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Ken Peplowski: Man On the Road

This is the best of times for jazz musician Ken Peplowski, renowned clarinet and tenor sax player. So good in fact, it was difficult for him to find time to talk by phone in June. Having just returned from playing dates in Italy, he was in the midst of performing in New York’s JVC Jazz Festival, and cutting a CD with the Bill Charlap Trio. "It never rains, but it pours...but it is great to be busy," he says.

Indeed, and there is no respite in sight. He will soon be on his way to more festivals, in Canada and cross country to Oregon. Without a regular group, Peplowski travels to play dates alone, or occasionally, with compatriots such as reed player Harry Allen (who was with him on an Italian date) or guitarist Howard Alden for duo appearances.

Arriving by himself, he often plays with local rhythm sections provided, which usually work out well. Sometimes though, his backup isn’t compatible. "Some promoters don’t know how to put groups together and, of course, they don’t consult us," he says sarcastically. "When I’m uncomfortable, I just block out the bad influences and play for myself."

Regular gigs he loves to take are the annual West Coast Jazz Party, coming up next month, and the Newport Beach Jazz party. Both are staged by Southern California promoters Joe Rothman and John McClure. Rothman, a Peplowski admirer says that since 1994, he has played 19 of the 20 parties he has promoted in Orange County, California. "Ken was at everyone except the first one. He holds the record for appearances," says Rothman.

Regarding musicians such as Peplowski who constantly travel, Rothman says they have to be experts in planning ahead. "Jazz players who stay home usually either teach, or do studio work to make it. Those who depend on traveling have to be very business-like in arranging their schedules." Tenor sax star Houston Person is someone else who would be in that category.

One of the joys of attending these type weekend parties is seeing and hearing musicians from various parts of the country come together. They may have encountered each other before, but often not for awhile. When they get on the stand, it’s wonderful to see how they meld, as if they played together the night before, improvising on a theme, picking up motifs from each other, exchanging bars, all using a common language. This cohesion of elements is described by the late critic Whitney Balliett: " poetry, it is an art of surprise - that, shaken down, amounts to the blues, some unique vocal and instrumental sounds, and the limited, elusive genius of improvisation."

This year Peplowski will be in Irvine again on Labor Day Weekend, August 28-31 for the 14th Annual West Coast Jazz Party. He’ll perform in several group configurations, appearing with such notables as vibes legend Terry Gibbs, singer/composer/pianist Dave Frishberg, drummer Butch Miles and tenorman Person, for sure producing jazz at its best.

Peplowski’s affable nature and fun-loving personality always make him a crowd favorite. His witty introductions to numbers, and humorous exchanges with the other musicians, always get lots of laughs. And Peplowski loves his fans. "It is like old home week when I see the people who have been coming to the parties for years."

Adding to his portfolio, Peplowski has taken on the responsibility of running jazz events. He will be in charge as music director of the American Festival of Music in Oregon in July, and The Jazz Cruise in November.

Born in 1959, Peplowski started playing for pay when he was a youngster in Cleveland. "I’ve been working since the 6th grade when I played clarinet in a novelty band, Polka Varieties," he says. "I knew from that time that I wanted to be in music."

He got his first jazz gig after he quit college to play with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, under the direction of Buddy Morrow. He was featured on clarinet and also played lead alto. While in the band, he met the great tenor sax player Sonny Stitt, a life-altering experience.

From that point, he added tenor to his array of reed instruments. "Stitt is an inspiration to all of us who make a living on the road," he says. In the shadow of Coltrane and Rollins, Stitt he believes, "was definitely under-appreciated during his lifetime."

Later in 1984, Peplowski joined Benny Goodman when the leader came out of retirement to lead a band. He played tenor, along with absorbing the bandleader’s genius on clarinet. Goodman had a great influence on Peplowski to the extent that his style is often related to the jazz legend. "I’m lumped in with him and swing because I play the clarinet and perform ballads, but I like to play all sorts of music," he says. Peplowski also greatly respects such disparate clarinetists as the late John Carter, considered avant garde by some, and Marty Ehrlich, sometimes thought of as radical in style.

Richard Stoltzman, the classical clarinetist who ventures into jazz, is also admired by Peplowski, who has played classical himself. In 1996, he recorded with a Bulgarian symphony orchestra in the well-reviewed The Other Portrait. "I look for chances to play classical music," he says. "In 2006, I performed Stravinsky’s ‘Soldier’s Tale’ in New York in an adaptation by Kurt Vonnegut the year before he died."

Peplowski signed with Concord Records in the ‘90s and has recorded a string of discs over the years. Particularly impressive were two duo recordings with guitarist Howard Alden; Concord Duo in '93, and Encore! Live at Centre Concord in '94. Last year he returned to the duo format with Alden with the release of Pow Wow on Arbors Jazz. His upcoming CD with the Bill Charlap Trio features ballads, and it will be released soon, according to Peplowski.

Come July and August, his schedule gives him a little time off the road. At home, he loves to sit around and read. One of his favorite authors is Charles Dickens. In June, he was reading "Our Mutual Friend." Otherwise, he says ,"I love just walking around New York, playing a little tennis, going to movies and spending time with the family."

His wife, Kim, is a travel agent who owns Songbird Travel Services. "She got into travel when she looked into my itineraries and figured she could do a better job making my arrangements," he says. "She specializes in working with musicians." Both have two children from previous marriages, ranging in age from 7 to 14.

"Kim’s lining up a real vacation for us this year in the Caribbean," he says. "Promoters sell you on the idea that playing at a weekend party or on a cruise is like a vacation, but believe me, it’s not. When you’re playing, you’re concentration is on that, not on relaxing."

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Ken Peplowski
  • Subtitle: Good Traveling This Year for Versatile Musician
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