You Don't Know Jazz! With Dr. Lewis Porter: Gene Krupa
September 14, 2012. Posted by Tim Wilkins.
This blog, on swing drummer Gene Krupa, is the latest in our regular series of blogs, "You Don't Know Jazz! With Dr. Lewis Porter." To read previous installments, click on the links below.
(PLEASE NOTE: If the reader uses any of the material from this series, no matter how brief, this article and its web address must be cited as the source. Thank you for respecting the intellectual property of Dr. Porter.)
Jazz Drumming: The Much-Maligned Gene Krupa
Gene Krupa has to be one of the most misunderstood, and insulted, musicians in jazz history.
It’s a typical thing, which happens all too often in jazz. If you become popular, critics and musicians can turn against you. It seems this is due in part to jealousy amongst peers who aren't as popular, and partly to a kind of elitist belief that if so many people like your music, you must be playing simple and compromising fluff.
So let’s take a closer look at – and closer listen to – Gene Krupa.
Somehow it has become part of received wisdom that Krupa wasn’t a good drummer, and that he played too loud. Neither of these things is true. If we actually listen, we can hear he was a creative and interactive player.
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.
Krupa became so popular that he was the only drummer many Swing Era white fans knew. This led to some resentment among his peers, especially African-Americans, even though he loved drummers like Baby Dodds and Chick Webb, and always said so.
But somewhere along the line, a few critics started the idea that Krupa played too loud, and that’s all he did. Sometimes Jo Jones, the drummer in Count Basie’s band, fed this perception by saying things like, “All he ever did was that tom-tom beat," meaning the “Sing, Sing Sing” riff that made Krupa famous.
So what started out as an opinion - that Gene Krupa played too loud, and that’s all he did - came to be considered a fact. But it’s wrong. This always seems to happen with critics, for some reason. But never mind. I’m going to give you some examples to set the record straight.
We need look no further than a live version of “Sing, Sing Sing,” which Krupa recorded with Goodman at his famous Carnegie Hall concert in January of 1938.
The first thing you notice is the energy Gene Krupa brings to this band. I’m telling you, without Krupa, the Benny Goodman group would have been a very clean, very tight, and not very exciting organization - but he lifts them right off the ground.
Notice, too, how much variety Krupa plays in his opening riff - so it’s obviously unfair to say, as Jo Jones did, he does the same thing every time.
Perhaps the best 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 - got off to a very stiff start, and the audience was unmoved. Then Krupa started dropping “bombs” – bass drum accents – and played a two-bar break which lasted only three seconds, but drove 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 at the same concert on “China Boy,” which he played with wire brushes. Listen to his unusual accenting as he drives the quartet - fascinating - it's never just 1, 2, 3, 4.
And when he solos, he's also very inventive:
It’s not true, as Krupa sometimes claimed, that he was the first to use a bass drum in a recording studio, in a 1927 session with guitarist Eddie Condon and pianist Jimmy McPartland.
What happened was that this was the first session with a bass drum that Krupa and his friends knew of, so that’s what they said. But as we discussed in a previous blog, we can find plenty of early jazz drummers playing a bass drum, all the way back to the first recordings by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1917.
Krupa is also very interactive - certainly one of the most interactive drummers of his generation. There were very few drummers in the mid-thirties who, if you were to play “boo da, ba da,” on your clarinet, would play “a dee ka, ka koo!” behind you, as Krupa did, because they’re listening to everything you do.
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 a trio session with pianist Jess Stacy and bass player Israel Crosby, who later worked with Ahmad Jamal, in November of 1935.
As we can hear, Krupa, Stacy and Crosby are totally going back and forth and interacting - it’s a marvelous and timeless example of jazz playing. This kind of interaction is what you’d expect from drummers today, but it’s certainly not typical in the 1930s.
Right into the 1960s, in small group settings Krupa is not loud at all, he’s very swinging, very interactive, and he lifts any group he plays with right up. Here’s, “Seven Come Eleven” from a 1963 stereo session he recorded with the reunited Benny Goodman quartet with Lionel Hampton on vibes and Teddy Wilson on piano.
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. It was the kind of thing where he was the only drummer a lot of people knew, and people resent that. You know, if you only know one drummer, people will say, “Hey, what about all these other drummers?”
And as far as being loud, excuse me, but have you ever heard Art Blakey, Max Roach or Elvin Jones? Some of the best drummers in jazz play loud!
So just forget all of that and listen - you’ll hear some great stuff.
© 2012 WBGO
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