A Composer's Adventures


Two chapters from my book, Adventures of an American Composer:




My first big drumming idol was Gene Krupa—the Heifetz of the drums and a household name. He was a star drummer in movies and his records sold everywhere. I copied his way of playing, even his way of combing his hair—straight back, with no part on the side. I was dying to talk to him and had a hundred questions. Just to get close to him would be a moment to remember. He was going to appear at the Panther Room of the Sherman Hotel, just a few blocks from the Oriental Theater, so I made him my next project.

But how could I, a 14-year-old kid, get close to him in a supper club?

Throughout these years of meeting bandleaders I had developed considerable confidence at getting into places kids couldn’t go—like the Panther Room. So I drew an especially good portrait of Krupa with his shadow large on the back wall while he hovered over the drums.

I wrapped it up in celluloid to keep it clean and took the streetcar and “L” into Chicago’s loop. My standard budget for the trip included twenty-one cents for three Hershey bars, my food for the day.

I entered the Sherman Hotel and down the staircase to the supper club, where I slipped in with a cluster of people. It was about 6:30 p.m. But how would I find Krupa? There was no backstage door. Then I noticed musicians coming onto the bandstand through the kitchen off stage right. Acting like I belonged, I walked over to the kitchen’s swinging doors and waited for someone to come through. Soon a waiter backed out balancing a large tray and I slipped in with the rhythm of the swinging doors. Ducking behind a partition by the dishwashers, I peeked out at the bustling kitchen and waited for Krupa. How long could I stand here without being discovered? The floor manager kept leaning in to tell the cooks to hurry, his elbow hovering right beside me—but he was too busy to notice a fidgety teenage trespasser. If I could just see Krupa in person, I would at least have that memory.

Finally Krupa walked in, flanked by two other musicians. He was shorter than I expected—from the movies I thought he was a giant. His dark wavy hair was combed back in a thick pompadour. I couldn’t believe it. I was standing within a few feet of the world’s most famous drummer! He was passing through quickly on his way to the stage, so I jumped out and told him my name. “I draw pictures of all the great musicians,” I said. He looked at the picture, told me it was very good, smiled, and at my request signed it. Just then the headwaiter came through the doors. “Hey kid, how did you get in here?” He promptly escorted me through the supper club and into the Sherman Hotel lobby. I was deeply frustrated. In another moment I might have been able to arrange a date to talk with Krupa. But I controlled my feelings until I left the hotel.

I had to find someplace to be alone, so I went into the alley behind the hotel and sat on an orange crate amidst the garbage and let my emotions pour out. I must have cried for 10 minutes as I told the garbage cans around me all the things I had wanted to say to Krupa—that I was a drummer too, that I’d memorized all his solos from recordings, that I wanted to be like him because he was the most exciting musician I’d ever heard. Then I wiped my eyes, walked to the elevated train on Wabash, and went home. I never told my parents what happened.



BrahmsThe first time I heard the Boston Symphony play live, I was so excited that I jumped up and ran. It was Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 in the open-air shed at Tanglewood, under Charles Munch. I sat in the front row, about 15 feet away with the full weight of the music right in my lap. The Romantic beauty of the piece and the fullness of the sound transfixed me, but the ending was the most powerful. The symphony peaked in a giant buildup of horns and trombones that rose in harmonic tension and ended in an intense flourish. All the musicians seemed to sing as one. The audience rose to its feet before hearing the last notes, applauding and shouting with the final crash.

I jumped up and ran out of the shed, across the lawn and down to the road. I bolted through the gate, passing Nathaniel Hawthorne’s red house and sprinting the quarter mile down the dirt road to the Stockbridge Bowl lake. Standing on the end of the pier I yelled as loud as I could: “I’m going to be a composer!”

My voice bounced back at me from the surrounding mountains. Or was that just my imagination?


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