The Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert
It was the floor tom heard round the world, Gene Krupa’s call to revolution: “Drummers to the fore!”
By January 16, 1938, the time of this Benny Goodman Carnegie Hall concert, Gene Krupa had already introduced the extended drum solo to jazz, and his star status had helped elevate the role of drummers. But this famed performance truly sealed the deal. Krupa’s dynamic solo on “Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing)” and band-driving command throughout the night remain landmarks in drumming history. More important, the concert marked a turning point, a confluence of historical firsts that opened doors for the future of jazz itself.
Today it’s difficult to comprehend a bygone attitude that questioned the notion of a jazz performance at Carnegie. But seventy-seven years ago, many dismissed the event as a publicity stunt, while hardened purists hissed “Sacrilege!” The hallowed hall, they contended, was a firmament for the likes of Toscanini and Horowitz, not brash “dancehall bands.” Before Goodman’s appearance, orchestra leader Paul Whiteman had incorporated jazz elements into his formally arranged pieces. But Whiteman’s music was a staid affair, sans improvisation, bearing no comparison to the vital jazz that Goodman, “the King of Swing,” brought to the hall.
That evening, Goodman strode onto the stage, resplendent in tails, and his big band swung into “Don’t Be That Way.” Initially the ensemble seems a tad reserved. But most likely they’re intentionally building suspense. Krupa swings smoothly and slyly prods the band, dropping unexpected bass bombs during the verse. On his first big drum break, Krupa suddenly unleashes fast, straight 16ths on the snare, and the audience reacts with excitement; the sold-out house is clearly raring for the band to let it rip. After a repeated ensemble decrescendo, Krupa sets up the outro with blazing force and brings the band home hard with four on the floor. From there, the concert steams up and Krupa emerges a hero.
Throughout the diverse program, Krupa leads the way with various ensembles, igniting a calfskin Slingerland kit that boasts a bass drum painted with “BG” and his own “GK” shield—a reinforcement of his central role. In addition to the orchestra numbers, Krupa is featured with Goodman’s famous trio, including pianist Teddy Wilson, and quartet, with vibraphonist Lionel Hampton. Also included is an extended jam segment featuring members of the Count Basie and Duke Ellington bands. Krupa accompanies the guests and defers to Basie’s elegant piano style, approaching the kit with an appropriately smoother, subtler edge.
The so-called “killer diller” finale, prompting two encores, is reserved for “Sing, Sing, Sing.” Goodman understood that Krupa would bring the house down, but the stickman does more than that: He launches the night straight into the history books.
Amazingly, the recording wasn’t issued until 1950. Promotional releases explained the delay with a sugary fabrication, telling tales of tapes forgotten in the closet and later discovered by Goodman’s daughter. But the reality involved roadblocks from tangled contractual dealings with inter-label guest musicians and union complications. When the album finally hit the market, it generated more firsts: the first double LP and the first million-seller (plus) for Columbia.
Following its original release, the recording was shamelessly sliced, diced, and sonically messed with for decades. Jazz scholar/producer Phil Schaap sought out the original acetates and restored the entire concert for 1999’s Columbia/Legacy two-CD release. Schaap wisely chose not to suppress surface noise in exchange for maintaining the original ambiance. It’s a scratchier listen but far more authentic and alive. Plus you can hear the drums better!
Following the famed concert, jazz bands, having been acknowledged with the “legitimacy” they deserved, regularly graced Carnegie Hall and similar institutions. Some say Krupa sat at the intersection of history. But more accurately, he helped make that history. Less than two months after that night, Krupa left Goodman and formed his own successful big band. His mother-of-pearl “BG” Slingerland kit is on display at the Smithsonian.
“Sing, Sing, Sing” The granddaddy of drum features. Krupa’s trademark visceral, syncopated floor tom beats rock the bowels of Carnegie. At the finale, his snare power triplets provide a setup to the outro brass shouting—but Krupa surprisingly keeps it up, explosively triplet-ing right over the brass lines.
“I Got Rhythm” Driving the quartet, Krupa starts with breakneck-tempo brushes and builds to a raucous ending, goading Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson in a percolating game of chicken. Krupa underpins the bass-less group with his speedy feathered bass drum.
“Sensation Rag” In a medley outlining jazz history, Krupa is caught in a rare instance performing Dixieland style, playing on rims and laying down rudimental street beats.