Monday, September 26, 2016

Drummer Man: Gene Krupa on Verve, 1956

More than merely a jazz drummer, Chicago-born Gene Krupa was a drumming showman, one of the first swing musicians to bring attention to his instrument as a vehicle for exciting, bombastic solos. Krupa's big band, which featured a host of outstanding soloists, was one of the most powerful of the Swing Era, and he was possibly the first drummer in jazz history to rise to major stardom. But by the time he formed his first big band in the late 1930s, Krupa had been around for quite a while, as a studio musician in the 1920s and '30s and as a noted member of the Benny Goodman orchestra. In his book Really the Blues, Mezz Mezzrow talks at length about the early years of Krupa's career, and while with Goodman, the drummer also participated in recordings by the famous BG Trio and Quartet. His appearance at Goodman's epoch-making Carnegie Hall concert in 1938 was extremely successful—his high-octane drumming on "Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing)" during that concert was particularly memorable—and so he soon departed to form his own orchestra. Throughout the 1940s, Krupa had hit after hit with classics such as "Let Me Off Uptown," "Drum Boogie," the self-referential "Opus One," and "Thanks for the Boogie Ride," to name but a few, and his band was known for the quality of the sidemen, including Shorty Sherock, Sam Donahue, Don Fagerquist, Charlie Ventura, and most of all, trumpeter Roy Eldridge and vocalist Anita O'Day. The latter two brought even more colorful, exciting sounds to an already outstanding orchestra during their tenures with the band.

Anita O'Day and Roy Eldridge

It didn't help, though, that Krupa had to face a short jail sentence on drug charges in 1943, yet upon his release, he rebuilt his band and kept going until around 1951. This late-'40s orchestra occasionally featured arrangements by Gerry Mulligan and at times embraced the new sounds of bebop. The 1950s saw Krupa working in small-group settings and touring with Jazz at the Philharmonic packages, and towards the end of the decade, Hollywood produced a respectable movie about his life starring Sal Mineo, predictably titled The Gene Krupa Story. In 1956, Krupa cut a big band album for Verve entitled Drummer Man, fronting an orchestra full of great names, such as trombonists J.J. Johnson, Kai Winding, and Jimmy Cleveland, altoist Hal McKusick, tenorist Eddie Shu, pianist Dave McKenna, and guitarist Barry Galbraith. It was a reunion of sorts, since Roy Eldridge and Anita O'Day share the spotlight with the drummer, and the song list consists mostly of remakes of Krupa classics like "Let Me Off Uptown," "Rockin' Chair," "Opus One," "Drum Boogie," and "Boogie Blues." The arrangements are by Quincy Jones, and although perhaps there could be a little more room for Krupa to solo, the band sounds tightly knit, the solos are exciting, and everyone seems to be having a wonderful time. "Leave Us Leap" is a perfect example of Krupa's energetic drumming propelling the band forward, and on his own composition, "Wire Brush Stomp," the drummer picks up the brushes and never misses a beat. "That's What You Think" is the only slow number, with O'Day singing mostly wordless lines, and "After You've Gone" is an appropriate closing, a vehicle for the trumpet of Roy Eldridge, who is as exuberant as usual on these sessions. The liner notes call this "a happy album," and indeed it is! Krupa slowed down the pace in the 1960s due to several health problems and passed away in New York City in 1973, at age 64.

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