Krupa’s Last Recorded Performance a Gem

Krupa

GENE KRUPA LIVE AT THE NEW SCHOOL / SAMPSON-WEBB: Don’t Be That Way. SHAVERS: Undecided. STRAYHORN: Take the “A” Train. KRUPA: Drumboogie. ARLEN-KOEHLER: As Long as I Live. GREEN-HEYMAN-SOUR: Body and Soul. TIZOL-ELLINGTON: Caravan. PRIMA: Sing, Sing, Sing / Eddie Shu, t-sax/harmonica; John Bunch, pn; Nabil Totah, bs; Gene Krupa, bs / Chiaroscuro 207, or available for free streaming on YouTube (live: New York, April 17, 1973)

Gene Krupa was sort of an anomaly among jazz drummers. He didn’t have the greatest technique by a long shot: not only Baby Dodds, but also Vic Berton, Chick Webb (his personal idol), rival Buddy Rich and later drum idol Max Roach could all do things Krupa found impossible. But Gene had one thing going for him that many lesser-known drummers did not have, and that was a sense of drama. Benny Goodman often said that he never played the same after Krupa left his band in early 1938 because, despite all the wonderful things that Lionel Hampton, Dave Tough, Big Sid Catlett or Harry Jaeger (a really fine and underrated drummer) could do, it was Krupa’s beat that inspired him the most.

Krupa always said that he thought his drum solos through the way a horn player did, that he tried to tell a story and be coherent. In several of his solos with Goodman, however, he tended to overplay, most often when he played with the trio or quartet. With his own band, however, Krupa surprisingly streamlined and modernized his style. This fit in perfectly with the more sophisticated scores his orchestra played, including those by Gerry Mulligan in the post-war years. I actually did manage to see Gene in person once—with Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson, the original trio, and later in the set with George Duvivier on bass and (I think) Terry Gibbs on vibes. He played beautifully.

That was in 1967. During the next few years, Krupa went through a plethora of health problems including leukemia, emphysema, heart disease, and severe back pain. Despite this, he still managed to give performances as great as any he had played in the past. This April 1973 jam session, recorded only six months before Krupa’s death, wasn’t released until 26 years later, and many critics dismiss it as merely “historical” in importance because of its timing.

But this isn’t entirely fair. The unusual quality of this performance is directly related to the rhythmic pulse of tenor saxophonisr Eddie Shu, a name I was barely familiar with, and in addition the tight rhythmic propulsion of pianist Bunch and bassist Totah. They function as a unit, playing a sort of serrated jazz even within the context of the old standards that made up this concert, and because of this we hear Krupa playing things on the drums that he never attempted before. His pulse is both more fluid and more serrated in quality, and he follows his musicians with unerring timing and a great sense of humor. Of course, the final performance on here—Sing, Sing, Sing—is primarily a nostalgia piece for those members of Krupa’s audience who wanted to hear him pound out that tom-tom beat one last time, and it doesn’t work as well as the Goodman original because you need the cushion of a big band to absorb all that pounding. Just having a tenor saxophone to play all the riffs and breaks and solos doesn’t quite cut it. But in everything else on here, you get a chance to hear Krupa in a new context, and it’s fascinating to hear him adapt to his slightly more modern compatriots.

I found this album to be fulfilling and interesting, and I think you will, too, if you’re open minded about it.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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4 thoughts on “Krupa’s Last Recorded Performance a Gem

  1. I note your assertion that: “Gene Krupa was sort of an anomaly among jazz drummers. He didn’t have the greatest technique by a long shot: not only Baby Dodds, but also Vic Berton, Chick Webb (his personal idol), rival Buddy Rich and later drum idol Max Roach could all do things Krupa found impossible.”

    This is historical revisionism that distorts the record, no pun intended. It’s true that Baby Dodds and Chick Webb were among Gene Krupa’s most important influences, but the idea that they and other jazz drummers all could do things that he could only dream of is just plain ridiculous. Also, Vic Berton may have been a top New York drummer in the late 20s and early 30s, but it was he who felt change coming when he first heard a teenaged Krupa on record with the McKenzie-Condon Chicagoans.

    While it may be an open question whether Gene had the best technique among jazz drummers, at the very least he was among the best technically. First of all, he inspired generations of drummers to come, and not just because of his showmanship. He was almost universally admired for his skills and artistry by contemporaries and continues to be so by succeeding generations of drummers. Fellow musicians found him inspiring to work with. He was always the favorite drummer of the notoriously fussy Benny Goodman.

    Gene Krupa imparted his drumming knowledge through the school he co-founded in the 1950s with fellow jazz drummer Cozy Cole and through mentoring of numerous, individual students. But Gene was also a student – a lifelong student of jazz and classical drumming. His teachers ranged from Sanford Moeller, who considered Krupa to be his most gifted out of the many gifted students he taught, to Saul Goodman, principal timpanist of the New York Philharmonic.

    Krupa was always growing and learning as a musician; his drumming approach had noticeably evolved from a youthful muscularity in the 1930s – in a context of musicality and swift, intuitive interaction – to a mature, lighter, more experimental feel by the 1950s that featured some of his most exciting and unusual work (listen to his playing on any number of recordings of “Dark Eyes,” “Caravan,” or “Big Noise from Winnetka” for some terrific examples). And throughout his career, his recorded and live performances have been filled with the sort of witty, conversational quality that is only possible with a dedication to his craft and a fluency in the language of percussion.

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    • I’m sure that you truly believe these things, but I assure you that the last thing in the world I do on my website is “historical revisionism.” Much of what I have said here was said by Krupa himself – do some research and find this out for yourself. Moreover, by making these comments I am by no means trying to demean or belittle Krupa’s abilities. Benny Goodman also admitted that some of his other drummers, particularly Big Sid Catlett, could so things that Krupa could not but that he never felt more comfortable or swung better than when Krupa played behind him. By the mid-1940s both Krupa and Dave Tough were playing a smoother, more modern drum style to match the feel of the music they were accompanying. I absolutely love Krupa’s drumming on a large number of his recordings and he is surely one of my favorite drummers, but facts are facts.

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      • You suggested that I “do some research.” Coincidentally, I’ve been rather immersed in Krupa as of late, which means listening intensely to his recordings and reading everything I can about him. I think I know where you got Benny Goodman’s statement about Gene’s playing vis-à-vis other drummers, but the way you put it isn’t actually what he said. You may be thinking of what Mel Torme wrote in his Introduction to Bruce H. Klauber’s fascinating book, The World of Gene Krupa. In his Introduction, Torme recalled a conversation he’d had with Benny in 1982, in which Mel asked which of the many drummers who had worked with Benny was the “best.” This is how Mel put it: “How about Davey Tough, Benny? Harry Yeager, Buddy Schutz? Sid Catlett? Louis Bellson? They all played for you at one time or another. Who was the best?” Mel remembered Benny’s response, which I now quote, verbatim: “Gene, Gene was the best. There was no one like Gene.” Benny didn’t qualify his choice by saying, “Well, Gene’s drumming had its faults, but I felt the most comfortable playing with him, anyway.” It was a pure affirmation of Gene’s abilities.

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      • Oh yes, I know that. I even saw a TV clip of Buddy Rich telling Goodman that although he played for Artie Shaw, Benny was the one he WANTED to play with, but Benny said, “I thought you were too loud and busy.” Nothing I said in my review was meant to disparage Gene Krupa. I love his drumming; if I didn’t, I wouldn’t own so many of his recordings (actually, more than Rich’s because of the Goodman years). I was merely stating an objective fact. Gene said in later years that Chick Webb intimidated him because he was so much better, and wondered aloud how so many people could prefer him to Rich, Roach or even Joe Morello who could do so many things that he couldn’t. But Gene was not a “defective” drummer just because his technique wasn’t as spectacular, True, he couldn’t play press rolls, paradiddles or one-handed rim shots as well as a few others (listen to Rich’s one-handed rim shots at the beginning of Dorsey’s “Opus One” – many professional drummers are still in awe of that), but he was great because no one noticed his (very few) shortcomings. Sonny Greer was even less of a great technician than Krupa, but I like his drumming very much in context with the Ellington big band and small groups. Besides which, Krupa was a Polish-American and so am I, so of course I have a soft spot in my heart for him. And I really admire Gene for at least admitting what he couldn’t do. It wasn’t much and it didn’t detract from his greatness. Neither Artur Schnabel nor Alfred Cortot were technically great pianists, but they’re both legends because of what they COULD do on their instruments. By the way, Krupa also told me these things when I talked to him after a concert in 1967….with a laugh, of course. He was not only a wonderful drummer but a wonderful human being. Nothing I said in my review was meant to be demeaning.

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