Gene Krupa Biography

15 January 1909, Chicago, Illinois, USA, d. 16 October 1973, New York City, New York, USA. Krupa began playing drums as a child and after his mother failed to persuade him to become a priest, most of his large family actively encouraged his career in music. He studied formally, his most important teacher being Roy C. Knapp. However, growing up in Chicago in the 20s meant that he was inevitably drawn to jazz. He listened to relocated New Orleans masters such as Baby Dodds, Zutty Singleton and Tubby Hall. In his teens he played in several local dance bands, among them those led by Al Gale, Joe Kayser, Thelma Terry and Mezz Mezzrow and the Benson Orchestra.

In 1927, Krupa made his first records in a band nominally fronted by visitor Red McKenzie but actually organized by Eddie Condon whose record debut this also was. This session is reputed to be the first on which a drummer used a bass drum and tom-toms (engineers feared the resonance would cause the needle to lift off the wax). The records were successful and when, in 1929, Krupa and Condon decided to move to New York, their reputation had preceded them. Although highly regarded in the jazz world the new arrivals found the going tough. Mostly, Krupa worked in theatre pit bands, including some directed by Red Nichols, in which he played alongside Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller. In the early 30s, Krupa played in dance bands led by Russ Columbo, Mal Hallett and actor Buddy Rogers. Late in 1934, he joined Goodman’s recently-formed big band. Krupa was the most enthusiastic of sidemen, urging the band along as if it were his own and helping to establish the distinctive sound of the Goodman band. After the band’s breakthrough in August 1935 Krupa quickly became a household name. His fame and popularity with the fans built upon his highly visual playing style and film-star good looks, eventually irritated Goodman, although Krupa’s frequent alteration of the tempos the leader set did not help their relationship. Soon after the band’s Carnegie Hall concert in 1938 Krupa and Goodman had a public quarrel and Krupa quit.

Krupa formed his own band, which swiftly became one of the most popular of the swing era. In 1941, after he had hired Roy Eldridge and Anita O’Day, the band also became one of the best. Success was short-lived, however, and in 1943 it folded after Krupa was jailed following a drugs bust in San Francisco. By the time that he was released on bail pending an appeal against his one-to-six years sentence, he believed his career was over. He returned to New York, planning to spend his time studying and writing music, but was persuaded by Goodman to join a band with which he was touring east coast US Army bases. When Goodman prepared to extend the tour across the USA, Krupa opted to stay behind. He was convinced that audiences would react against him and instead joined Tommy Dorsey, believing that the comparative anonymity of working in a band based at a New York movie theatre would be best for him. In fact, his appearance, unannounced, at the Paramount Theatre was greeted with rapturous applause and proved to be a remarkably emotional milestone in his rehabilitation. He went on tour with Dorsey and when the charges against him were deemed to have been improper, he decided to form a new band of his own. He maintained a band throughout the rest of the 40s, adapting to bop by incorporating musicians such as Charlie Ventura, Red Rodney and Don Fagerquist and playing charts by Gerry Mulligan, even though Krupa himself was never able to adapt his own playing style which, since his arrival in New York at the end of the 20s, had been closely modelled upon that of Chick Webb. Krupa managed to keep the band working until 1951 and thereafter continued playing with a small group, usually a quartet, touring with Jazz At The Philharmonic and, for a while, operating a drum school with William ‘Cozy’ Cole. During the 60s he began to appear at occasional reunions of the Benny Goodman Quartet (with Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton). The 60s also saw his health deteriorate, first with heart trouble and later with leukaemia. By the early 70s, he was limited to working around New York and most public performances, usually now with Goodman, Wilson and Hampton, had to be preceded by a blood transfusion. He died in October 1973.

Stylistically, Krupa was usually a heavier-handed version of Webb, the man he always acknowledged as his greatest influence and for whom he had genuine admiration and respect. There can be little doubt that Krupa was a major contributor to the powerful attack of the pre-1939 Goodman band. Apart from the 1943 stint with Goodman, when he came close to the standards set by Webb, his big band playing never had the subtlety and swing of his mentor or other contemporaries such as Jo Jones. His spectacular visual style, adored by the fans, tended to alienate critics, though another great contemporary, ‘Big’ Sid Catlett, was even more flamboyant. Krupa’s best playing came in his performances with the Goodman trio and quartet. On these recordings, usually playing only with brushes, he performs with subtlety, skill and great verve. Krupa made the jazz drummer into a highly visible and extremely well-paid member of the band. His countless imitators usually supplied the flash and spectacle without the content, but thanks to his example and encouragement many fine swing style drummers continued to play in the decades following his death. Even in the 90s echoes of his work can still be heard.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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