Not every great musician gets to reinvent his instrument the way Gene Krupa did. Under his sticks, a drum set became both more powerful and more integral to the music than ever before.
Krupa, born in 1909 to Polish immigrants in Chicago, was already gigging in his hometown and Milwaukee by the time he was in his teens. He was 18 when he got a steady job with an established big band, Thelma Terry and Her Playboys, which got him valuable experience with regular nightclub shows and tours. He also made half a dozen recordings with Terry in the late 1920s.
But it was his next move that made him a star: Krupa joined Benny Goodman’s big band in 1934. If you only know one Krupa track, it’s almost certainly Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing,” one of the earliest recordings to feature an extended drum solo.
The waning of the 1940s also brought about an end to the big band era. Small groups became the rage, resulting in arguably the best jazz ever recorded. Krupa was no exception to this trend, making fantastic albums with trios and quartets throughout the ’50s and ’60s. He died in 1973.
Enjoy these eight great tracks by Gene Krupa.
- Track: “The Drum Battle”
Album: The Drum Battle (with Buddy Rich)
One of the marketing oddities in Krupa’s career was an ongoing series of appearances pitting his skills against those of fellow drummer Buddy Rich. This started at a Jazz at the Philharmonic show at Carnegie Hall, featured on this Verve album, and the battle was reconstructed a number of times in the following years.
The very idea that two drummers without a band could have enough star status to merit not just audience but industry enthusiasm would have been unthinkable without the technical developments by drumming masters like Krupa and Rich. (It’s worth noting that, by the time these two played their battle on the Sammy Davis, Jr. Show in 1966, it was thought necessary to back them up with a band. In the jazz glory days of 1952, those JATP audiences were made of sterner stuff!)
- Track: “Coronation Hop”
Album: The Exciting Gene Krupa
There are nine great musicians on this album, although only six play on this track. Besides Krupa, there’s Steve Jordan (guitar), Teddy Wilson (piano), Willie Smith (alto sax), Charlie Shavers (trumpet), and Israel Crosby (bass).
“Coronation Hop,” the first song on the album, has Krupa drumming constantly, both backing up his colleagues and answering them with solos as short as four beats and as long as 16 bars. You can listen to whole album here:
- Track: “Meddle My Minor”
Album: The Driving Gene Krupa
In one way, “Meddle My Minor” is a reminiscence on “Sing, Sing, Sing,” which Krupa had first recorded with Benny Goodman in 1937. On the other hand, this newer tune quickly spins off into a bebop exploration, quite different from anything the Swing King Goodman ever did.
It’s Charlie Shavers again on trumpet, pairing up with the tenor sax of Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis for some thrilling licks. All the while, Krupa does his famous snare sound, basically inventing the rim shot. Jazz critic John McDonough has described it as striking the rim (of the snare drum) and head with the stick so the sound travels to the head, amplifying it. “Then – and this is the key – he would get the stick away from the head immediately so that it didn’t kill the vibration.”
- Track: “Drummin’ Man”
Album: Gene Krupa – Drummer Man
Just because he played bop doesn’t mean Krupa had turned his back on swing. Drummer Man is proof of that. This spectacular album boasts lively arrangements by a 23-year-old Quincy Jones. It’s also a fairly rare example of Krupa playing for vocal music. Anita O’Day is the singer, and Roy Eldridge plays trumpet.
Although some sources list the ensemble as “Gene Krupa Big Band,” that moniker does not appear on the jacket or label. It’s a collection of over a dozen musicians, featuring “Gene Krupa – In Highest Fi.” The song “Drummin’ Man” was composed by Krupa and the pianist and bandleader Tiny Parham.
- Track: “Gone With the Wind”
Album: Gene Krupa Rocks
The title of this album is telling: By 1957, rock and roll was becoming a viable commodity and starting to obliterate the jazz market. This is a jazz record, of course, and the title seems a bit pleading in retrospect. “See? We can rock too!” In any case, this is Krupa’s quartet of the day, including Gail Curtis (sometimes billed as Gale Curtis) on sax, Teddy Napoleon on piano, and Mort Herbert on bass.
“Gone With the Wind” is a 1937 tune by Hollywood songwriter Allie Wrubel. It originally had words by Herb Magidson, but this is an instrumental version. Krupa focuses his brushes on the cymbals for an unusually atmospheric touch. The song starts at 4:14.
- Track: “Disc Jockey Jump”
Album: Gene Krupa Plays Gerry Mulligan Arrangements
Although the track list on this album is mainly pre-existing tunes in new arrangements, “Disc Jockey Jump” is an exception: Krupa and Mulligan wrote it together. “Disc Jockey Jump” starts out swinging, but with each set of 16 bars it gets more and more bop. That’s the beauty of the “jump” in jazz (see the work of Count Basie for some classic examples): These are tunes with a kind of angular energy that is easily opened out beyond swing.
Mulligan plays here, of course, along with Phil Woods and Hank Jones.
- Track: “Sabre Dance”
Album: Percussion King
There is simply no arrangement of “Sabre Dance” that isn’t fun, and this is a particularly clever one. The music was originally written by Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian as part of a ballet in 1942, but since then it has captured the imagination of musicians and audiences as its own separate piece. Percussion King is a collection of 20th century classical pieces remolded for the Krupa sound.
Besides the usual array of horns, piano, and bass, Krupa is joined by several other percussionists: Doug Allen, Joe Venuto, and Mousey Alexander. The arrangement is by George Williams, best known for his work on the Jackie Gleason Show.
- Track: “Accent on Flamboyance”
Album: The Mighty Two (with Louis Bellson)
The Mighty Two is a good name for this collaboration by Krupa and drummer Louis Bellson. One of the fun things here is the separate audio channels used for each drummer. It makes it easier to tell them apart (Krupa is in your left ear). They’re joined by a band that includes Joe Wilder on trumpet, Phil Woods on alto sax, and Milt Hinton on bass, among others.
Although much of this album has a bossa nova feel, “Accent on Flamboyance” is more of a low-key bop. Both drummers maintain a light touch – this one isn’t a battle – using a distinctive three-against-two rhythm throughout the short tune.
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/William P. Gottlieb (public domain)