One of the greatest living jazz clarinetists and a smart, soulful tenor saxophonist, Ken Peplowski is also a bandleader who upholds time-honored jazz values without being preachy or pedantic about it. Peplowski’s fluid, enthusiastic attitude toward the tradition can be heard on his most recent album, Enrapture (Capri), featuring his quartet with pianist Ehud Asherie, bassist Martin Wind and drummer Matt Wilson. In an eclectic program guided only by Peplowski’s enthusiasms, Ellington, Lennon, Herrmann, Fats Waller and more are treated with the same elegant respect for melody and swing.
This conversation between the clarinetist and JT publisher Lee Mergner took place in January during the Jazz Cruise, looking out over the harbor of St. Croix.
Lee Mergner: When we ask artists about their first musical instrument, clarinet is right up there with piano.
Ken Peplowski: So many people, non-musicians, come up to me and say, “I used to play the clarinet,” I don’t even know what to say anymore. I need a prepared response, something like, “And then you came to your senses.”
The only reason I played that instrument was because my dad was an amateur musician and tried instruments and failed at them. So whatever his rejected instruments were, my brother and I wound up playing them-my brother on the trumpet and me on the clarinet.
[My father] died pretty young, in his 50s. He was a cop-a very conservative cop. And I thank him for turning me into a very liberal liberal. But as far as the instrument, it was the luck of the draw. I got the clarinet and liked it almost from the beginning.
How old were you?
I was 9 or 10, and my brother, being two years older than me, there was that rivalry. He was playing trumpet and had a little bit of a leap on me.
My father, probably fulfilling his own fantasies, had us form a polka band called the Harmony Kings, right out of the Shmenge Brothers. We were out working when I was 11 or 12, and that experience is exactly like if you wanted to learn how to swim by being thrown into the water. We have to progress, because we all of a sudden find ourselves having to play these jobs. Every time you play a Polish wedding, not only are you learning polkas, but you’re learning old standards and some Top 40 things and playing by ear and faking things. By the time I took my first driving lesson, I had bought a new car with the money I’d saved playing these weddings and gigs.
Wow, that’s the height of independence for a young man.
The sad thing is that if you look at the real dollars, I was probably doing better then than now!
Did you go to college for music?
I went for two years to Cleveland State, because I wanted to keep studying with this clarinet teacher I was studying with. I had started branching out playing jazz gigs around town and doing things on my own. I got a call to play at the short-lived Cleveland Jazz Festival, and it was going to be Teddy Wilson’s trio and the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra under the direction of Buddy Morrow, and my quartet. I played that gig and I got to sit in with Teddy Wilson, which was exciting for me.
From that gig I got called to join the Dorsey band and I took the offer. I stayed with that band for two years. It required incredible discipline. I was playing lead alto, and he gave me a feature spot on the clarinet with the rhythm section every night. Buddy Morrow took a liking to me and taught me a lot. And he made me move to New York.
How old were you?
I was about 21.
What did your parents think of all this? I guess since you were already making money then it was probably fine.
The funny thing is that they were OK with it as long as I was still playing with the family band. But if I wanted to stretch out a bit, I was kind of leaving the fold.
Who else was in that family band?
My brother, myself, a guy from around the street, an accordion player. We were kids. I think my parents lived vicariously through us, but they gave me lots of grief and guilt about abandoning my brother, and they would say that I’ll never make it. Very discouraging.
Wow. Well, as parents, they probably just didn’t want you to go away.
My father was really a tough guy, at least on the surface. But he never complimented us. I remember coming back to Cleveland and headlining a concert at the Cleveland Museum of Art with me and Terry Gibbs guesting with the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra. A sold-out concert, standing ovation, and he couldn’t even say anything then, other than a few critical comments. But it actually made me better, because you could go either way: You could turn into a wreck or, well, I actually toughened up and thought, “Screw you, I’m going to get so good that you can’t ever say anything.”
That reminds me of what the writer David Sedaris said about his father and how he compared David unfavorably to his sister Gretchen, a gifted visual artist. It ended up motivating him somehow.
Oh, yes, there was that too, because my brother was two years older. Even now I go home and my mother just talks about my brother and what he’s doing. They don’t ask about what I’ve done. I don’t have a big ego, I don’t tout my accomplishments, but you’d think that a guy traveling all over the world would have a few interesting stories, but no, nothing, not one question. [laughing] My way of dealing with all that when I was a kid was I got into reading. I wanted to be a writer, a cartoonist or a musician. And even from an early age, I knew that one of those things would save me.
Was the Dorsey gig a platform or launch pad for you?
That gig, traveling with that band, doing one-nighters for two years, we played in New York a lot and all the big cities-that’s how I got to New York. Buddy even told me after two years, “I could keep giving you small raises, but I’ll let you go if you promise me that you’ll move to New York and won’t be a big fish in a small pond.” He gave me a big talk about it. And that’s what I did.
Do you remember how much rent was at your first place?
I think it was $400 a month. Back then, around 1981, we complained about the $100 gigs that clubs were paying. Now people are playing those clubs for $50 or $75 or the door. Imagine if you play a couple of clubs at $100 apiece, and then you play some private parties that pay way more than that. You were actually doing really, really well, because all your money wasn’t going to rent.
What was the zeitgeist musically at that time in New York?
It was a real transition period in New York, because there were still a lot of the old clubs there, like Eddie Condon’s and Jimmy Ryan’s. I was subbing a lot at Eddie Condon’s. I had been meeting those guys and playing a lot on the traditional-jazz circuit because they knew me as a clarinet player. At the same time I was doing more contemporary stuff with my own groups, and there were a lot of rehearsal big-bands around. It was a pretty interesting time because there was a lot of crossbreeding and people playing on each other’s gigs. I remember playing a wedding with Steve Kuhn on piano, Mel Lewis on drums, Milt Hinton on bass, Bucky Pizzarelli on guitar and the other sax player was Buddy Tate.
The one thing that was tough for me back then was that when you’re new to New York and you’re trying to make a living, I did a lot of trad or swing jobs, for lack of a better word, which were great. I’m playing with all these great players doing that music, but you get tarred with that brush. George Wein would call me every year to do Benny Goodman tributes, and they paid well. And frankly, I love playing that music. I like playing it my way without it being a musical dress-up situation. I’m not ashamed of playing that stuff because I love it, but just because you love one thing doesn’t mean that’s all you can do. … All you can do is hope that some people get what you do, and a lot won’t. It’s up to everybody else to decide what box you’re in, and they have a right to do that. That’s the public trade-off you make. What you decide to play for an audience, they get to judge you, unfortunately or fortunately.
I also think there’s a lot of nostalgia in the audience.
Even in pop and rock music, the newer bands are doing a retro thing. That’s happening in jazz too. There are these young hipsters who are playing a form of musical dress-up, and they’re more of a nostalgia act than I ever would be. I’m just playing music that I like, as I always have. Looking back, it just so happened that there was a wave of us that liked old songs: Scott Hamilton, Warren Vaché, myself, Howard Alden, Harry Allen … and we all came to New York around the same time. Now I see young people and the swing-dance societies and they’re all dressed up. … [I]t seems like they’ve seen too many old movies, and it’s all surface with no depth to it.
[But] I like to have fun with the audience. I enjoy myself up there. I’m not trying to be funny, but people say that I am. I say whatever comes to mind. I work off the crowd, but people confuse that sometimes with not taking the music seriously. It’s two different things. I take the music very seriously, but I have fun doing it. I can’t be up there and be somebody else and speak in a low voice and be all solemn and say, “This next song is devoted to world peace.” It’s not me.
That aspect of your performance style, being funny onstage, was one thing I wanted to talk about with you.
[Vocalist] Niki Haris told me once that she thought I was a combination of Bob Newhart and Don Rickles. That was just my playing. But, you know, I’ll take that because I like those guys. With someone like Lou Donaldson, that’s an old-school thing, entertaining the audience. Dizzy, for example.
I always cite Miles Davis. There’s that old cliché about him, that he turned his back on the audience. Nobody would have dressed like he did if he didn’t care about the perception of the audience. He was very conscious of his image. He created this whole sartorial elegance that every musician now has to aspire to.
I was talking with Christian McBride about how jazz musicians present themselves onstage, and obviously he’s a funny guy.
Oh, Christian is great. He’s very relaxed onstage. He’s himself. You’re drawn in because you can tell he’s being himself up there and he’s saying what he wants to say.
I still remember his speech at the Jazz Connect Conference [in 2015]. He was chastising the people about getting a sense of humor in the jazz community: What’s happened to us? You look like a bunch of crybabies if you’re all protesting that someone [on the New Yorker‘s website] wrote a column that was supposed to be from Sonny Rollins.
Listen, it’s OK to make fun of ourselves. A lot of jazz is boring. A lot of it is self-important. And you could say that about any musical form and it’s OK to say that. Everything isn’t great just because it all falls under one umbrella.
Some of your material is even on your live records.
So many of the [all-time great] comedians were my heroes, like Henny Youngman, Don Rickles, George Carlin, Richard Pryor. And I love the old-school guys like Jackie Vernon and Pete Barbutti, who I’ve become close with. I use him on shows whenever I can, because it’s so much fun to give the audience almost like a variety show.
You know how to do crowd work, as the comics call it.
There’s an immediate effect you have on them. You get something back from them, within reason.
Has it ever turned on you?
When Bush Jr. was president, I made some little barbs that definitely got back to me. I got hate mail. I did a concert in Carmel, Calif., and said something that half the audience laughed at and the other half booed loudly. Nowadays, well, I sound like an old man complaining about the world, but I gotta say that I find a lot of younger people lacking the sarcasm gene or the irony gene. So you have to be really careful what you say onstage now.
There’s an old-school thing where musicians who respect each other take digs at each other. I do that with everyone on the [cruise ship]-Houston [Person], Jeff Hamilton, Freddy Cole. But if you do that to a bunch of younger musicians, they look at you like, “Why are you attacking me?” and the audience does too. “Why are you mocking that person?” You almost have to explain like you’re on Facebook and you want them to press the “like” button. You have to say, “I’m going to make a joke now.” And then you say it, and say, “That was the joke.” Maybe we’ll grow out of it and loosen up again.
A couple years ago, there was this young, great drummer that I work with a lot, Aaron Kimmel. The first time I played with him, and I really loved his playing, but I turned around to him and said something I say to a lot of drummers, “Can I ask you a musical question?” He said, “Sure, sure.” And I said, “Can you play better?” And he looked like he was going to burst into tears. I had to say, “No, no, I like you.” I always hurt the ones I love!
What kinds of projects do you have coming up? I suppose you get a lot of pressure to do tribute things.
Yes, everybody’s doing them now-guys that you would think would never do them. I wonder if it’s the tail wagging the dog. For promoters it’s an easy way to promote concerts. When I first came up, promoters would apologize to you, saying, “The audience might be small at first, but we’ll keep bringing you back and build an audience for you.” Now they want you to bring the audience to them. They don’t want to do any work. So how do they do that? They don’t advertise you, they advertise the concept.
Over the years, you must have done a million Benny Goodman tributes.
I’ve gotten away from that. I’ve reached the stage where I try to out-charge [promoters], and if they pay enough, then I’ll do it. I always put in the contract that it has to be billed as “Ken Peplowski plays the music of Benny Goodman,” not a tribute. I’m not playing his solos.
So let’s talk about Benny Goodman. He had such a reputation.
I don’t think there’s been a book that’s done justice to him. Probably true of Frank Sinatra, too. He was such a complicated guy. My personal take on him is that he was a guy who was so wrapped up in the music that it sometimes was to the detriment of everything else in his life-personal feelings, relationships, how to deal with people on a day-to-day basis.
He had a generous side. We got nice raises, thank-you letters. He tried to get me a record deal before I signed with anybody, and he offered to produce it. I also saw him fire a bass player mid-rehearsal by just calling another guy and the other guy shows up. On the other hand, I never have been with anybody who could get such great results from a band. I witnessed him turn the band I was in into a Benny Goodman band, with all the right phrasing and time feel. It was impressive to see that in action.
What did you learn from him?
First of all, I learned that he could play the same song, in some cases for up to 50 years, and he always made it sound fresh. He had that same gift that Louis Armstrong had. He would say this about Fletcher Henderson arrangements: He considered Fletcher Henderson his Mozart, and it was as important as playing Bach or Beethoven, but it’s not a nostalgic exercise. He was continually trying to find new ways of approaching the same piece, which the great classical musicians do. That’s what he would do with a ballad that he played over and over. Every time he played it you felt something from it-just playing a melody with this great sense of feeling and forward motion. Interestingly, when he played ballads he almost never improvised on them. If you listen to all his records, he’d play one chorus of the melody and give half a chorus to the piano player and take it out from the bridge on.
Why do you think he did that?
I think he so loved the song or melody that that is all you do. That’s what I learned from him. One of my heroes musically is Frank Sinatra, and if I could put his kind of feeling into a song without being able to use words, I’d really have accomplished something. Sometimes I love a song so much I don’t want to harm it; I just want to present it.
In the rehearsal process I learned how to cut corners and do a really efficient rehearsal, and what the important things to focus on are. Benny also had that great sense of time; he could actually lift a band with his own playing. As did Sonny Stitt. When I was with the Dorsey band I took some lessons from him and I learned that. Sonny Stitt made a whole lifetime of playing with local rhythm sections, and quite often made them sound better by the sheer force of his playing. Benny had that real focus to his playing. I have to remind myself that it’s OK to play a song that only lasts four or five minutes. Why shouldn’t you write a short story and have it have the same validity as a long novel?