Brooks Tegler’s craggy physiognomy suggests he’d be right at home in the role of a hard-bitten private eye in a 1940s film noir. The deep resonanceof his full-bodied announcer’s voice completes the illusion. Appropriate, perhaps, considering his passions and pursuits. Though he was born in the mid-50s, this American drummer’s style is firmly rooted in the swing era. While other young jazz drummers of his generation may have looked to sticks masters like Elvin Jones, Billy Higgins or Jack DeJohnette for direction, those to whose beat Brooks marched were outright swingers like Chick Webb, Buddy Rich, and especially, Gene Krupa.
In fact, Brooks counts himself as one of a handful of Krupa experts, each having a different focus on the man’s life and career. As he explained to me in an April 2023 telephone interview from his Washington D.C. area home, “There’s a group of four, that if you put all of our individual knowledge together, then you’ve got the absolute core of knowledge about Gene Krupa. . . . My dear friend over in the UK, Jerry Brennan, can recite chapter and verse about recordings, the studios they were recorded in, the personnel on them. Our friend Paul Testa, who lives in North Carolina, spent lots of personal time with Gene in the 60s, and took some amazing pictures in those days. And Sean Martin, the guy who leads the Krupa page on Facebook, is also very knowledgeable.”
Tegler’s speciality is Krupa’s equipment, the sets and accoutrements he used to create his signature sound. The resourceful Brooks has even written a book on the subject called G.K.: The Tools That Built The Gene Krupa Legend. It’s a highly detailed work with over 1,800 images, and Brooks is justifiably proud of it. “It’s a textbook,” he explains. “People will use it for reference when they have a question, then they’ll put it back on the shelf . . . That’s what it was written for: to impart the information as needed.”
One who benefited from Brooks’ expertise was Charlie Watts. When the late Rolling Stones drummer purchased a large collection of Krupa’s drums and other artifacts, Tegler stepped in to assess and catalogue it. He eventually produced a 28-page document detailing what he found in this trove.
Being able to see and touch his idol’s personal effects was like a quasi-religious revelation to Brooks. “You know that Gene had his hands all over that stuff. And to be able to see it and realise right away that you’d been seeing photographs of this stuff for years, thinking it was all gone, [that] was just remarkable . . . all the stuff that had been put in storage in 1973 and probably just ignored. A lot of it was iconic stuff, like the last bass drum that Gene had played on, drum thrones, canister thrones that he sat on for years. And some inexplicable things, like a set of Zildjian cymbals that Armand Zildjian . . . had sent him.”
As a result of working gratis on this project, Brooks was invited to meet Watts when the Stones played their final concert in the DC area. “He was a wonderful guy, he really was. We had a great chat in his dressing room before the concert. I showed him a couple of things that Gene used to do . . . [This was] shortly before he passed away.”
Tegler’s extensive knowledge of Krupa, and of the era that spawned his legend, is well complemented by his mastery of swing-style drumming. From the beginning of his jazz career and on into the 90s, he had opportunities to appear on stage with many of the greats of previous eras. A number of them he met thanks to his participation in the Manassas and Atlanta jazz parties. “All of them are gone now,” he remarks, a note of wistfulness tempering his enthusiasm. Those with whom he worked included Keter Betts, Billy Butterfield, Kenny Davern, Wild Bill Davison, Slim Gaillard, Urbie Green, Al Grey, Frank Foster, Frank Wess, Max Kaminsky, Major Holley, Milt Hinton, Bob Haggart, Art Hodes, Steve Jordan, Jack McDuff, Butch Miles, Flip Phillips, Johnny Varro, Bob Wilber, Helen Ward and many others of similar stature. He has also played with many well-known younger musicians who remain active, people like Harry Allen, Ken Peplowski, Antti Sarpila, Allan Vaché, and so on.
I wondered how Brooks – born November 1954 in Philadelphia and raised in Baltimore – got interested in Gene Krupa and swing music. “My father was a drummer,” he said, “[and] I guess it was probably just growing up listening to my father’s music, a lot of big band stuff, a lot of small groups, and most of it was drummers like Gene and Buddy.”
As it turns out, his father knew Krupa, providing Brooks with an opportunity to meet the man whose music would so impact his career. “My father took me to see Gene . . . I spent the evening sitting under his drums, sitting next to him at his table, watching him . . . Gene was just wonderful. Because me, my father, and my grandfather, my father’s father, were there, he [Gene] made a comment to the audience to the effect that how great it was three generations of the same family came to see him.”
Fresh out of high school in 1972, Tegler went right to work with a pop-rock band based out of Boulder, Colorado. “It was a good band,” remembers Brooks. The next several years he spent as a sideman in a succession of rock and blues bands, some of them dismal, he admits. By the end of the decade he had had enough of that life and started his own band dedicated solely to jazz – swing jazz in particular. He had no formal instruction of any kind. Basically self-taught, he figured it out as he went along. “I learned by listening to records,” he says, matter-of-factly.
Judging by the company he kept over the ensuing years, he had taught himself well. Timing also had to be a factor, many celebrated masters remaining active as his career gathered steam. “I was ridiculously lucky about that,” he says.
Almost without exception, he recalls the celebrities he encountered fondly. His memories of working with Wild Bill Davison are representative of how such pairings usually played out: “It was beautiful. He was a really good guy, especially as a lot of these cats were, when they’d see some dumb idiot like me sitting up there, they wouldn’t turn on us. If it was obvious that we needed help, they would give it; if it was obvious that we didn’t, we didn’t hear anything from them, other than ‘Nice job. Had fun playing with you’ . . . Kaminsky was the same way.”
Kenny Davern he remembers as a fine musician, as well as a master of sarcasm: “Kenny was the king of sarcasm. We played out in Illinois one year. Of course, I was sitting behind the drums, and I listened to Kenny just eviscerate this poor woman out in the audience . . . Kenny would not hold back. If there was something that was pissing him off, or something that he thought was absurd, he didn’t keep it to himself.” On the flip side, “He was self-effacing, when it was appropriate. One time he and I and Art Hodes did a concert at the Smithsonian, and we sat backstage and worked out a whole set . . . wrote this whole list of tunes down, came out and got our big introduction, and Kenny turns around, looks at me and Art, says, ‘Folks, we’re going to take a short pause now while I go back and actually get the set list.’ He had left it sitting back in the dressing room. So he wasn’t afraid to laugh at himself.”
He met Flip Phillips before he had graduated from high school. “He would show up at my father’s jam sessions. When I’d walk into the room, they’d go ‘The kid’s here, let’s play Watermelon Man.’ I could never get past that,” says Brooks with a chuckle.
For a time Brooks played a regular Thursday night gig with a combo that Helen Ward used to join on occasion. “One night, she came up and whispered in my ear ‘You remind me of Gene.’ That was like music to my ears, man. To have Helen Ward, who was like Gene’s sister say that, it obviously made an impression.”
Though he strives for authenticity in leading his own jazz groups, his goal is to recreate the feeling of the older music, not to slavishly imitate it. To accomplish that, correct instrumentation, fealty to the original arrangements, and attempting to play with the same energy and intensity as heard on the older records are key factors. “But these are jazz bands,” insists Brooks, “and I would never expect any sideman to play anything other than his own improvised stuff.” When compared to the solos of the original players, it’s worth noting how naturally the more modern conception of the soloists in Brooks’ combos blends with the classic arrangements, thereby highlighting the durability of this music.
The best example of his approach in action is Tegler’s 2007 big band CD entitled That’s It! It’s a tribute to the sounds of the 1920s and on into the mid-50s, Tegler and company playing 18 classics by the big bands of Basie, Carter, Dorsey, Ellington, Goodman, Herman, Krupa, Miller and Shaw. The tracks were chosen carefully to highlight the musical richness of the era. Instead of reprising once again In The Mood nostalgia fare, we hear such treasures as the Dorsey band’s Pussy Willow, arranged by Bill Finnegan, Herman’s Keeper Of The Flame, Basie’s John’s Idea and Sweetie Cakes, Ellington’s Jack the Bear, Carter’s Slow Freight, Shaw’s The Glider and many others. Each cut is a standout, and the record just cooks from start to finish.
The interpretation of the arrangements is first rate, the soloists demonstrate great range and skill, and the ensemble plays with wonderful esprit and single-minded purpose. The leader’s drums drive each track. His playing is powerful but not bombastic, controlled but never clinical, precise but soulful, and very musical, just like Krupa’s. Not every drummer is a true musician. Brooks most certainly is. Honestly, I can’t imagine any big band enthusiast not digging That’s It! (Unfortunately, the CD is out of print, but a download can be purchased directly from Brooks (email tegler(at)verizon.net).
Now exhibiting early-stage symptoms of emphysema, the 68-year-old drummer admits to feeling his age and the effects of his health condition. “I still play a regular Sunday night gig,” he told me, “but it is getting harder.” Basically semi-retired since the disruption caused by the pandemic, he recognises he’s likely in the final phase of his career.
Tegler is modest about his achievements, but he can reflect with satisfaction and pride on a rich and varied musical journey. And while Drum Crazy served as the title for the foreign release of the bit of sensationalist fiction known in the USA as The Gene Krupa Story, it seems apt when applied to Brooks. His passionate advocacy of the finest aspects of swing music, together with his mastery of the drum tradition established by Krupa and his like, have enriched the lives of all who have been fortunate enough to experience these gifts. That alone denotes a life well and fully lived.