’s fascinating, never just 1, 2, 3, 4.

He adds unpredictable accents behind Goodman’s solo:

And when he takes a drum solo, he's also quite inventive:

Krupa is also very interactive — certainly by the standards of his generation. There were very few drummers in the mid-‘30s who would “echo” the soloists, as Krupa did. Clearly, he was listening to everything they played.

A good place to hear Krupa’s ability to interact with others is in small groups. One example of this is “Barrelhouse,” which he recorded  in November of 1935 with Jess Stacy, Goodman’s pianist, and Israel Crosby, who much later was the bassist with Ahmad Jamal. Focus especially on this passage, which runs from 1:55 to the end of the track:

As we can hear, Krupa, Stacy and Crosby are going back and forth and breaking up the beat: it’s a marvelous and timeless example of jazz playing. This kind of interaction is what you might expect from drummers today, but it’s certainly not typical in the 1930s.

With his own big bands, of course, Krupa was often in the limelight. But in small groups he was a real team player. Right into the ‘70s, he’s not loud at all in small-group settings — he’s swinging and responsive, and he lifts any group he plays with. Here’s “Seven Come Eleven” from a 1963 stereo session he recorded with the reunited Benny Goodman quartet, featuring Lionel Hampton on vibes and Teddy Wilson on piano. I especially enjoy the great variety of approaches he uses, how he changes the “feel” behind each soloist. Here is a lively passage during the Goodman clarinet solo:

Almost a decade later, Krupa appeared on a televised all-star jazz program sponsored by Timex and produced by Donald Ross. Watch the broadcast, from October 23, 1972, and you’ll witness Krupa’s alert playing, and his wide range of dynamic levels. As trumpeter Doc Severinsen announces, this was the first televised appearance of the original Goodman quartet — though it’s a quintet, because George Duvivier has been added on bass.

The quartet’s segment begins at 27:28 and runs about 12 minutes. It’s clear from the start that all four musicians are exhilarated to be playing together, and the very first number is an ideal example of Krupa’s work, illustrating his alertness, energy, variety and overall musicality.

So as far as I’m concerned, Gene Krupa was a marvelous drummer who got a bad rap just because he was more popular than some critics and musicians thought he should have been.

And as far as being loud, have you ever heard Art Blakey, Max Roach or Elvin Jones? Some of the best drummers in jazz play loud! But as Gene himself said in DownBeat, on March 29, 1962: “My job remains…to keep time, to extract appropriate, supporting sounds from the instrument, to be a musician.”

Further Reading:

World of Gene Krupa: That Legendary Drummin' Man, Bruce Klauber’s biography and reference work, is drawn from many of Krupa’s published interviews.

There are 48 pages on Krupa in the late Burt Korall’s Drummin’ Men: The Swing Years.