By: Courtney Grimes
Slingerland drummer Michael Berkowitz is carrying on the long-loved tradition of Big Band Music. Inspired by his idol, Gene Krupa, Michael is bringing the legacy of Krupa’s music back for the new audiences to enjoy by conducting and drumming with The New Gene Krupa Band. Having performed with such stellar musicians as Sting, Harry Connick, Jr., Michael Feinstein, Billy Joel and Elton John, Michael has also displayed his talents in conducting Symphony Orchestras, numerous Award Shows including the Oscars and the Tonys, Broadway shows, and even performed in Carnegie Hall and London’s prestigious Palladium Theater. I had the opportunity to chat with Michael about having a wonderful time playing his Slingerland set, the fabulous cocktail sauce at the White House, and his secret love for curating ancient texts!
CG: What made you want to pick up the drumsticks?
MB: As a kid, I was always beating on things around the house. Drums and music fascinated me. My father had a large collection of 78’s. I used to listen to Opera, Al Jolson, Enrico Caruso and Big Bands for hours. My parents went to Chicago for a weekend trip and came back with a small beginner’s set from Lyon & Healey, a large music store in the Loop.
CG: Who are your musical influences?
MB: Everyone on the planet. Drummers include Gene of course, and Buddy Rich. Others are Alvin Stoller, Sol Gubin, Irv Cottler, Steve Gadd, Tony Williams, Roy Haynes, Shelley Manne, Jo Jones, Ed Thigpen, Joe Morello, Elvin Jones, Joe Chambers, Earl Palmer, Hal Blaine, and Jim Keltner…a rather diverse list. Other musicians, Leonard Bernstein, Andre Previn, Bird, Coltrane, Miles, Bill Evans, Stan Getz, JJ Johnson, Nelson Riddle, Sinatra.
CG: Tell me about The New Gene Krupa band.
MB: The band is starting to get some momentum. We’re being booked by a number of agencies and have dates all over the U.S. next spring. Obviously, it’s a challenge to do a Big Band at this time. Even Gene himself couldn’t keep his after 1951. We’ve got a great book with all of the hits like “Leave Us Leap,” “Lover,” “Let Me Off Uptown,” “Rockin’ Chair,” “Boogie Blues,” “Disc Jockey Jump,” and I’ve just added some numbers from the movie, “The Gene Krupa Story.” And “Sing Sing Sing,” of course. I love doing concerts and dances where we get all age groups enjoying the band.
CG: What goals do you hope to accomplish with this group?
MB: I hope to continue a tradition of great American music and also carry on the legacy of Gene Krupa. My greatest joy comes from people who hear the band, but weren’t familiar with the Krupa Big Band and its music. I love when they come over to me at the end of the night with big smiles and a newfound appreciation of the Big Band tradition. I also want to make it more than just a “Museum Piece,” playing only the music of the 30’s and 40’s. I want to do new music in the style of Gene and his band, too.
CG: Who were some of your favorite artists that you’ve performed with?
MB: Some of my favorites have been Nelson Riddle, Placido Domingo, and Henry Mancini. I’ve done projects with Harry Connick, Bette Midler, Billy Joel, Elton John and Sting. I’ve worked a couple of things with Beyoncé and she’s amazing. And lately I’ve done some concerts with Liza Minnelli. She controls the rhythm section in the same way that Sinatra did. I just tune into her and she gives it all to me in her singing and gestures. Kind of high pressure but there’s a real feeling of accomplishment after a Liza concert for me.
CG: If you weren’t involved in music, what do you think you’d be doing?
MB: Not sure. I’d probably be an agent or a Curator of Ancient texts in some obscure Library.
CG: Tell me about your first experience performing at the White House.
MB: First of all, the cocktail sauce they serve at the receptions is to die for. It’s pretty amazing, walking around and seeing the all the rooms. I was taken upstairs to see the Family Quarters and also got to see the Oval Office. The rehearsals are pretty standard stuff but when it’s time for the show, there’s the President and First Lady in the front row as well as all the other dignitaries. It’s hard to keep your mind on the music. And after the show you go in the receiving line and meet the President and First Lady and someone takes your picture shaking hands with them. Magically, these pictures show up at your house a few weeks later signed by the President. I’ve had all the invitations, the pictures, the credentials, etc. framed and it’s fun to look at myself talking to Nancy Reagan.
CG: What do you like about Slingerland drums?
MB: The sound. I’ve got a set of Radio Kings from 1938 and the new Slingerland’s have that same distinctive warm, round sound. The workmanship is just about the best I’ve ever seen. The edges are beautiful, the finishes are beautiful and the metal shines like diamonds. The Radio King snare is responsive all across the drum head and at all volume levels. I just think these new Slingerland drums are the best I’ve played and they are right for all the types of music I play, from the Krupa Band to gigs with the New York City Ballet to Liza Minnelli to Jingles, Broadway, recording dates and live concerts with Symphony Pops!
CG: Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
MB: Behind a set of Slingerland drums somewhere, playing music and having a marvelous time!