Charlie Ventura With The Gene Krupa Band – The Rise Of A Saxman
Jazz is full of stories about players who briefly hit the big time, then became almost – but not quite – among the legends everyone remembers. Why some players never reached that top rung on the ladder of immortality is something to think about, and there are probably as many reasons as there are guys who fit the description. One such player was tenor sax man Charlie Ventura.
Ventura had a few different segments of a career that featured differing styles. I was going to highlight that arc but decided that there was too much good stuff to cram it all into one post. We will, therefore, restrict ourselves to Charlie’s opening act – his “featured soloist” status with the great Gene Krupa band of 1945-46.
Charlie Ventura was a Philly boy – he was born there on December 2, 1916 as the fourth of thirteen children. While working for the Stetson Hat Company as a teen, he bought a saxophone and began playing at some Philly clubs. In 1940 he took a job at the Philadelphia Navy Shipyard, which kept his evenings free for music. It was in those Philadelphia clubs where Charlie’s skills on the saxophone brought him into contact with some well-known musicians. He turned down one job offer from Tony Pastor in 1941 – Pastor had taken over the Artie Shaw band after Shaw quit the business (the first time of many). Ventura was a great soloist but was lacking in his music reading abilities and decided he wasn’t ready.
In early 1942 he got a call from the Gene Krupa band. The great trumpeter Roy Eldridge had recommended Charlie after jamming with him at a Philly club, but Charlie turned down that chance as well. Krupa called a few weeks later to try again. Charlie talked with his boss, who made assurances that he could come back if things didn’t work out. With that, Ventura gave up a $125/week job at the Navy Yard for an $85/week spot in the Gene Krupa band.
Gene Krupa became the most famous drummer at the start of the swing era when he provided the foundation for Benny Goodman’s early success in the mid 1930’s. Krupa’s extended drum solo in a 1938 Carnegie Hall performance of Sing, Sing, Sing may have been the first recorded instance of an extended drum solo (you can listen to it here). It was not long after that when Krupa started his own band, one that saw both critical and popular success. Things were going great for both Gene and Charlie when Krupa found himself arrested by the Feds on multiple drug-related charges in 1943. That is an interesting story in itself, and one that remains full of questions. (That tale is told very well here). Krupa was forced to disband and the turmoil almost ruined him, both personally and professionally.
Goodman and others stood by him, and Gene was back with a new band in 1945 with Charlie Ventura back as his featured tenor sax man. The first selection shows both the Krupa band and Charlie Ventura in fine form, performing “Leave Us Leap”. This is a clip from the 1945 film “George White’s Scandals” and is a tune from a hit record that Krupa made in January, 1945. First off, this number shows the Krupa band doing what it did best – up-tempo, energetic music on the jazz end of the pop music spectrum. Charlie Ventura is the only player to see two solos, each displaying his raspy hard swinging style. The other guy who gets plenty of screen time is Gene himself at the drum set. It is tempting to be distracted by the touches of showmanship like the twirling drumsticks, but then notice the absolute precision of the band’s attack after an unexpected rest at both the 1:55 and the 2:35 minute marks and you can see the really high levels of musicianship this group displayed.
It was reported at the time that Krupa would be so thoroughly drenched from perspiration after a show that he needed a full hour to wrap himself in towels, dry off and get a rubdown before he was able to see anyone. One look at the tail end of this clip and you can see why – Krupa was one of the hardest working drummers in the business. And this band was one that swung hard and relentlessly in the waning days of the big band era. (You can also check out the January 22, 1945 studio recording here).
The next two samples show how central Charlie Ventura was to this band. “Yesterdays” was recorded October 23, 1945 and was a vehicle for an extended tenor sax solo by Ventura, who gets to show off both his ballad skills and his chops for some up-tempo stuff in the middle part of the piece. The label of this record, which gave Ventura featured soloist credit, was unusual for the day and showed how Ventura’s stock had risen as a musician. He won the Downbeat Magazine poll as the most popular tenor sax player of 1945 and would win Esquire Magazine’s “New Star” award in 1946. Band leaders featured themselves on their own records all the time, but it was much less common for a leader who was a star of Krupa’s caliber to give so much attention to one of his sidemen – especially on a record label.
I first heard this disc back in the 1970’s, when I played musical roulette by buying random 78 rpm records from thrift stores. For reasons I cannot explain, I was under the thrall of the other side of this one (which I suspect was the “A” side, though it was difficult to tell on Columbia discs). The other side was an up-tempo vocal called “Hop, Skip and Jump” that featured Anita O’Day, the singer most associated with Krupa – and one who had a long history as one of the top tier of female jazz singers. Maybe I was not so much into slower ballads at the time, but I was underwhelmed by this version of “Yesterdays” and only listened to it a couple of times. Today, I could care less about the other side because this one is just so delicious.
The last track for today is “Out of Nowhere”, recorded by Capitol Transcriptions on February 20, 1946. These “transcription discs” were made for broadcasters on a subscription basis and not sold to the public (something we went into detail about here).
Charlie Ventura was known as a bit of a hot dog, or someone who was not at all shy about showing off in his playing. This cut is another extended Ventura solo with the Krupa band, and one that let Charlie show off many of the skills in his toolbelt. He could play a tender ballad as well as anyone, and most of this record demonstrates this exquisitely. Ventura’s full, fat sound provides exactly the tonal qualities that come to my mind when I think of a tenor saxophone performance from the 1940’s. But beyond his abilities as a balladeer, the man could boast of a mad range on the tenor sax. Not only could he blow those lush, full-bodied low notes, but he could play (and control!) some really, really high stuff, like at the 2:55 mark where that high note could pass for a blast from a trumpet. There are times this piece sounds like the work of the smaller, higher-range alto saxophone, but nope – this was just Charlie’s ability to stretch a tenor sax’s range about as far as it could be stretched.
Despite the many opportunities to shine as a member of the Krupa band, it soon became plain that Charlie Ventura was not cut out to be under someone else’s control in a big band. Ventura started cutting some records under his own name while still working for Krupa. This, however, takes us into a part of the story we will have to take up at a future date. These records mark the end of Ventura early career as a sideman for someone else’s big band. But this brief sampling of his work from that period is a terrific addition to any jazz library.
Another great entry…gotta love that sax, and altho somewhat known to me, love the full detailed story!
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Several years ago I bought a four CD set of Charlie Ventura recordings and listened to it a lot. I am kind of surprised it has taken me so long to get to him.
Plus one for Gene Krupa coverage as well, especially the first vid! Reminds me of my twenty year old self arguing with my Dad about Krupa vs. Buddy Rich! I even owned that drum battle album….
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I’m thinking that Krupa was probably the first celebrity drummer. If there was an earlier one, I’m not thinking of him.
Completely dazzled and distracted from Ventura by Krupa’s dance moves and drumming in the first video. Those breaks in his drumming action were so pure I thought something went wrong with the video. But man, to summon that energy night after night; no wonder the guy needed time to recover afterwards. He must have been a dynamo in conversation as well. Also, “musical roulette” while you grab 78s at random? Love that.
A friend played the sax in the high school band, at local gigs, then 50 years later, still plays at weddings and Summer outdoor concerts with the same band (just adding “orchestra” to their name); he fits those events in between his job as a district court judge. I can hear their music at the annual concert in the park series near my house. Dave would tip his head back and you could tell he was really into playing that instrument just like that second-to-last picture you have here. (Sadly, I did not have those same getting-into-it vibes while playing the accordion.) You must have an extensive record collection JP.
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