BBC Krupa Tribute: Episode Five Hits Some Wrong Notes
The generally impressive, BBC radio documentary celebrating what would have been Gene Krupa’s 100th birthday was, I’m told, supposed to be a four-part series. However, in that the last part ended somewhere around 1946, the powers-that-be, I am told, believed that an episode five, covering Gene’s small group work from 1951 until 1973, was in order. Unfortunately for stateside fans, though the first four parts were and are pretty easily accessed on the net, but for some unknown reason, episode five is just not available.
But Krupa fan, drummer and good colleague, Richard Pite, has responded to my request to get a copy of this elusive program, which I hope to be able to share with JazzLegends.com visitors. I’ve just listened to it, and I have to say that I strongly, strongly disagree with some of the statements made on the show.
I am pleased and honored to have been a part of this project, and it turns out that the majority of my verbal contributions were utilized on Episode Five. Host and drummer Stewart Copeland, who did a generally fine job throughout, seems to have taken issue with my comments about the importance of Gene’s drumming in the small group setting, and the value of the small groups themselves. Whether this was his opinion or the opinion of the script writers remains a question, but Copeland’s talk about Gene’s small group work not being easily obtainable, and that his drumming could be heard to better advantage in a big band setting, are just misguided. This comes from a guy who admits that he never saw Gene in person, and who certainly knows nothing about the dozens of CDs and DVDs on JazzLegends.com that feature Gene in a small group. It’s also pretty clear that he never viewed the “Gene Krupa Jazz Legend” or “Gene Krupa Swing Swing Swing” DVDs, or he would have known better. I know for certain that the producers and writers of these programs are pretty regular visitors to the JazzLegends.com site, so these comments must have come from Copeland himself. It makes you wonder why–other than for his “name” value–he hosted the darn program at all.
As I said on the program, Gene spent the years 1951 until 1973, some 22 years, as the leader of a succession of marvelous small groups. This, in fact, was actually more time than his tenure as a big band drummer with Goodman and his own combinations. Sadly, his small group years are generally ignored, at least by so-called “critics.” Fans, fortunately, love the stuff, which is only one reason that we’ve literally gone to the ends of the earth to find previously undiscovered small group material. Not “easily obtainable?” I think not.
Writer Gary Giddins, one of the great authors and musicologists in jazz history, also says some things that, to me, hit a wrong note. He says that Gene’s small group years “lacked direction,” and also tells how saddened he was at Gene’s appearance at the Randall’s Island jazz festival in New York city (probably around 1965) where he claimed Gene had to get up, bend over and hit the light switch that turned the power on to the two spot lights that illuminated that ace drummer man during his solo. First of all, this event was reviewed in the press and no mention was made of such a thing. Secondly, anyone who knows anything about Gene Krupa and the spotlights knows that he used a foot switch to turn the power on to the lights.
And what of this nonsense about “direction?” In terms of the 1950s and 1960s, did Oscar Peterson’s Trios have direction?: Did Dizzy’s jiving on “Swing Low Sweet Cadillac” have direction? Did Roy Eldridge’s or Coleman Hawkins’ small groups have direction? How about Benny Goodman’s or Teddy Wilson’s or Lionel Hampton’s. The direction of 1930s and 1940s swing era stars was, quite simply, to keep working. And Gene did it with class, with top sidemen and playing top-flight jazz all the while. The script writers also seem to have taken some kind of an issue with the fact that Gene featured and backed the harmonica of Eddie Shu from time to time. Perhaps Eddie and Gene were ahead of their time, anticipating the great popularity and critical success of Toots Thieleman’s harmonica playing with and without Quincy Jones.
Eddie Shu is the only Krupa small group member mentioned, and to omit names like Charlie Ventura, John Bunch, Ronnie Ball, Carmen Leggio, Dave Frishberg and many others, just doesn’t make much sense. Gene played for 22 years, on and off, with these guys.
Other sections of Episode Five work well. The Krupa/Rich association is nicely detailed, though it could have been mentioned that they recorded three albums with each other, and the Krupa/Goodman final reunions were treated nicely, as were Gene’s last days.
Comments from the players, which included Peter Criss, Ed Shaughnessy and Loren Schoenberg, were pretty on the mark. That’s how it usually is, isn’t it?
Again, we will try to do everything possible to make Episode Five, whatever your verdict, available. — Bruce Klauber