Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Krupa, Gene (Eugene Bertram)

Drummer Gene Krupa's charisma lit the flame underneath the Benny Goodman Quartet and Big Band in the 1930s. He was able to be a star in a star’s band, and kept a ringing sense of time with his ride cymbal. He was one of the first drummers to establish his instrument in a solo context, and to this day, many drummers owe their flash and enthusiasm to him.

Eugene Bertram Krupa was born on January 15th, 1909 in Chicago Illinois. He was born to Polish immigrants, Bartley and Ann Krupa, and was the youngest of their nine children. Gene’s father Bartley passed away while he was still a toddler. His mother worked many odd jobs in order to support the family and since there wasn’t a breadwinner in the house, the Krupa children learned how to work fast.

Fortunately for Gene, his brother got him a job working doing odd jobs in a music store, and this was the first place he saw a drum set. He started playing them soon after, as they were the cheapest instrument in the store.

Growing up, Krupa had intended on entering religious life, but he soon abandoned this idea for music. After secondary school, Krupa enrolled at St. John’s College in Indiana, but left after one year to pursue his music career. He returned to Chicago and soon began playing around with different bands, including Ed Mulaney's Red Jackets and the Hossier Bellhops.

His first professional break came in 1927, when he recorded several songs for the Okeh label, including “China Boy,” “Nobody’s Sweetheart,” and “Liza.” This recording marked one of the first documented uses of a kick drum on a recording. Also during this time, Krupa took part in the regular jam session at Chicago's Three Deuces club, where his future playing partner clarinetist Benny Goodman also went. In 1928, Krupa recorded the song "There’ll Be Some Changes Made" with the Chicago Rhythm Kings.

Krupa played in Red Nichols' band in the late 1920s, and also did some work with Bix Beiderbecke. In 1930, Krupa performed at the opening of George Gershwin’s production Strike up the Band. While his stock as an in demand drummer was on the rise, Krupa began an intense practice regimen of eight hours per day, which continued for several years. In 1930, Krupa was featured on the Beiderbecke recording "Barnacle the Sailor," as part of the Hoagy Carmichael Orchestra.

Inn the early 1930s, Krupa went back and forth between Chicago and New York, until Columbia Records producer John Hammond persuaded the drummer to join Goodman’s band. Krupa was with Goodman on vocalist Billie Holiday’s first recording session, for the song "Riffin’ the Scotch."

Krupa participated with Goodman's band on the NBC weekly radio broadcast, Let’s Dance, which introduced the Goodman group to thousands of new listeners each Saturday night. Krupa also played a key role in the Goodman big band’s 1935 engagement at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles, which inaugurated the "Swing Era" and effectively established the Goodman band as its ambassadors.

Krupa was the pulse of the Goodman Quartet recordings from this period, which include songs such as "Avalon" and "Moonglow." This quartet featured Krupa, Goodman, vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, and pianist Teddy Wilson, and was the first jazz group to be fully racially integrated. Krupa was also the drummer on the 1935 session at which Goodman recorded Jelly Roll Morton’s "King Porter Stomp." Krupa also joined Goodman and Wilson on Red Norvo’s recording of "Honeysuckle Rose."

In 1937, Krupa played one of the signature solos of the Swing Era, on the popular Goodman tune "Sing, Sing, Sing," which featured a big band that included trumpeter Harry James. Krupa continued to play with Goodman and participated in the historic concert from Carnegie Hall in January of 1938, but left later that year to form his own big band.

Krupa’s Orchestra made their debut at the Marine Ballroom in Atlantic City, New Jersey to a crowd of more than four thousand. Following this success, the band recorded several songs for the Brunswick label, including “Blue Rhythm Fantasy.”

In 1941, Krupa’s Orchestra included trumpeter Roy Eldridge and vocalist Anita O’Day. The pair can be heard on the monster hit "Let Me off Uptown," and Eldridge and Krupa can be heard again on the 1942 recording of "Rockin’ Chair." The trio of Eldridge, O’Day, and Krupa are also heard on the song "Massachusetts," recorded in July of 1942.

In 1943, Krupa was arrested in San Francisco for soliciting a minor with marijuana. Following eighty days in jail, he returned to his home in New York City. This incarceration caused his band to break up and since he was without a working band he accepted an offer to rejoin Goodman, though it was only for a brief period of time. With the bebop age in full effect, Krupa reorganized his big band, which at different times included tenor saxophonist Charlie Ventura and baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan as an arranger. Mulligan’s arranging is heard on the song "How High the Moon" and "Disc Jockey Jump."

In the 1950s, Krupa toured with Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic, and was immortalized in 1959 with the film The Gene Krupa Story, which starred Sal Mineo. Interestingly, in 1958 Verve released the album Gene Krupa Plays Gerry Mulligan Arrangements. Featured on the album is the same Mulligan arrangement of "Disc Jockey Jump," although this time the bopish number featured real bebop players, such as pianist Hank Jones and alto saxophonist Phil Woods.

In 1960, Krupa suffered a near-fatal heart attack, which limited his public appearances until his death. He did come out of retirement to record and tour with Benny Goodman from 1972 to 1973. Krupa died on October 16th, 1973 in Yonkers, New York, from leukemia, although heart failure was given as the official cause of death by the coroner.

Krupa was married three times and had two children, Mary Grace and Michael, with his third and final wife, Patty Bowler. Krupa left behind an unmistakable impact on all modern drumming, not just jazz drumming. Without Krupa's innovations and enthusiasm, the toolkit used by modern drummers in music from jazz to rock and country wouldn’t exist.

Select Discography

As Gene Krupa

Gene Krupa and His Orchestra(Classics, 1935)

Drummin’ Man (Columbia)

Jazz at the Philharmonic (Verve, 1953)

Gene Krupa Plays the Arrangements of Gerry Mulligan (Verve, 1958)

The Gene Krupa Story (Verve, 1959)

With Benny Goodman

The Birth of Swing (Bluebird, 1935)

Stomping at the Savoy (Bluebird, 1935)

Carnegie Hall Concert 1938 (Columbia, 1938)

From Spirituals to Swing (Vanguard, 1938)

Contributor: Jared Pauley