Gene Krupa was born one hundred years ago today, January 13, 1909.
Krupa, alive and dead, has been the subject of a good deal of speculation — trying to establish his place in jazz, in history, in American culture. I prefer to celebrate him as a musician who was at one with his instrument, someone who kept his artistic identity intact (except for a brief period in the late Forties, when the band wore berets to show that they too were beboppers).
My title comes from a film clip — from a movie that must have been made in two days, if that, called BOY! WHAT A GIRL! The scene below includes my hero Sidney Catlett, Benny Morton, Dick Vance, Don Stovall, and a few others . . . with a surprise visit from Mr. Krupa. He plays, incidentally, as he did in 1927 with Condon and McKenzie, in 1938 with Goodman, and as he did at the New School in 1972, the last time I saw him: throwing himself fully into the beat. ‘
The conceit of Krupa surprising Catlett (who is asked to pretend that he doesn’t recognize his friend Gene, one of the most famous figures in the world in 1947) is fanciful, somewhat like one of those cameos Hope and Crosby used to do in each other’s movies, but Sidney’s tagline, “You are Gene Krupa,” makes me pause.
One of Krupa’s great gifts was that he made a whole generation, perhaps two, want to do “tricks with the sticks” just as he did. Think of Louis Bellson, of Mel Torme, of a young Kevin Dorn. And think of all those people, practicing paradiddles on their Slingerland Radio Kings, who wanted to be Gene Krupa. And they believed that they could be Gene. Bing Crosby made millions of people think that they could sing just as well as he did. That gift — of making people think such mastery was possible — is a rare one, and we dare not undervalue it. Some artists — Charlie Parker and Art Tatum come to mind — are so far beyond the ordinary that we know emulating them is a lifetime’s work. But Krupa, whose art was no less subtle, humbly suggested by his very presence that his art and the resulting pleasure was within our reach. It was as powerful a democratic idea as FDR talking to Americans through their radios as if they and he were . . . just people, to whom you could tell the truth.
I will conclude this post with a picture of a man who looks out of place in a jazz blog. He doesn’t have a suit; he doesn’t hold a musical instrument. (His clothes, mind you, are something we all should aspire to.)
But he belongs here. Readers will have noticed that the Beloved and I have been visiting Maui (from where I am writing this). A few days ago, we drove to Makawao and visited the church’s thrift store, where we both bought excellent clothing. On our way out, this gentleman — energetic, garrulous, and enthusiastic — arrived to donate a chair he had made himself (you can see it in the picture) to the thrift store. He didn’t want any money for it, although he said they should charge $75 for it, and told me that he made it just to keep himself healthy.
In the fashion of such conversations, he asked me where I was from. When I said, “New York,” he got very excited and told me that he had been in New York in 1942, as a member of the 82nd Division, that he had been a paratrooper with 300 jumps, that he had stayed in New York at the Hotel Chesterfield (for two dollars a night), had been to the Statue of Liberty.
And then he paused, for dramatic emphasis. “I went to Madison Square Garden. Do you know who I saw there? I saw GENE KRUPA! Do you know who Gene Krupa is? He (pantomining) played the drum!”
He was beaming, and so was I.
This man, who must be in his late eighties, still has Gene Krupa in his thoughts, in his memory, as if 1942 was yesterday.
If you give yourself generously to people, as Krupa did, you never die. Happy Birthday, Gene.