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Ken Peplowski: Here’s to his life

Ken Peplowski
William Brown
Ken Peplowski

Ken Peplowski doesn’t shy away from challenges. Whether it’s recording a live album with his quartet or taking on the string arrangements that were created for Charlie Parker or curating various jazz festivals and events. Perhaps it’s because he faced down what might be the most traumatic challenge of all – a diagnosis of multiple myeloma. In 2021, the clarinetist and saxophonist was diagnosed with that deadly disease, which nearly derailed his career, much less ended his life. “It’s a cancer that they consider not curable, but you can get into a state of remission where I am now and stay there potentially for the rest of your life,” he explains. “And you could live as long as anybody. I had such a rough time, three solid years of almost no work.”

Late in 2022, Spike Wilner, pianist and owner of Mezzrow and Smalls jazz clubs, reached out to Peplowski with a veritable lifeline. “He was so nice about this. He said, ‘We've got a foundation now that we started during the pandemic, a nonprofit foundation and I've wanted to record you anyway. And would you be up for doing a project?’” Peplowski then reached out to three of his favorite musicians—pianist Ted Rosenthal, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Willie Jones III—to record the album, Live at Mezzrow, for the Cellar Live label.

Choosing the repertoire for the recording might have been a challenge, given that Peplowski has recorded more than 30 albums as a leader. Ironically, the pandemic aided in the selection process. “I did a streaming show on Facebook for, I think, 48 weeks out of the year,” he said. “We did one called ‘In the Moment’ and we never repeated a song. So I went through my whole library of music and I kept finding interesting songs.” One of those songs was “Prisoner of Love,” a song done famously by James Brown, but even before that by Billy Eckstine. “I've always loved that song,” he says. “I tell people that and they laugh at me at first, but I'm very serious. I love James Brown's version of that song with Louis Bellson's band. Like everything James Brown touched, he strays a bit from the melody and maybe even the lyrics, but you can hear that he knows what the song is about and you get the feeling from it.”

In the case of several of the other tunes on the album, Peplowski had a personal connection to the composers. The song “Here’s to Life” was written by Artie Butler and Phyllis Molinari. Peplowski befriended Butler years ago. “He came to a bunch of my gigs and we got to know each other that way. Very friendly and warm guy. The first time I heard it was probably the Shirley Horn record. There are certain tunes, and that’s one of them, where the lyrics are so important to the song and the meaning of the song that I almost don't want to do anything but present the melody. When I play it, I try to think about what the song means. And if I play it to an audience, I always tell them the last few lines, which are, ‘Here’s to life/here’s to love/here’s to you.’ It means so much more to me than before because of all that crap that went down in my life. So it's a very meaningful song for me. You just want to stay out of its way and play it. When I recorded it for a Japanese label, Artie actually sent me a nice note and he said, ‘That’s one of the best versions I ever heard of that song.’”

Shirley Horn’s version was arranged by Johnny Mandel whose co-written song “The Shadow of Your Smile” is also on Peplowski’s live album. Peplowski got to know Mandel during the arranger’s later years. “I play a fair amount on the West Coast and I got to work with him a few times over the years at different festivals out there when he put together big bands. For example, one year, he asked me if I would not only play in the band, but guest on the clarinet. Few people know that Johnny wrote almost all of Artie Shaw's either 1948 or 1949 book, one of his last full big bands. I got to play those charts and we became, not close friends, but close enough that I could pick up the phone and call him.”

It was through The Jazz Cruise that Peplowski got to know him better. “I was the music director of that cruise for maybe three or four years and I got to pick some of my heroes. He was one of them and I called him up and he was pretty frail at the time. I said, ‘Johnny, all we need is if you'll come and lead the big band for two shows.’ I put myself in the big band because I wanted to play that music and I did a two-hour interview with him, which was great. I learned a lot from him. He did tell me his favorite musician he ever worked with was Frank Sinatra, heads above everybody else. Just that he had such a natural instinct for the right things in music. And Johnny said he was the best editor of arrangements.”

Peplowski and his quartet also play one of Hank Jones’ compositions, “Vignette.” He was introduced to the legendary pianist by Carl Jefferson, the late founder and owner of Concord Records, who arranged for Jones to guest on one of Peplowski’s records. “Then I guested on one of his. I did a couple tours of Japan for Hank and we did some gigs on and off. I have to tell you that I was partially scared of him. He was as nice as could be, but an absolute genius at the piano and a master. When we did the one tour of Japan, we played ‘Body and Soul’ every single night. I think this was his idea because he wanted to play alternate chord changes every single time. And he did. He would all of a sudden just change the course and the band's looking around like, ‘What is going on?’ He’d launch into songs that nobody had ever rehearsed before, and I'd look over and he'd be looking at me with a sly grin, so that'd be that kind of old school gentle hazing, in a very friendly way, just to see if I can hear where he's going. And luckily, I think I passed the test because he liked me. But I did come up to him and I said, ‘Hank, how the hell do you do this? Every single night you're playing these substitutions. You always start in a different place, but you always come out where we're supposed to.’ And he looks up at me and he says, very casually, ‘Oh, it's just mathematics.’ It’s like asking Albert Einstein, ‘How'd you come up with that theory of relativity?’”

Ted Rosenthal, Ken Peplowski,
William Brown
Ted Rosenthal, Ken Peplowski, Martin Wind and Willie Jones III

Live at Mezzrow is the second album from Peplowski this year. In March, he released Bird Unheard, featuring string arrangements done for Charlie Parker, all but one of which had never been recorded by the influential saxophonist. Coincidentally, that album came about because of another NYC jazz club. Every year, Peplowski performs for two weeks at Birdland and one week is Charlie Parker’s birthday week during which they do 10 shows. And, like with his aforementioned streaming show, they don’t repeat any material. “I started out by doing just songs associated with Bird and some of his heads and things like that,” he explains. “Then I asked them if they'd be up for doing a ‘Bird with Strings’ thing. We did that and it was very popular. We repeated that for a few years. I found myself looking through the charts and thinking, ‘Well, I've now played everything you recorded.’”

Digging deeper into Parker’s repertoire, Peplowski turned to eJazzLines, a West Coast-based company that collects jazz arrangements, both classic and obscure, as well as original versions rather than transcriptions. “They went to Charlie Parker's estate to see if there was anything left, by chance. And at that precise moment, I was looking through their catalogs to see if there are any Birds with Strings [arrangements] that I missed out on. There were a couple of titles there that I thought, ‘Wait a minute, not only haven't I played these, but I don't remember him recording them.’ So I called them up and they said, ‘Well, we just found close to 20 arrangements that he commissioned from his friends.” Friends like Gerry Mulligan, John Lewis and Johnny Carisi, amongst others.

However, Verve owner and producer Norman Granz nixed it. “It’s not clear whether it was because he didn't want to pay for another strings date, or he just decided to use his own in-house staff arrangements,” Peplowski says. “Because those Bird With Strings records were very popular. And they were Charlie Parker's favorite things he did. To show how farsighted he was, he commissioned a chart of aesthetics, written and arranged by George Russell, who was one of the fathers of what they used to call Third Stream music, which a simple, very simple explanation would be kind of a cross between classical and jazz.”

The arrangement for the classic “Summertime” was written not for the Bird With Strings records, but for a one-off recording that Norman Granz produced as a showcase for arrangers. “Charlie Parker wasn't even supposed to play on it,” Peplowski explains. “It was a through-written composition. And he was around for something. and he had his horn and he said, ‘Do you mind if I have a go on this?’ And he just plugged himself in around that chart.” The arrangements for Parker were only written for five strings, harp and oboe. Peplowski says that it was merely a matter of expediency. “I think, frankly, he wanted to. continue touring with that music and with a smaller group it might have been possible to travel with that and actually come out ahead.”

In addition to his recording and performing career, Peplowski also has served as a curator of jazz festivals and events—past (The Jazz Cruise, Sarasota Jazz Festival) and present (Oregon Coast Jazz Party). “It sounds like a cliché, but a successful festival, not only from the standpoint of doing well enough that they want to keep going, but musically means that I tried to have that balance of keeping the musicians happy and providing interesting enough sets for the audience with a smaller group of musicians.”

Peplowski acknowledges that there is more than a bit of a camaraderie among clarinetists, which he attributes in part to it being such an unforgiving and demanding instrument. As Paquito D’Rivera once said, “Even in the case, it squeaks.” Peplowski repeats the famous Frank Wess line about the clarinet: “It was an instrument invented by five guys who never met.” He says that the clarinet requires constant attention. “I can tell you that if you put that thing away for a day, it lets you know,” he says. “Also, it kind of went out of fashion for a while only because when music got a lot more electric, the clarinet is just not the kind of instrument that cuts above a loud, heavily amplified electric band. Two things have happened. The art of amplification has gotten much more refined and better. Now you can isolate that instrument if I'm standing in front of a band and really bring it out in the sound system. So that's not a concern anymore. And there's been a real return to more acoustic jazz and, for lack of a better word, standards-based jazz.”

Peplowski, who worked with Benny Goodman, says that the legendary clarinetist and Artie Shaw had a huge rivalry. “Those days are gone now, because we realize there's few enough of us, so we need to support each other and just get up there and have fun.” Over the years, Peplowski has participated in various clarinet summit performances with peers like D’Rivera, Anat Cohen, Eddie Daniels and Gordon Goodwin.

Although most people assume that the first inspiration for Peplowski’s clarinet playing was Goodman, he says that his hero was Jimmy Hamilton from Duke Ellington's band. “What knocked me out about him was there was a man who could have played in every symphony orchestra in the world. He had perfect technique and a beautiful, classical, warm, dark sound. That made such an impression on me, that to this day, when I teach, I tell students just give yourself some choices as far as sounds. Listen to Jimmy Hamilton. Just because you play the clarinet, if you're playing jazz, that doesn't mean that the sound has to go out the window. So many people that double, when they pick up the clarinet, it sounds like a bad soprano or even worse. I'm waiting for the snakes to come out of the basket. Why do you have to throw the sound out the window because you're playing jazz? My goal is to preserve that sound and still be able to swing and play with emotion.”

Of course, Peplowski also plays the tenor saxophone, albeit with a very different sound and approach. “I think I may not approach it like a typical doubler. I like to think of them as two separate instruments. The tenor, of course, is a little bit darker and lower. For me, I spend most of my time practicing on clarinet, because that's the more unforgiving instrument. The technique transfers over to the saxophone. When I pick the saxophone up, it's all about reminding myself of what I want it to sound like. I'm not saying I achieved this, but my goal for sound on tenor would be people like Ben Webster and Zoot Sims. I like that dark, warm, breathy sound. So I play with what they call a subtone that is full of air.”

Ultimately, his reed instruments aside, Peplowski considers himself a song guy. “I’ve never considered myself a serious composer at all. What I do is find material that I could tailor to my own interpretation. When I think of a song, I can hear a specific instrument in my head, either the clarinet or the tenor. That's the voice I want to use.”

Listen to our conversation, above.


For over 27 years, Lee Mergner served as an editor and publisher of JazzTimes until his resignation in January 2018. Thereafter, Mergner continued to regularly contribute features, profiles and interviews to the publication as a contributing editor for the next 4+ years. JazzTimes, which has won numerous ASCAP-Deems Taylor awards for music journalism, was founded in 1970 and was described by the All Music Guide, as “arguably the finest jazz magazine in the world.”