Gene Krupa – Drummin’ Man

April 2, 2013

October 2013 will bring the 40th anniversary of the death of Gene Krupa, a jazz musician whose name remains known today not only to fans of the music of the Swing Era but also to admirers among the Now generation, many of them aspiring musicians who were not yet born when he died in 1973. One of the most popular musicians of his time, Gene Krupa was the drummer with Benny Goodman’s ground-breaking band during the Swing Era through which he gained international fame. This was a time when many musicians were idolized by screaming, adoring fans in a way that had no precedent – although, heaven knows, it has had more than enough antecedents. Even so, the treatment of pop artists from the late 1950s onwards, all the way down to the present day, only rarely reaches the heights attending Gene Krupa in his heyday.Jazz drums

Today, Gene’s astonishingly undiminished popularity is revealed through Internet websites that feature him, some dedicated solely to him, and by the numerous reissues of his records along with videos and magazine articles. In the USA, the UK and continental Europe there are Gene Krupa tribute bands that perform live to sell-out audiences.

Why – and what was so special about him?

Gene was as magnetic as a movie star, filled with wild exuberance as his raven-colored hair, flashing brown eyes and black suit contrasted with the snow-white marine pearl drums that surrounded him.

Anita O’Day (in her autobiography)

Certainly the movie star looks helped, but it was much more than that. Gene’s dynamic, frequently spectacular, playing style attracted the attention of people who had neither knowledge of nor liking for jazz. Part of the attraction lay in his personal charisma; and there was also the manner in which his boundless enthusiasm for and unending delight in his music transmitted itself to others. Musicians were lifted by his presence in a band and audiences inevitably responded gleefully even if, at times, their enthusiasm was for the showbiz glitz rather than underlying musical qualities. At times he acted like the superstar he was, earning mild disapproval from some musicians (comments by pianist Bob Kitsis reveal him to be one of this minority). If Gene did act this way, his behavior in this respect might be explained, if not excused, by his awareness of what the mass audience wanted; and there might also have been an underlying fear that his fame could vanish overnight, plunging him back into the the borderline poverty in which he had been raised.

Gene Krupa

Eugene Bertram Krupa was born in Chicago on 15 January 1909, the last of a large family of Polish Catholics. (The age span of the Krupa kids was huge – 23 years between Gene and his eldest sibling.) Death was always a grim factor in the poorer districts of Chicago, and Gene’s family did not escape. His father, Bartley (Bartlomiej) Krupa, died in 1916, a brother in 1918, a sister in 1923, and in 1928, when he was just starting to make his way in the world, his mother died. Anna Krupa had wanted her youngest son to enter the church, but he had other ideas. Even so, he briefly studied in a seminary before the lure of the city’s speakeasies proved too strong. That was was about as far away from the church as it was possible to go, because the world of jazz, which beckoned the youngster, was deemed by many to be the Devil’s domain.

Properbox Records

Properbox Records

Gene had begun playing drums (a brother helping him buy his first kit) and by the mid-1920s he was being recognized in Chicago’s South Side clubs. Among other rising jazz musicians with whom he played were Bix Beiderbecke and Eddie Condon. However, he was itching for the big time and that meant New York, which is where he went in 1929. It was a decision he never regretted. Gene’s early record dates had already attracted worldwide attention; on his first, in 1927, he broke new ground, reputedly being the first jazz drummer to be allowed to use a full drum kit in a recording studio (the old-fashioned recording equipment couldn’t take the reverberation of the bass drum but Gene and the sound engineers figured out a way to do it). Subsequently, he played on recordings that turned out to be masterpieces or milestones. While they were doubtless thought of at the time as just another job, he was on Coleman Hawkins’ classic 1929 recording of One Hour, and in 1933 he backed Billie Holiday on her first-ever recording session. But it was in 1934 that he took the step that was to make him a national figure. It was at the end of that year when he joined Benny Goodman and helped boost the band to its place as the country’s top popular music attraction. There was also the band within the band, the Benny Goodman Trio and Quartet, that illuminated Gene’s name in even brighter lights. For many – perhaps the majority – of its thousands of fans, Goodman’s band was the epitome of Swing. And Gene Krupa was the heartbeat of the band that reached its peak at its 16 January 1938 concert at Carnegie Hall.

For just about the three most important years of my life Gene plugged along with me, taking the breaks as they came, working as hard as any man could.

Benny Goodman (in his autobiography)

Among many records made by Gene with Benny were exceptional small group tracks such as Who? and, Gene’s own declared favorite, Runnin’ Wild. As for the big band recordings, whatever might have been thought at the time, it is probably Sing, Sing, Sing that most evokes this point in their time together (and it is being used in films and on television through to the present day).

Primo Records

Primo Records


For all their commercial popularity together, like many other professionally successful relationships the Gene and Benny pairing had problems. Sharing the spotlight was never something that came readily to the bandleader; after all, he was widely declared to be the King of Swing (although there is evidence that the title was first bestowed on Gene as part of an instrument makers’ publicity campaign). Whatever the root cause, in 1938, Benny and Gene had an on-stage disagreement during a performance at Philadelphia’s Earle Theatre. The outcome was that Gene quit the band. It was headline news, and fans were distraught. But within weeks Gene had his own band and was soon chasing his old boss for the number one spot. The next few years saw tours and recording sessions, that produced successes for the new band such as Drummin’ Man, Wire Brush Stomp, and Blue Rhythm Fantasy. As time passed, the band gradually shifted from being a supporting group for an always soloing drummer, to being one of the best jazz big bands of the era, with key figures apart from the leader – among them trumpeter Roy Eldridge (one of the first black musicians to be a regular member of an otherwise all-white band) and singer Anita O’Day.

Sony Records

Sony Records

Among popular recordings by this band were Let Me Off Uptown, After You’ve Gone, Rockin’ Chair and Massachusetts.

For a while, it might be that those nagging thoughts arose; was this too good to last? It was.

Headline news of a different kind came in 1943 when Gene was busted by San Francisco police officers on charges linked to the possession of marijuana and involving a young man, allegedly underage, deemed to be handling the drug. The media, ever fickle, turned on the man they had helped make into a national idol. Imprisoned and thoroughly dejected by what had happened, Gene thought of retiring. Enough of the truth about what really happened – in and out of court – seeped out for Gene to be granted an early release from prison (although the absolute details would not become public knowledge until many years after Krupa’s death). Surprisingly, because the popular press had attacked him mercilessly, the newly-freed man’s popularity was undimmed. At the time, enough of the unsavory reality and political motivation behind the police action was revealed for Gene to consider himself to have been exonerated. After brief spells with Benny Goodman, who had quickly stepped in with a helpful offer of work, and with Tommy Dorsey, Gene decided to reform a band. Following this resumption of his career, he became more popular than ever before and, simultaneously, the quality of his playing and that of his band reached new heights. Although his own playing style remained largely unaltered, he eagerly embraced new concepts entering jazz at this time and gave career-boosting jobs to young beboppers, including Don Fagerquist, Dodo Marmarosa, Red Rodney and Gerry Mulligan (the latter taken on as an arranger).

Hep Records

Hep Records

Popular recordings around this time included Lover, Opus 1 and Leave Us Leap, with its pulse-prodding freeze beat. At the time of this new peak in his career, the mid-1940s, Gene Krupa was still only 34 years old and he was already a legend.

The first thing that marijuana does is distort time and time is the essence to a drummer.

Gene Krupa

But what effect had all this adulation, the attendant riches, and the high – and low – times had on the man behind the public persona? He had married Ethel McGuire, the switchboard girl at the Dixie Hotel in New York where musicians stayed when in town, but life on the road and its tempting pleasures of wine, women and song threatened their relationship. In Gene’s case the wine (drugs were not his thing, but he liked a taste) and the women (who included movie stars, such as Lana Turner) at times threatened to overwhelm the song. He and Ethel had divorced but were drawn together again at the time of the San Francisco drug bust. They remarried but Ethel’s early death, she was only 46, marred what might have been a fairy-tale ending. As he grew older, Gene retained his good looks and his attractiveness to women was undiminished. The result was a succession of on-the-road affairs until he married again, this time to Patricia, 25 years his junior, with whom he continued to raise Mary Grace and Michael, two adopted handicapped children; sadly, this marriage also foundered.

Although Gene’s career as leader of a big band was over by the 1950s, he continued to lead small groups, usually a quartet, playing prestigious venues in New York, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Chicago, Tokyo, and he toured internationally as a member of Jazz At The Philharmonic.

Charly Records

Charly Records

He also taught drum skills, studied classical music, and explored the complexities of ethnic percussion. He had appeared in several films in the 1930s and 40s, then appeared as himself in 1950s biopics about Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller. 300px-The_Gene_Krupa_Story_1959_posterIn 1959 he played on the soundtrack of his own biopic, Drum Crazy: the Gene Krupa Story, but even Sal Mineo, the actor playing Gene on screen, admitted that the film was a travesty – however, it seemed not to harm either Gene’s reputation or his late career.

Despite a heart condition, in the 1960s Gene played on, sometimes leading his own quartet, or even a big band (if only on record).

Mr Music Records

Mr Music Records

Verve Records

Verve Records

He also appeared on stage and on television with a reunited Benny Goodman Quartet. Although not generally known to audiences, Gene suffered from recurring spinal problems that meant he was frequently in great pain. Not all public appearances were planned in detail. Dave Frishberg played piano in Gene’s quartet at New York’s Metropole in the early 1960s and recalled that one evening just as they ended a one-hour set, Benny Goodman walked in with his clarinet. The audience went wild, management were practically dragging people in to swell the crowd and the club’s photographer went into overdrive promising autographed pictures to everyone. An hour later, Benny packed up his clarinet and left without signing a single photo. Dave noted that Gene, drenched in sweat, sat on the stage, patiently signing pictures, asking each customer who he should inscribe it to. Later, in the dressing room, Gene and Dave studied one of the shots; it was of Benny on the bandstand, clarinet in mouth, legs astride, and his flies open. ‘Buttons!’ Gene said. ‘Buttons! That suit’s probably from about 1940.’ Other sessions included a Chicago date with a local band that included Marcus Belgrave, fortuitously recorded and later released on CD; a quartet date at the New School; and a Chicagoans in New York date at the same venue that reunited Gene with old pals Wild Bill Davison and Eddie Condon. By the early 1970s, though, his health had deteriorated with the onset of a form of leukemia, but he never gave up although concerts were sometimes preceded by blood transfusions and he had to carefully pace his playing to allow him to recover strength between numbers.

Chiaroscuro Records

Chiaroscuro Records

Chiaroscuro Records

Chiaroscuro Records

Gene’s decision to hide his problems from fans proved successful and audiences at the time were unaware of his condition. Today, listeners to recordings of those performances, or viewers of videos, can neither hear nor see any hint of the truth.

It wasn’t only audiences who admired Gene. Just as he had respected, revered almost, Baby Dodds and Chick Webb, significant predecessors in jazz drumming, he was in turn respected by contemporaries, like Buddy Rich, and successors, like Louie Bellson, whose early career was boosted when he won a Gene Krupa contest.

Great, man.

Buddy Rich

I think Gene Krupa was the influence that started a lot of youngsters playing. He made me start digging drums . . . I liked the way he was playing solos . . . he made the public aware of drum solos.

Roy Porter to Mark Gardner in Jazz and Blues

When I was back in high school, I used to do an impression of him.

Butch Miles to Eddie Cook in Jazz Journal

He was a wonderful, kind man and a great player. He brought drums to the foreground. He is still a household name.

Louie Bellson

 Although Gene Krupa has been the subject of many magazine and newspaper articles and numerous passages in books, there was never a book about him until mine appeared in 1987. Written to conform to a series format, at only 40,000 words Gene Krupa: his Life and Times, could not deal fully with this extraordinary man’s life and career. Gene Krupa biographyNevertheless, it sold out as did a 1992 reprint; today copies can be bought from Internet secondhand bookstores. As far as I am aware, only one other book on Krupa has appeared, Bruce H. Klauber’s The World of Gene Krupa.

In the years since publication of my book, new material has emerged, including the full story of the drug bust. This came in 1999 when T. Dennis Brown, Ph.D., of the Department of Music and Dance at the University of Massachusetts, located and interviewed at length John Pateakos, the young man at the heart of the fraudulent case. Additionally, fascinating new information about Gene’s private life has surfaced, adding texture to an already brimful story.

As a glance at print and on-line work reveals, there is a remarkably sustained level of interest in Gene Krupa. Numerous CDs and some videos are available at Amazon and other online stores. In addition to this, available from Bruce Klauber’s website are rare CDs and DVDs of Gene Krupa, not only playing, but also talking about his life and career.

DBK Jazz Records

DBK Jazz Records

Also on Bruce Klauber’s site are details of performances by Bruce’s own Krupa-inspired bands. Additionally, anyone wanting to learn more about this fine musician should visit Joe Pagano’s invaluable site.

All of Gene’s old enthusiasm and musical vitality remained intact until he suffered a final heart attack on 16 October 1973, just a couple of months after an engagement with the Benny Goodman Quartet. That so much interest should exist all these years after his death is testimony to a remarkable individual, man and musician, who lives on not only in print and on screen, but most importantly through the many hundreds of fine records he made and which are bequeathed to us all. Snare drum

Swing that music

October 12, 2016

Fans of Swing Era music believe it to be as alive today as it was when it first burst upon the popular music scene, and there are many musicians around who are happy to prove them right. That this style is still so popular is quite remarkable when set against the thought that 21 August 2016 was the 81st anniversary of Benny Goodman’s breakthrough dance date at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles. However you look at it, eight decades is a long time.Benny Goodman - Copy Benny’s band that night was cheered by an unexpected and eager audience that had been growing in the Pacific time zone for months and in the course of the next couple of years their numbers doubled and redoubled first all across the country and eventually around the world.

Although only newly in the public’s consciousness, this new development in jazz that was labeled ‘swing’ had been heard before that night in 1935 because the style had been evolving since the late years of the previous decade. Bands leading the way included those of Jelly Roll Morton, Luis Russell, Fess Williams, Erskine Tate, and Chick Webb, with arrangers Don Redman, Edgar Sampson, and Fletcher Henderson among those importantly involved. From the late 1930s onward, Goodman’s benchmark style was built upon the work of arrangers such as Henderson and Jimmy Mundy. Playing their charts were skilled sidemen, among them trombonist Red Ballard, saxophonists Hymie Schertzer and Art Rollini, pianist Jess Stacy, bassist Harry Goodman (Benny’s brother), and guitarist Allan Reuss. Soloists appeared who were important in building the band’s fan base, although Goodman himself was always firmly in the spotlight. close up detail of a woodwind clarinetAt the time of the Palomar date the band’s most exciting soloist was trumpeter Bunny Berigan, although he left the band a few weeks later. Changes brought in trumpeters Ziggy Elman and Harry James, tenor saxophonist Vido Musso, and, of significant importance to the band’s style and popular appeal, drummer Gene Krupa. His predecessors, Stan King and Sammy Weiss, were skilful dance band drummers and on earlier recordings do everything right. But on later dates Krupa adds that indefinable something that inspired the rest of the band, which in turn electrified audiences and helped make the band the popular powerhouse it was to become.

On 16 January 1938 the band appeared at Carnegie Hall, an occasion recorded (on a single overhead microphone) but not released until the early 1950s, by which time LPs had This album has never been out of circulation and as the years have passed reissues have benefited enormously from improvements to the sound quality. Not at all surprising is the fact that music from the Swing Era turns up often in films and on television, in dramas and documentaries. Of the music played on these occasions Benny Goodman’s is one of the most common; notably Sing, Sing, Sing the Louis Prima piece that became synonymous with Goodman and Krupa, thanks in large part to the climactic moments of the Carnegie Hall Unfortunately, Benny did not care to share the spotlight with anyone else and Krupa’s personal popularity, which had grown steadily since the Palomar dance date, brought about his departure from the band a little over a year after the Carnegie Hall concert.

So has this music of a bygone age been forgotten? Not at all. Indeed, in some quarters it is just as alive now as it was then. The long ago departure of jazz from the dance floor and in to the concert hall has meant that one of the key qualities of swing style has been sometimes overlooked. This is the fact that most of the music was composed, arranged and played for dancing. It should not be at all surprising therefore that Goodman’s music has had a lasting appeal among dancers, an appeal that is still going strong today. Among the gatherings for fans of dance of this kind is Lindy Focus in Asheville, North Carolina, where musicians and dancers and teachers assemble for a lively festival. The musicians who have played at this venue include local resident and bandleader Michael Gamble, who leads The Rhythmic Serenaders, and Jonathan Stout, leader of the Lindy Focus All Star Orchestra.

Michael Gamble The Rhythmic Serenaders (Organic OR 16552)

On this highly entertaining album, Michael Gamble draws upon music linked to several key names from the Swing Era. For example, he presents Billie Holiday’s composition Fine And Mellow as well as other songs with which she is associated, including What A Night, What A Moon, What A Boy and Back In Your Own Back Yard. Then there are A Mellow Bit Of Rhythm, written by Mary Lou Williams for Andy Kirk’s Clouds Of Joy, Sweets, by Harry Edison for Count Basie’s band, a couple of songs played by Artie Shaw’s Gramercy Five, Scottie and Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, while Goodman is represented by way of songs recorded by his sextet and big band: I Never Knew, Seven Come Eleven and Pick-a-Rib.gamble The Rhythm Serenaders assembled by bass player Michael are clarinetists and saxophonists Keenan McKenzie and Paul Consentino, trumpeters Gordon Au and Noah Hocker, trombonists Lucian Cobb and David Wilken, pianists Craig Gildner and James Posedel, guitarists Jonathan Stout and Brooks Prumo, and drummers Josh Collazo and Russ Wilson (who sings on two tracks), while vocalist Laura Windley appears on four tracks.

Throughout, there are fine solos from both Keenan and Paul and also by other members of the collective. These other soloists include James, Jonathan and Noah on Slidin’ And Glidin’, Seven Come Eleven (a theme originating with Charlie Christian) and Sweets, while Craig and Gordon are heard on I Never Knew. Gordon also solos on Fine And Mellow, providing an effective bluesy accompaniment to Laura’s introspective vocal. Everyone with a liking for the swinging music that captivated audiences way back when – and especially those who like to dance – will enjoy this album. And neatly completing the circle that embraces these eight-decades of swing, this recording session took place in Asheville’s Isis Music Hall, which first opened in 1937.

For more on Michael Gamble, contact Holly Cooper at Mouthpiece Music.

This album is available at the usual outlets, including Amazon.

Elsewhere on this site there is more on Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa – just follow the links.

Over the years there have been several books on Benny Goodman, notably D. Russell Connor’s bio-discography, BG On The Record, and his sequel, Benny Goodman: Wrappin’ It Up, as well as Benny Goodman and the Swing Era by James Lincoln Collier and Swing, Swing, Swing: The Life and Times of Benny Goodman by Ross Firestone. There is also one in the Oxford Studies in Recorded Jazz series, Benny Goodman’s Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert by Catherine Tackley. My own book on Goodman is very brief – it was part of a series of monographs on key jazz figures – and it is long out of print (although still around on the Internet for pennies). I mention it only because it is especially dear to me as it is the only book of mine to be translated into Japanese. (I confess I skipped the proofreading stage.)bg-japan

Benny in Brussels

December 30, 2015

Benny Goodman The Complete Benny In Brussels (Solar 4569965)

During the years after swing was edged aside by bop, the era’s king played on. Always eager to play, Benny Goodman played often with small groups, especially assembled big bands, and also played classical music. Benny Goodman - CopyHe also sometimes dropped by at clubs, sitting in with and without invitation, his manner sometimes underlining his reputation for eccentricity if not outright ill manners. One evening in 1962 Gene Krupa’s quartet was playing at the Metropole in New York City. Dave Frishberg was the pianist in the group and he talked to me about this occasion when I was preparing my biography of Gene Krupa. “We were on the bandstand, just having finished an hour and fifteen minute set, when Benny walked in and the place went crazy. I looked at Gene and his face was white. He says, ‛It’s the King of Swing, and he’s got his horn. I don’t believe this. Here he comes.’ So Benny walked up on the stand and began to try out reeds.” After several minutes of confusion during which the club manager, Jack Waldorf, was practically dragging people in off the street and the camera girl was snapping off pictures as fast as she could, Dave takes up the story: “Benny was finally ready. He said, ‛Brushes, Gene.’ Gene obediently picked up the brushes and flashed a big smile, but I could see he was in a cold fury. Then Benny turned to me and said, ‛Sweet Lorraine in G. Give me a little introduction.’ I complied, and Benny entered in F. He waved me out and continued without piano accompaniment.” An hour later, Benny packed up his instrument and was gone, ignoring those fans who were clamoring for his autograph. Gene KrupaGene, however, obliged, despite being exhausted after playing for more than two hours and as Dave recalls, “he sat patiently on the steps of the bandstand and signed dozens of pictures, writing personal notes on each one, asking each customer, ‛Who shall I inscribe this to?’”

Not only was Goodman’s attitude to the public very different from Krupa’s, there are many tales of how he also frequently alienated fellow musicians, often it seems through thoughtlessness and the long-standing expectation that others served at his whim. I recall Nat Pierce telling me that Benny would often call him suggesting he drop round to the house so they could spend an hour or two playing. Nat eventually discovered the way to get out of these impromptu sessions. He would tell Benny that he would love to do it, but he had a gig – a paying gig. Benny always understood that being paid to play rated higher than playing for fun. Whatever Benny’s peccadilloes, fans continued to flock to his advertised appearances and there was never any shortage of advertising when he occasionally returned to the stage fronting a big band. One of these was assembled for the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels.goodman The band included several leading players and it is worth listing the full personnel: Taft Jordan, John Frosk; Emmett Berry; Billy Hodges (t); Rex Peer, Vernon Brown, Willie Dennis (tb); Ernie Mauro, Al Block (as); Zoot Sims, Seldon Powell (ts); Gene Allen (bar); Roland Hanna (p); Billy Bauer (g); Arvell Shaw (b); Roy Burnes (d). Playing a number of concerts between 25 and 31 May, the band was recorded with the results being released several times over the years since then. Most recent of the reissues is this 3-CD set released by Solar Records. While this band does not have the same earthy excitement that the 1936-8 band displayed on some of the live performances that have become available, this is a well-rehearsed line-up. (I’m not sure but I think that Taft Jordan was straw boss.) The brass section is strong and so too is the reed section, while the rhythm section punches along the ensemble so that it turns in some fiery moments. Of course, Benny is the key soloist, and it is good to hear his enthusiastic playing. Zoot Sims, Seldon Powell and Gene Allen have some solos as do Taft Jordan and Vernon Brown. Goodman aside, the most featured instrumentalist is Roland Hanna who plays with an elegance that brings to mind his predecessor Teddy Wilson. There are a dozen tracks by Goodman with the rhythm section and here again Hanna is strongly featured.

Two singers were brought along on this trip to Belgium, Jimmy Rushing and Ethel Ennis. On earlier releases of material from this engagement only one or two songs by Rushing were included and sometimes Ennis was missed off altogether (even though she was sometimes named on the sleeve). Here, Rushing sings two songs on the first CD and six on the second, while on the second CD Ennis sings four songs. The third CD is a real delight for those who enjoy good jazz and blues singing with Rushing singing six songs, Ennis seven, and the pair joining forces in a duet. Regular visitors to this site will know by now that I am very much a fan of Rushing and he is in typically robust form here. Ennis is much less well known, indeed she has always been somewhat overlooked by fans (and promoters and record producers). This particular date was very early in her career but she readily displays confidence and maturity.

Overall, the repertoire on this boxed set meets the likely expectations of fans attending these concerts, few of whom will ever have had the opportunity to see and hear a Goodman band live. Hence there are several warhorses pulled from the old Goodman book, but they are played with verve and enthusiasm; among these are Roll ’Em, One O’Clock Jump, Bugle Call Rag, King Porter Stomp and Sing, Sing, Sing, the last named allowing Roy Burnes his moment in the spotlight as he recreates the number that first brought Gene Krupa to international attention.

Because more than one concert was recorded a few titles are duplicated but that should not put off anyone. This is three and three-quarter hours of music from a bygone age and it is all well worth hearing today.

If big band music is for you, then there is much to entertain and inform on Vintage Bandstand, a site on which Anton Garcia Fernandez delves deeply into the subject. And don’t miss Anton’s other site, Jazz Flashes, where he writes on jazz instrumentalists and singers, sharing his enthusiasm for all that is good in music.

That reminds me of Duke Ellington’s comment that there are only two kinds of music: Good and Bad.

As always, you can find all kinds of music at Amazon.

Jazz e-books

April 5, 2015

With more and more of us turning to e-books, this is a good time to note that some of my now out-of-print books are available in this format. They include:

Singing Jazz: the Singers and Their Styles by Bruce Crowther & Mike Pinfold

This book explores the lives, words, and music of vocalists past and present to portray the diverse and stimulating world of the jazz singer. Singing Jazz examines the ups and downs of a tough profession: the learning process, on the road and in school; the problems of building a repertoire, finding work, traveling, performing in often difficult circumstances; and the struggle for recognition in the world of popular music, where talent and dedication are sometimes not enough.sjz book

Comments on this book (print edition):

“The text is enriched with extensive anecdotal material and an encyclopedic-styled biographical section.” – Don Heckman – Los Angeles Times

“. . . interviewed especially for Singing Jazz – some of today’s best performers illustrate the contemporary view of jazz singing. Kitty Margolis, Mark Murphy, Helen Merrill, Mark Porter, Christine Tyrrell, and many others discuss the influences and experiences that have shaped their singing careers, and share insights on how their art is still evolving today.” –

“In addition to biographies of jazz singers of yesterday and today, this is a how-to book for singers.” –

“(The world) where the voice itself is an instrument, and the art of improvisation and self-expression reigns–is explored in this illuminating book.” –

“The scintillating story of a vibrant and exciting art form. Illuminating profiles of legendary artists, including Billie Holiday, Ella Fitgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Louis Armstrong, and many more.” –


This e-book is available from Amazon (USA) or Amazon (UK), as are books in the popular Life & Times series:


Gene Krupa: His Life & Times by Bruce Crowther

With his handsome, overwrought, gesticulating presence both on-stage and on-screen, Gene Krupa (1909-1973) changed beyond recognition the role of the jazz drummer and provided a lasting visual image of the Swing Era. gk bookDespite his spectacular drumming with the Benny Goodman band, the drummer’s sensationalized, phony drug bust in California in the 1940s secured his reputation, in the public’s mind, as a drug addict. In fact, underneath his glamorous stage persona, he was a quiet, reflective, and deeply religious man, as well as a dedicated, professional musician. Bruce Crowther sheds new light on Krupa’s Polish immigrant background in Chicago, the places he lived and worked, and the musicians he learned from and played with. In exploring that background, the book evokes the inspiration Krupa provided for his own and succeeding generations of drummers.


Louis Armstrong: His Life & Times by Mike Pinfold

The most famous jazz trumpeter of all time, Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) will also be remembered as a band leader, film star, comedian, and the first jazz personality to become an international celebrity. Born in New Orleans, he played in marching bands and on Mississippi riverboats but became famous with the Chicago band of ‛King’ Oliver. la bookWith his extraordinary instrumental range, gift for variations, distinctive ‛scat’ vocals and extroverted performance style, he succeeded in bringing jazz to audiences who had never before cared for the music. Mike Pinfold sheds new light on Armstrong’s New Orleans background and the unparalleled position he holds in American cultural history.



Bunk Johnson: His Life & Times by Christopher Hillman

Of all the figures to be associated with the revival of early New Orleans jazz in the 1940s, Bunk Johnson (1889-1949) was the most influential and the most controversial. A survivor of the pioneering days of jazz, and hailed in his last years as a ‛grand old man’, Bunk became the symbol of a primitive and simple style of music, with which his own strongly held views were at odds.bunk chris Jazz critics and enthusiasts divided into those who hailed him as a sage, and those who dismissed him entirely. Christopher Hillman has sifted through the known facts about Bunk’s life, and a mass of documentary evidence, to produce this new account of Johnson’s career. The story which emerges, about the music and about Bunk’s own complicated personality, is a fascinating examination of one of the legends of jazz history.

(Interested in early jazz? Then visit Christopher Hillman’s website.)


Billie Holiday: Her Life & Times by John White

Billie Holiday (1915-1959) was one of the greatest artists in the history of jazz, a legend in her own lifetime and, nearly thirty years after her untimely death, a persistent and profound influence on popular music. Frank Sinatra said of her in 1958, “With few exceptions, every major pop singer in the U.S. during her generation has been touched in some way by her genius. It is Billie Holiday . . . who was and still remains the greatest single musical influence on me.” billi book jwLong before her death, she had achieved notoriety as a drug addict as well as a performer. Although the motion picture Lady Sings the Blues (1972), starring Diana Ross, presented a simplified, often distorted image of her life, it also aroused the continuing interest of a younger generation in her peerless recordings. This book examines her tumultuous life and career, and offers a new perspective on Holiday’s legend by focusing on the early years in Baltimore and her breakthrough role as the first black woman to sing with an all-white band in a segregated society.


Also available as e-books are Bruce Crowther’s:

– stage play, The Colors Of Your Life

– the 1989 Edgar-nominated, Film Noir: Reflections In A Dark Mirror

– five new (2012-2014) crime novels, Dead Man Running, Dark Echoes, Penitence, Harlem Nocturne, All Cut Up

– and look out for the forthcoming sequel to Harlem Nocturne. Set four years later, Harlem Madness again features Black private detective Daniel Leland, this time pitting his wits against gangsters, Black and White, in the days and nights surrounding the 1943 Harlem riots.

To buy e-books of any and all of these titles go to Amazon (USA) or Amazon (UK).


Drumming Delights

February 28, 2015

I have long taken an interest in jazz drumming, an interest that over the years has led me to write articles for magazines and on-line sites on several drummers. Among those featured on this site are Chick Webb, Dave Tough, Sonny Greer (see below), Zutty Singleton, and Gene Krupa. Also, in 1987, my book, Gene Krupa: His Life and Times, was published and although now out of print this is available to eager searchers among the second-hand stacks at Amazon. Regrettably, over the years it was only rarely that I became aware of women drummers in jazz. Among the first of the few who caught my ear were Pauline Braddy, whose playing with The International Sweethearts of Rhythm was outstanding, Dotty Dodgion, who played briefly with Benny Goodman and hence came to my attention when I was writing a book on the King of Swing, and Viola Smith, who had a long and varied career, was known as the “female Gene Krupa”, and is still alive and kicking at over 100. In recent years I have greatly admired the playing of Cindy Blackman, Terri Lyne Carrington and Sherrie Maricle, reviewing albums by the last named on this site and in Jazz Journal. These musicians and a few others apart, this was pretty much the sum of my knowledge. Not surprisingly, therefore, I was intrigued to see advance publicity for a book devoted entirely to female drummers and hoped to review it for JJ but another contributor beat me to it. So, I bought a copy from Amazon and what a delight it has been to read it.

Women Drummers: A History from Rock and Jazz to Blues and Country by Angela Smith (Rowman and Littlefield ISBN 978-0-8108-8834-0)

As Angela Smith’s subtitle makes clear, this work is not restricted to jazz; far from it in fact, but this wide-ranging scope is by no means an impediment to anyone with interest in any of the musical fields covered. It will also appeal to those interested specifically in the difficult role women have in the world of popular music, a role that while easier today than it was several decades ago, is still fraught with the all-too familiar prejudices of a male-dominated business.women drummers

Broadly, Smith takes a chronological approach, which means for the jazz fan the earlier and later chapters hold most obvious interest, but I think that anyone choosing to skip past the other genres will not only do the author a disservice but will also miss a great deal that is interesting and revelatory, which it certainly was for me. To a considerable extent, Smith has drawn upon interviews with drummers, some previously published in magazines and books but many personally conducted by herself. These direct sources bring to life the many struggles and occasional triumphs of these musicians and the resulting volume will provide a valuable future resource for music historians. They might also have the effect of sending readers scurrying off to find CDs (all too often deleted) of these women.

To digress for a moment: another long-ago book of mine (written with Mike Pinfold) was The Jazz Singers: from Ragtime to the New Wave (1986). Because no one before had tried to do what we did there, we covered a lot of ground, too much perhaps, and in a later book, Singing Jazz: the Singers and Their Styles (1997), we narrowed the scope and hence were able to examine the subject in greater detail. To some extent, the ground covered in Angela Smith’s book is similarly encyclopedic and I find myself hoping that she might be considering another book on this topic in which she can narrow the scope and get right inside individual lives and careers and in particular examine and explain stylistic differences, something that will be especially interesting when comparing and contrasting drummers from different genres. If the author does take another look at the subject, I’ll certainly buy that book as well. In the meantime, Women Drummers is an admirable work, one that is an important reference book and is also worthy of a place on the shelf of anyone interested in this fascinating corner of the world of music that hitherto has been only rarely, if ever, illuminated.

Angela Smith’s book can be bought from walk-in and on-line stores, which includes Amazon.

Sonny Greer – the Duke’s man

Maybe it’s just me and my occasional mistaken perceptions, but when reading about the glories of the Duke Ellington orchestras, and especially those he led from the late 1920s through to the end of the 1940s, I am struck by a notable omission. Although jazz historians and critics pay well-deserved attention to many of the fine instrumentalists, among them Johnny Hodges, Rex Stewart, Harry Carney, Lawrence Brown, Ray Nance, Barney Bigard, Cootie Williams and Ben Webster, and also arranger Billy Strayhorn, there are far fewer words written about the long-serving drummer Sonny Greer. If I am right in regarding him as a forgotten man, it prompts the question: Why?

sonny greer

Photographs of the band show him as a prominent and flamboyant figure, sitting high up on the bandstand surrounded not only by the regular drums and cymbals that every big band drummer had, but also with a spectacular array of other percussion instruments, including gleaming bells, gongs, timpani and xylophone. For all the quantity of instruments, however, Greer’s aural contribution was muted; he never thundered, preferring to add color to the Ellington band’s sound and to supply a pulse that was felt rather than heard. He was not a soloist, as were so many other musicians in the band, and while seeing him live at dance-halls was doubtless memorable, sometimes on record he was barely audible. Only an assumption, I know, but I somehow doubt that this was the fault of the recording engineers. Listening to the Ellington band on albums such as the outstanding At Fargo, 1940 Live or The Blanton-Webster Band, it quickly becomes apparent that while every man in the band was individually swinging, Greer was largely responsible for creating and maintaining the relentless sense of understated propulsion the band brought to its performances.Duke-at-Fargo-1-150x150

So, who was Sonny Greer? He was born William Alexander Greer on 13 December 1895 (the year is sometimes questioned), in Long Branch, New Jersey. He played locally for a few years but by 1919 he had moved to Washington, DC, where he met Duke Ellington, the two men playing together in both Washington and New York City. As Ellington settled into his role as bandleader, so the drummer became an integral part of the music being created. Stylistically, Greer was subtle and relaxed, the latter quality sometimes, it must be said, leading to an unfortunately casual attitude toward keeping time. Most often, though, his style, especially when using brushes, was ideally suited to the band’s seemingly effortless swing and he contributed much to the tonal palette that Ellington needed in order to realize his compositions.Blanton-Webster-150x150 Fortunately, any timekeeping lapses were underpinned in the earliest years by guitarist Freddie Guy (another invaluable and largely unsung figure) and a little later on by the extraordinary bassist Jimmy Blanton but the drummer played his own part in generating the easy, loping swing that made the band so distinctive.

Only rarely during the 1930s and 1940s did Sonny Greer work outside the aegis of Ellington. Apart from a few small group sessions led by other Ellingtonians, and an appearance on one of Lionel Hampton’s famous Victor recording sessions, on which he was again in Ellingtonian company, his early career was spent inside the Ellington orchestra. By the end of the 1940s, however, Greer had outstayed the welcome of even Ellington, who tolerated more indiscretions from his sidemen than almost any of his fellow bandleaders of the era. Greer never shook off the smooth-talking, sharp-dressing, hard-drinking persona that had been a part of him from the beginning when he had often kept himself in funds by moonlighting as a pool hustler. Most of that persona was not detrimental to his playing, but the drinking was. Gradually, his on-stage behavior deteriorated and in 1951 Ellington was forced to ask him to leave the band.

Thereafter, Greer freelanced, recording with other ex-Ellingtonians such as Johnny Hodges and Tyree Glenn and also with contemporaries like Henry ‛Red’ Allen and J.C. Higginbotham. In the late 1960s and 1970s Greer led his own groups, usually a trio, and he also appeared at concerts celebrating Ellington where he consistently proved that he was never more at ease than when playing his old boss’s music. Despite the lifestyle he chose, he lived a long life, eventually dying in New York City on 23 March 1982.

For all his perceived failings as a drummer, in retrospect it is apparent that Greer was just right for Ellington for the era in which he occupied the drum chair. As the years passed other fine drummers came into Ellington’s band, notably Louie Bellson and Sam Woodyard. The former of these musicians, while an exceptional player, was the least Ellingtonian of all the drummers who played in the band. Woodyard was ideal for later Ellington, bringing to the band elements of Greer’s subtlety and Bellson’s dramatic power. But for the early Ellington bands, especially those that played during the late 1930s and early 1940s, it is clear that Sonny Greer was the perfect drummer. With anyone else, the band would not have sounded the same and if it had not sounded the same then it would not have been what it was – the greatest jazz orchestra of its time.

Next Page »

Looking For Something Specific?

Interested in a Specific Category?