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Gene Krupa in Japan

Almost 70 years ago, three musicians had the honor of being the first American jazz group to play in Japan

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Gene Krupa in the mid-’40s, with the “Let’s Go! U.S.A.” bass drum head he used during wartime. (Courtesy of Hudson Music)
Gene Krupa in the mid-’40s, with the “Let’s Go! U.S.A.” bass drum head he used during wartime (courtesy of Hudson Music)

On April 19, 1952, the Gene Krupa Jazz Trio—Krupa at the traps, Charlie Ventura on tenor and bass saxophones, and Teddy Napoleon on piano—became the first American jazz group ever to perform in Japan. After their arduous two-week tour, the jazz world was forever changed, as were the lives of the three musicians. 

Although it may be regarded as a mere footnote today, the reality is that this was history-making stuff. Think of it: An entire country was opened to jazz. Krupa’s career was revived after economics had forced him to shut down his big band the year before. Ventura became an international name. And Napoleon, reunited with Krupa after a six-year layoff, continued to perform with the drummer for another six years.

Make no mistake, this was definitely not a State Department-sponsored goodwill tour. All involved in the enterprise—artists, promoters, theater and club owners, and especially booking agent Joe Glaser—were in it principally to make money, and all were compensated nicely. Glaser’s records show that for the two weeks in Japan, the group received $5,000 per week, plus first-class round-trip airfare, food and lodging, and additional compensation for interviews, record dates, promo appearances, etc. The $10K base rate they earned would equal about $100K in today’s funds. In retrospect, though, when taking into account the ridiculous amount of work Glaser booked for the band during those two weeks, one could argue that they should have been paid 10 times that.  

“It was the most tremendous thing I’ve ever experienced, even greater than any of the big days with Goodman….Every time you turned around a dozen bulbs would go off.” —Gene Krupa

Jazz in Japan

The young people of Japan had fully embraced jazz by the early 1920s, and it’s been reported that the city of Osaka had some 20 dance halls in operation by 1924. Banned in 1927 by Osaka’s conservative municipal government—the music seems to have gotten a bum rap all over the world, even then—the jazz community moved to Tokyo, where it gained in health. The scene, such as it was, continued until World War II, when jazz was banned nationally, with the party line being that it was “enemy music.” However, it never really stopped; it simply went underground.

During the war, American troops stationed in Japan listened to jazz and records kept circulating. But the Japanese government’s official prohibition of the music continued well after hostilities were over. By the time the Treaty of San Francisco was signed in September 1951, ending the legal state of war between Japan and the Allied Powers, a tremendous hunger for American jazz had developed. Through this whole period, the ever-resourceful Japanese fans and players still managed to pay close attention to American recordings, as the Gene Krupa Jazz Trio would discover for themselves in 1952.

Bruce Klauber

Bruce Klauber is the biographer of Gene Krupa, writer/producer of the DCI Music Video and Hudson Music Jazz Legends DVD series, and a working drummer since childhood. A Philadelphian, Klauber was 16 when he landed his first big-name job in jazz—with Charlie Ventura’s trio.