Heroes #15: Gene Krupa, 1909-1973

“Krupa’s drums went through us like a triple bourbon.” – Eddie Condon

Krupa 1920s 2KEY RECORDINGS:
(The Chicagoans / Chicago Rhythm Kings / Jungle Kings / Condon Quartet, etc. etc.)
(Miff Mole’s Molers / Wabash Dance Orchestra / Red Nichols’ Five Pennies etc.)

I tend to sort the important drummers of the ‘Twenties into three waves or generations: the pre-jazz generation (born around 1890 – such as Tony Sbarbaro or Jasper Taylor), the first great generation (born around the turn of the century – like the vast majority of our Heroes) and a second wave (born around 1910). Today’s Hero, Mr. Gene Krupa, is the first representative of this second wave we’ll be meeting, though there will be a great many others. When these drummers came of age, the Jazz Age was already well under way; they grew up absorbing and furthering an existing culture rather than originating one from scratch. In general, they began their professional careers in the later ‘twenties, and only came to national prominence in the ‘thirties, meaning that we often tend to think of them purely as Swing Era personalities. However, some (such as Krupa) had such phenomenal early success that they would have been well-known to musicians and jazz fans in 1929 or 1930 as up-and-comers, and as such are more than worthy of a seat in the ’20s drumming Pantheon.

Gene is probably the one Hero whose name might be familiar to the average person in the street, particularly if they are above a certain age. The one Hero who became a world-famous musical icon. The one Hero to have a Hollywood film made all about his life! Whilst his huge legacy in later jazz can make it difficult to address his ’20s work with objectivity, the fact that he was for a time an international household name means that information about his life is abundant, and my job chronicling his beginnings is a much easier one than has been the case for some of our other Heroes.

Eugene Bertram Krupa was a native Chicagoan, born in 1909 to a Polish father and an American-Polish mother. His mother, who owned a hat shop, was devoutly religious and brought all of her nine children up the same way – something that would deeply influence her youngest son. Little Gene’s first contact with music came through working as chore boy in the Brown Music Company, a music shop on the South side where his brother worked. He remembered “I dusted pianos and phonographs, ran errands, washed windows. On busy days, they let me sell records.” Perhaps inspired by the records being played and the musicians who frequented the shop, he eventually became interested in playing an instrument himself and bought a discounted Japanese drum kit from Brown’s, choosing it simply because “drums were cheapest option in the wholesale catalogue.” Gene studied with respected local drum teacher Roy Knapp, who later remembered that at their first meeting Krupa was so overenthusiastic to play that he  ended up “drumming on the walls”. He also went along to as many gigs as he could, learning by watching – and soon, by doing, first sitting in with a band called the Frivolians at the age of thirteen. Luckily for him, Chicago at this time (c.1921-2) was the epicentre of the burgeoning Jazz craze and every café, restaurant and hall was desperate to have a band of some sort playing for dancing.
“After a bit, I got to make music with some […] fellows and substitute at the dances and socials. I joined […] one of the two unions in town […] members got the jobs that paid less and were on the rough side. But generally these players had a talent for jazz.” – Gene Krupa
His mother seems to have been dismayed at his precocious musical activities and fervently wished for him to become a priest. She found him a place at a seminary college in Indiana, wisely trying to isolate him from Chicago’s lures. Unfortunately for Anna Krupa, whilst at the college her son – now fifteen – became more interested in jazz than ever, regularly travelling elsewhere in the Midwest to hear visiting drummers, and back to his hometown to play gigs on the South Side. He dropped out of the seminary after less than a year and joined the American Federation Of Musicians, whose entry exam, he later recalled, consisted of: “Make a roll, kid.”

Soon Gene was established as a low-level gigging drummer on the Chicago scene. He worked primarily with small bands playing dance dates organised by the Benson Agency. Through the various Benson orchestras, he met and gained the confidence of a tight cadre of young men of a similar age,  all jazz musicians in their pupal stages including some future greats. These youngsters (often referred to as the Austin High Gang after the secondary school some of them had attended) spent every night they weren’t playing dances roving Chicago to hear some of the best jazz in the world at the time. Gene was taken under the wing of the Gang’s intellectual drummer, Dave Tough, who despite being only a year or so older possessed an impressive knowledge of and appreciation for the black Chicago jazz scene, something entirely new to Gene [once again, we must sadly remember that, officially at least, the music business was strictly segregated racially].
“Dave made a suggestion […] ‘You ought to hear Baby Dodds at Kelly’s Stable.’ He took me to see the great man, who was appearing with his brother Johnny Dodds’s band […] we also heard Tubby Hall drum with Carroll Dickerson […] then, up at The Nest, we picked up on Jimmie Noone’s group with Zutty Singleton on drums. I learned a lot from Zutty but it was Baby who killed me” – Gene Krupa.

Dodds made a great impression on the young Krupa, just as he did on innumerable other young drummers who heard him in the mid-20s (and ever after!). Elements of Baby’s style can be heard in Gene’s playing from his very earliest work – as we shall soon hear.
“The way he used the drums, the rims, the cymbals was just marvellous. He developed ideas and built excitement through a tune […] he was both a source of pulsation and musical colour. […] He was one of my main inspirations.”
In the summer of 1926, Krupa worked a steady job with guitarist Eddie Condon and bassist Thelma Coombs at the Vanity Fair Café, a reaturant far up in Chicago’s North Side, several miles from the bustling jazz centres of the Stroll.  After hours, they sometimes travelled out to the Blue Lantern resort on Hudson Lake, Indiana, to hear the band that were resident for the holiday season – Jean Goldkette’s Victor Recording Orchestra (yes, THAT one, with Bix Beiderbecke, Frank Trumbauer, and Chauncey Morehouse or Dee Orr on drums). Whilst generationally Krupa may have been in the second wave, he was learning first-hand from some of the original Heroes. To get a clearer sense of the geography behind all  the places Gene and his pals were hearing all this amazing music, check out ‘Library #8: A Drumming Map Of Chicago’.

In mid-1927 the Rendezvous nightclub, slightly south of the Vanity Fair (and thus closer to central Chicago) was recruiting a new band. They started by hiring clarinettist Frank Teschemacher, an Austin High School alumnus and truly original stylist – who then brought in other Gang members including Jimmy McPartland (cornet), Joe Sullivan (piano), Bud Freeman (tenor saxophone) and Jim Lannigan (bass/tuba). Regular percussionist Dave Tough was making one of his frequent long trips to Europe (his family was Scottish), so the drum chair went to the teenaged Krupa, who at that time was working in an Indiana theatre. At some point during their spell at the Rendezvous the band gained two important fans: guitarist and champion talker Eddie Condon (who had known many of the Austin gang for some years) and a recent acquaintance of his, William ‘Red’ McKenzie, a singer and comb-and-paper player. Back in 1924, McKenzie had made a series of novelty records for Brunswick with his band the Mound City Blue Blowers and had caused a sensation, selling well over a million copies and touring as far as Europe. Now he was in Chicago scouting for new members. Condon selected a group from within the Rendezvous’ house band to play privately for McKenzie’s consideration; McKenzie, ambitious and adept at spotting talent, went to OKeh Records producer Tommy Rockwell and convinced him to allow them to record. Rockwell allocated them a slot at OKeh’s Chicago studio at 10am on 9th December, as the ‘McKenzie-Condon Chicagoans’.

Eddie Condon in his hilarious and colourful autobiography ‘We Called It Music’ recounted his memories of this session – a recording debut for all concerned, save McKenzie – in detail.
“Rockwell was polite but dubious […] Krupa set up his drums. “What are you going to do with those?” Rockwell asked. “Play them,” Krupa said simply. Rockwell shook his head. “You can’t do that,” he said. “You’ll ruin our equipment. All we’ve ever used on records are snare drums and cymbals.” Krupa, who had been practicing every day at home, looked crushed. “How about letting us try them?” I asked. “The drums are the backbone of the band. They hold us up.” […] “Let the kids try it,” McKenzie said. “It they go wrong I’ll take the rap.”
It’s a great story, and the two sides made by the Chicagoans have subsequently passed into jazz drumming lore as the first time a full kit was ever recorded. Yet, whilst Condon’s account may well describe a real exchange in that OKeh studio in 1927, any claim that this marked a first is sadly wide of the mark. Tony Sbarbaro’s recorded oevre with the ODJB a full decade earlier features prominent ‘double-drumming’ with sticks on the bass drum as well as a clearly-audible four-on-the-floor feel played with pedal on many sides. Bass drums did vanish from records for several years in the early 20s, but with the advent of the new electric recording technology in the middle of the decade, had begun to reappear and Heroes such as Paul Barbarin (with King Oliver), Andrew Hilaire (with Jelly Roll Morton) and Kaiser Marshall (with Fletcher Henderson) had all recorded their bass drums some time before Gene’s arrival on shellac in December 1927.

So much for the story. As for the actual drumming on ‘China Boy’, how does our own boy – still just a diffident, skinny teenager – get on? Put aside all thoughts of the tub-thrashing superhero Gene Krupa from the ‘forties – the main thing we can say about the youngster in 1927 is, he’s there at least. For the first two choruses he can just be heard clipping out time on the bass drum shell (just as he’d seen Dodds do, as well as other Chicago top-rankers such as Hilaire and Bob Conselman) then behind Joe Sullivan’s piano solo a steady four-on-the-floor bass drum is clearly audible and we’re treated to occasional tasty swashes of Chinese cymbal [0:48]. Unfortunately Jim Lannigan’s slap bass obscures most of whatever else the young drummer contributed, right up until the last half-chorus when Gene suddenly emerges again bonking out a tomtom backbeat to round the side off.
Making a record of any kind was a huge achievement for the Chicagoans, and Eddie Condon in his book vividly describes their collective sense of relief and pride on hearing the playback and realising that they didn’t sound half bad. Whilst these records do lack some of the finesse and slickness we’re used to hearing by 1928, they more than make up for it in energy and vitality. The emphasis is on strong rhythm and ‘blowing’ rather than careful orchestration, yet still they contain several elements that were idiosyncratic and innovative at the time, such as the rolling four-beat feel, the two-bar ‘flare’ at the end of each solo and the occasional ‘shuffle’ feel on certain sections of songs. Intentionally or not, the gang had evolved a style which was distinctive, and the fundamental elements of what would become known as ‘Chicago-style’ jazz [glossary] are clearly present even at this early stage.

As 1927 gave way to 1928, Krupa continued jobbing around Chicago. His day-to-day work was still mostly concerned with the dance orchestras sent out by the Benson organisation, and his next successful visit to a studio (another McKenzie/Teschemacher one in early spring had borne no fruit) came on March 29th with a dance band led by his old rhythm section colleague, bassist Thelma Coombs – now Thelma Terry – who were resident at the Golden Pumpkin Club at 3800 West Madison, not a million miles away from Austin where so many of Gene’s pals had been at school.

Playing with Thelma Terry And Her Play Boys (maybe patterned after the Jean Goldkette orchestra they’d listened to and enjoyed together in 1926), Krupa’s neat, splashy choked cymbal playing could easily be mistaken for Chauncey Morehouse, and indeed he seems always to have drawn a very clear distinction between playing jazz (i.e. freewheeling small-group with the Austin gang) and playing for dance bands. Once again, however, the drums are not the most prominent rhythm section instrument: Terry’s magnificent bass playing is front and centre on these sides, and rightly so – she’s wonderful.

Soon the Austin High Gang were making more records: following the small success of their OKeh record both the Brunswick and Paramount labels were keen to record the Gang exclusively. McKenzie neatly played both companies and with the Gang made two sides for Brunswick on April 6th under the name ‘The Chicago Rhythm Kings’, and two for Paramount the next day, as ‘The Jungle Kings’. Trumpeter Jimmy McPartland and saxophonist Bud Freeman had by this point joined a touring hot dance band led by another of our Heroes – Ben Pollack – so the remaining Austinites were joined on these dates by fringe Gang members Muggsy Spanier and Mezz Mezzrow. On these sides Gene’s playing was better recorded and perhaps more confident, and Lannigan switching to tuba allowed the drums greater sonic space.

In the early summer of 1928, Krupa heard from Eddie Condon again. The centre of the jazz vortex was now in the process of shifting permanently from Chicago to New York, and the guitarist, maybe sensing what was in the wind, had followed it East. He was recruiting a band to support the entertainer Bee Palmer (one of Vic Berton’s occasional amours, no less) and wrote to invite Joe Sullivan, Teschemacher and Gene to join him in the metropolis. The trio left their dance band jobs with alacrity, but when they arrived in New York they were dismayed to hear that the gig had fallen through. Thus began a miserable period of unemployment, ‘scuffling’ for work in the hotly competitive New York music scene – an oceanic pond in which they were very small fish indeed. However, unbeknownst to the Chicagoans, their homespun records of the preceding few months had been a hit amongst the jazz cognoscenti of New York, and word of their plight was getting around. The jam sessions they held in their hotel room were soon frequented by illustrious visitors – among them musicians from Don Voorhees’s and Ben Pollack’s dance bands including McPartland and Freeman, plus the famous cornettist and impresario Red Nichols, and Berton, his favourite drummer. Vic supposedly hailed the young Krupa, “Shake, kid – you’re the champ.”

An enamoured Nichols immediately put the Chicagoans to work on a session led by his trombonist colleague Miff Mole on July 6, in which Teschemacher particularly shone. Providing the rhythm section for Tesch and the two famous Eastern horn players to sit on top of, the other three Chicago boys mostly kept things simple and swinging but Gene still provided a few excellent moments here and there, particularly on ‘Shimme-Sha-Wabble’. Recording with Mole meant he had at last arrived as a ‘name’ jazz drummer – his predecessors on Mole’s records had been Ray Bauduc and Vic Berton, and on the four’s imminent return to Chicago he would be succeeded by Stan King. Before they left, however, Condon convinced Tom Rockwell to hire the four Chicagoans en bloc to record in OKeh’s New York studio. These records are fantastic, since the familiar personalities, small-group setting and improved technology means that for the first time we can hear Krupa really clearly, and he doesn’t disappoint.

Condon noted that “violins and soft saxophones were the fashion” in New York at the time, and it’s easy to imagine the shockwaves created by these out-of-towners and the primitivist, almost punk-rock spirit with which they set about their music. ‘Indiana’ roars out of the blocks; an electrifying introduction by Teschemacher’s alto sax and Krupa’s thudding tomtoms and Chinese cymbal kicks us off. Gene lays out some soft press rolls behind Tesch’s solo and Condon’s vocal chorus (all those trips with Dave Tough to watch Dodds, Singleton and Tubby Hall obviously paying off) and shows off some subtle and sensitive brush work behind Sullivan’s piano solo [1:11]. As the energy builds, Gene riotously sets up the shout chorus [2:15] and plays some humping backbeats and imaginative fills. It’s interesting to note at this point that despite his acknowledged debt to the original New Orleans-born masters, Krupa’s musical language is not generally drawn from the rhythmic patterns classically associated with New Orleans, nor does he deploy his fills in the same manner as his forebears. When filling, the New Orleans drummers tended generally to create a smooth transition by maintaining the time on at least one part of the kit whilst overlaying a contrasting counterpoint phrase on another, often using the rhythm variously called ’3-over-2/hemiola/’The Pendulum’ etc.  Krupa however pauses his flow of time when a big fill is approaching, then delivers a series of rapid, staccato phrases in quick succession, like a boxer throwing a flurry of punches. It’s a startling, exciting and ear-catching effect and seems to have captivated the New Yorkers and made the drummer a hot commodity. The British-based pianist and bandleader Fred Elizalde visited the United States in the late 20s, during which he wrote an article for Rhythm magazine reporting back on the latest sensations of American jazz for readers at home. Elizalde provided a list of ‘hot names’ to watch out for, and included that of a young drummer he’d obviously overheard a lot of musicians talking up as the next big thing – one ‘Jean Crooper’.

In the late summer of 1928, however, Anna Krupa was taken gravely ill; her son immediately boarded a train home but tragically arrived too late to see her before she died. Adrift back in his hometown and bereft at the sudden loss of his beloved mother, Gene supported himself economically and emotionally by rejoining old friends: Thelma Terry’s Play Boys were still resident at the Golden Pumpkin club, with former Austin Gang members Bud Freeman and Floyd O’Brien in the band. In September two raucous sides were cut with trumpeter Wingy Mannone and a band of Chicago stalwarts; one selection recorded was entitled ‘Fare Thee Well’, and appropriately would mark the drummer’s permanent farewell to the city of his birth.

Krupa was welcomed back to New York by Red Nichols upon his return; the cornettist, constantly booking bands for one-nighters and recording sessions of all stripes, began using the young Chicagoan as one of his pool of regular percussionists. In September Krupa registered a session with the Wabash Dance Orchestra, a put-together large group under Nichols’s direction, and in April 1929 made the step up to record with the Five Pennies, a banner under which Red had been recording his marquee repertoire with an ever-rotating cast of luminary personnel since 1926.

Joining Krupa and Nichols on ‘Indiana’ (yes, that old warhorse again!) were some truly legendary names of late-20s New York jazz: Leo McConville and Manny Klein (trumpets), Glenn Miller and Jack Teagarden (trombones), Benny Goodman (clarinet), Arthur Schutt (piano) and Carl Kress (guitar) among others. This was the first time Krupa had recorded alongside Goodman, another very young man born in Chicago in 1909 of Eastern European heritage. The clarinettist would, of course, have an incalculable impact on Gene’s life over the next two decades – but that’s another story.

It’s fascinating to hear Krupa as a spiky new element in a fairly familiar setting – the Five Pennies had a strongly established sound and approach – and to note the difference his style makes to the whole ensemble. Krupa himself later recalled:
“My […] success in New York had everything to do with the Chicago drum style. Unlike the New Yorkers, we Chicagoans were raw, primitive […] The top white players in town like Vic Berton, Chauncey Morehouse and George Beebe played mostly on the cymbals, doing little tricks underneath them and things like that. We moved the beat along on the drums – snare, tom toms, bass drum.”
Compared to previous Five Pennies recordings, ‘Indiana’ does ‘move along’ considerably harder, and the almost complete absence of percussive high-frequencies allows the large reed and brass contingent ample sonic space. This peculiar high-end void is down to two main factors. Firstly, those drummers mentioned were players of finesse and delicacy, who could safely be positioned close to a microphone, allowing their (high-frequency) ‘cymbal tricks’ to be captured in all their glory. Whilst Krupa does play plenty of cymbals on ‘Indiana’ (particularly at the out-chorus, where he smashes out a backbeat on choked Chinese cymbal) the volume and power of his drum playing – his principal modus operandi – meant he needed to be placed far away from the microphone, and consequently his cymbal sound comes over as a vague wash, particularly when compared to the immaculately-recorded, almost claustrophobic intimacy of Berton’s cymbal work with the Pennies.
Whilst anyone who’s ever hit a modern snare drum might also question a lack of high-frequencies generated by a style based around playing snare, it’s important to remember that wood-shelled snare drums with calfskin heads like Gene was playing sound deep, warm and punchy rather than snappy, ringy and cutting like a modern steel one fitted with plastic heads. The particularly low throbbing of Gene’s drums on this session might also be due to atmospheric pressure, which, let me assure you, plays merry hell with natural heads on wet or overcast days.
These records show the beginning of a conscious and historically important dovetailing between the New York approach to small-group hot jazz (chopsy, precise, neatly orchestrated, and with a palpable sense of ironic detachment) and the Chicago approach (freewheeling, hurly-burly four-beat excitement). A hybrid genre synthesising all these important elements would gradually emerge as something distinct in the next few years – and Gene would be amongst those in its vanguard. The stage was being set for Swing.

Krupa saw 1929 out playing dance band jobs, theatre shows and and one-nighters in New York. He recorded briefly with Emmett Miller and Fats Waller, and made more sessions with the two important Reds in his life, McKenzie and Nichols. He also travelled the length and breadth of the city to watch and listen to all the music he could, later saying of the New York drummers:
“We learned ever so much from them. I was affected by a variety of influences and people; my style started to show signs of change.”
We’ll leave Gene Krupa at the end of the decade – just twenty-one years old and already fast becoming known as one of America’s most exciting young drummers – about to embark upon a career that at its peak would see him an international celebrity and one of the most garlanded musicians in the history of jazz up that point.

I’ll just finish with a word or two about the 1959 Columbia Pictures film ‘The Gene Krupa Story.’ As surely the only one of our ‘Twenties Drumming Heroes to be honoured with a full-length Hollywood feature film all about his life, it’d be silly not to at least mention it (though don’t you just wish for a Jasper Taylor biopic?)  Alas, if you want to know the facts of Gene’s early work, watching the movie is no substitute even for reading the inadequate essay above. I won’t go into the merits of The Gene Krupa Story as a film (not my area of expertise!) however, if you’ve read this far, perusing the synopsis of TGKS might raise some excitement at seeing this story playing out on screen (“His old pals are playing in a local speakeasy”, “The three friends make the jump to New York” etc.). However, the musical scenes are highly fictionalised and apart from Krupa himself the early segments in mid-20s Chicago bear little relation to the real persons present or – more importantly – the music they played at the time, being rather crass 1950s Dixieland-revival fare.
If, like me, you were hoping to see a cinematic depiction of the Austin High Gang’s antics or the Thelma Terry band playing at the Golden Pumpkin – you’ll be disappointed. The ‘two friends’ mentioned above that accompany Krupa to New York are not Teschemacher and Joe Sullivan but instead ‘Eddie’ (a fictional clarinettist lacking any of Tesch’s interesting quirks) and The Girl. When Gene does get to New York, the musicians he runs into are actors playing the Dorsey brothers, Frank Trumbauer and Bix Beiderbecke (still somehow alive in 1935?!) the real (though obviously, very aged) Red Nichols playing himself, and bebop drummer Shelly Manne playing Dave Tough – the one attempt to portray an actual Austin High Gang personality.
In fairness, leading man Sal Mineo does a better job of portraying a drummer doing real drumming onscreen than many actors have, and does perhaps capture something of the teenaged Krupa’s tigerish energy and boyish magnetism. Often the defence made against inaccurate biopics is that an interesting life doesn’t always make for a good film. I’ll leave you to decide whether or not The Gene Krupa Story is a good film.