If you’re under the age of 70, the likelihood is that you haven’t heard of Gene Krupa. You should be ashamed of yourself. No, but seriously there are many people that do not realise the impact that Gene had on Jazz. Not only Jazz, but Gene was extremely influential in the formation of the drum set as we know it.
Born in Chicago in 1909, Gene grew up in a very religious environment that expected him to follow the same path. As his father died while Gene was relatively young, his mother was forced to work many hours as a milliner, or a hat-maker in modern terms. This forced Gene and his 8 siblings into work at a young age, which helped to create Krupa’s insatiable work ethic. Obtaining his first drum set at only 11, he was in a band by the age of twelve and already perfecting his craft.
All through his high school days, Gene was constantly playing with different artists and playing the drums with new friends. This enabled him to adapt his drumming style easily, which helped him later in his career as an orchestra drummer.
What we celebrate Gene for primarily is his breaking of the mould. The mould being the stereotypical drummer at the type; expected to follow the norm and stay in the background. Provide a simple backing beat and help keep the time of a performance. Be a piece of the puzzle, but not the most important piece. It’s safe to say, Krupa wasn’t going fit into the concept of what a drummer should be. He was unique, and was set to break the trend.
This isn’t to say that Krupa didn’t put in work as a background drummer before carving his own name for himself in music. He joined many musical unions and collaborated with many bands through the 1910’s and 20’s. It’s just that many musicians don’t ever get the recognition the deserve for their work until later in their careers, especially drummers. This is true for Krupa, who although he was immediately noticeable due to his style, didn’t really break through until a more mature age.
Still unable to properly read music, he took a risk and move to New York at 21 years of age. Fumbling through auditions due to the help of his peers, it wasn’t really until 1938 when Gene became noticed for his work after performing at Carnegie Hall for the first time. After upstaging Benny Goodman in his own group, the crowd wanted more of Gene, and he was due to oblige. Gene’s performance that night in 1938 has become known as the first drum solo in history.
40 years later in 1978, Gene became the first person to be inducted into the modern drummers hall of fame. Whilst orchestras became less popular through the 40’s and 50’s Gene never lost his celebrity. He was more than just a drummer; he was a movie star, starring in his own biopic in 1959. The Gene Krupa drum solo became famous around the world; it’s probably worth checking out his biopic if you have time;
Celebrating Krupa’s impact on music is important, and there are many artists who respect his influence. Legendary drummer and lyricist Neil Peart of Rush described Krupa as “the first rock drummer, in very many ways. He was the first drummer to command the spotlight and the first drummer to be celebrated for his solos“. Coming from a drummer of Neil’s calibre, this alone says how influential Krupa really was on modern drumming. Would we have had such amazing solo drummers like Peart and Keith Moon? Or would the drummer have been condemned to being concealed in the background forever?
Well, if there’s one thing that can be said for certain it’s this; Gene Krupa’s influence on drum solos specifically is underestimated, and perhaps unparalleled.