The Gene Krupa story is a fascinating one, so much so it became a rare instance of a film getting made in Hollywood centring on a drummer. With Sal Mineo as Krupa, doing a pretty good job of miming his drum parts, the film - sadly something of a turkey - also goes under the same title as this boxed set from Proper Records. Other films about drummers are pretty rare: there's The Man With The Golden Arm, with Sinatra as a jazz drummer/drum addict, and the ultra obscure Todd Haynes movie Superstar, a biopic of Karen Carpenter in which the characters are portrayed by Barbie/Ken dolls!
This set of four discs covers just over a decade in Krupa's busy drumming life, from 1936 to 1947. As well as the four discs worth of music, mostly big-band, and a lot of it vocal lead, there's a 30 or so page booklet, which has in it a 16 page essay on Krupa's life, by Joop Visser. This, together with the scale and scope of the whole set - and the budget price - all combine to make a vey good way to get to know this legendary jazz drummer.
Big band jazz isn't my favourite variety within what is a very broad church of a genre, and big band vocal numbers even less so, as both forms are - to my ears - showing their age. From the scat of Leo Watson to the sassy dame vibe of Anita O'Day, it's good, particularly if you like the style, but it has all dated. My personal view is that the very best jazz, say for example some of the classic hard bop and modal jazz of the 1950s, still sounds pretty damn fresh even now. All the music here sounds like a time capsule from a bygone age. And indeed, that's what it is.
As such it's an excellent value collection, and collates a large and fairly varied range of material from the heyday of the American big band, which was also the heyday of Gene Krupa. And, speaking as a drummer, one can't help but be charmed by Krupa's effervescent energy and charm. He still has legions of devoted admirers, for many of whom he's the best drummer ever. But Krupa himself knew that there were better technicians, Buddy Rich, for example. But both of these guys - and others: the issue of race was still a sore point at this time in America, and drummers like Chick Webb were ghettoised - helped 'turn on' white America to the new sound that was jazz.
Originally destined for the priesthood, I for one am hugely glad that Krupa exchanged the cassock and rosary for 'traps', sticks and wire brushes. His mama worried about his soul - and sure enough, hanging out with the cats did see him busted for 'tea' related offences - but we needn't share that fear: whether these strands of jazz are your cuppa or not, any fool can spin any one of these four discs and see that Krupa had a whole lotta soul. Another good set for those wanting to get to know Krupa's later work is Five Classic Albums Plus, a 2-CD set from Avid that combines recordings Krupa made in the 1950s, taken from the following albums: The Gene Krupa Sextet (vols 1-3), Hey Here's Gene Krupa, and The Gene Krupa Trio Collates.
The material gathered here in the Proper set isn't the greatest jazz in the world, nor is Krupa the greatest drummer, but this is very good jazz, and he was a very, very good drummer, who raised the profile of jazz as a genre, and the drummer as performer. This is an excellent way to get to know Krupa as he was in his heyday: nice work from Proper, and, at £13 (at the time of writing), a proper bargain.