Ken Peplowski: ‘I always liked entertaining people’

The Oregon Coast Jazz Party director says his musical influences run from Benny Goodman to The Beatles.

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After a pause for COVID last year, the Oregon Coast Jazz Party in Newport is on again. This year, it comes under the direction of noted jazz musician Ken Peplowski, who’s been called “the greatest living jazz clarinetist.” Born and raised in Cleveland, Peplowski started playing professionally while still in elementary school and was teaching by high school. A year out of college, he signed on with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. Since then, he’s played in famed concert halls around the world, sharing the stage with a long list of legendary greats.

The Oregon Coast Jazz Party, to be held Oct. 1 and 2 in Newport, has been around in some incarnation since 1978, when the first Otter Crest Jazz Weekend was held. It’s been through numerous names and under various directors, but the goal has remained the same — to showcase top-flight jazz musicians on the Oregon Coast.

This week we talk with Peplowski about his career and the upcoming Oregon Coast Jazz Party.  The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

You have an extensive history in the music world. What are the moments that stay with you?

Jazz clarinetist Ken Peplowski says he's happy to be performing live again, after the COVID shutdown. "It’s such a great feeling to play in front of humans in a room together. I can feel from the musician side and the audience side how grateful they are we’re back playing live. People forget what a difference it is, as opposed to sitting in front of a computer screen."
Jazz clarinetist Ken Peplowski says he’s happy to be performing again for live audiences, after the COVID shutdown. “It’s such a great feeling to play in front of humans in a room together…. People forget what a difference it is, as opposed to sitting in front of a computer screen.”

Peplowski:  One of the early highlights was when I got to play with Benny Goodman’s last working band. We did a concert at Radio City Music Hall with Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Placido Domingo. This was around 1984 and I was 25 years old. It was so exciting to be around all those people and all at the top of their game. When one was performing, the others were in the wings watching. We rose from below the stage playing, and this unbelievable roar from the audience came up just to see Benny Goodman. It was a time — and I don’t know if we have this anymore — when music meant so much to people. They’d start crying.

Benny was in his 70s and he had lots of health problems and was kind of frail. But that night he was so hot. There was one song we played, Stealin’ Apples, and he took chorus after chorus. I was in the saxophone section. We were supposed to be playing these riffs behind him, but one by one, we just trickled off. We stopped playing as our jaws hit the ground. We were looking at him saying, “listen to this guy; it’s unbelievable.” The frail old man blew us off the stage that night.

Who were the musicians you admired?

My first big influence when I was a kid was The Beatles. I’m still a huge fan, to the point where I am a collector, like bootlegs, unreleased session tapes, videos, and things like that. I remember my parents taking my brother and me to the movie theater in 1964, I was 5.  We went to see A Hard Day’s Night. The kids were screaming in the theater.

Even then, I thought, “I want to do this.” I always liked entertaining people. I came from kind of a rough childhood — daily beatings from both mother and father, arbitrary punishment. Three things kept me going: music; reading — I’m still a voracious reader of all kinds of things; and I also had a passion to be a writer. Also animation. I loved drawing and following the careers of the great classic animators. I learned to become kind of my own source of inner strength, and I found it through those things.

I have to say The Beatles’ music was and is so full of hope and joy and surprise. Everything you would want in music. That kind of kept me going in childhood. If you put on Here Comes the Sun and aren’t moved by that, there’s something wrong with you.

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Who would you have liked to play with?

I worked with Rosemary Clooney, who I really loved, but I never got to record with her.  I flew out to do a session with her, and my gallbladder was bursting at the time. Like an idiot, I was still trying to make the session. I wound up in the ER. I never got to play with any of The Beatles. That would have been a dream come true. I got to meet Frank Sinatra. He was very gracious. He’s another one that never ceases to move me. My criteria for what I like in music is whether I feel like the performer is being honest and expressing something from himself. Even as Sinatra got older, his voice wasn’t what it once was, [but] he in some ways got even better, became this kind of actor and conveyed the meaning.

Was there anyone particularly hard to work with?

I used to work with Leon Redbone. He was very big in the ‘70s and ‘80s. He was kind of a difficult guy. We had the most excruciating sound checks. He was pretty horrible to the sound crew, all the technical people. The sound checks would last twice as long as the gig itself. He was so specific what he wanted in his rider [in his contract]; he would hold up shows until he got what was in there.

How much of a challenge is COVID making your life?

It’s an unbelievable challenge. Things are changing not even by the week, but by the day. All the rules are changing state by state. I made a conscious decision not to bother doing European gigs this year. It’s just so hard. I’ve been mostly working around New York. They put in vaccination requirements for all indoor activities, including museums, clubs, restaurants. You see more masks. The city is doing good, I have to say. The clubs are back open. It’s such a great feeling to play in front of humans in a room together. I can feel from the musician side and the audience side how grateful they are we’re back playing live. People forget what a difference it is, as opposed to sitting in front of a computer screen.

I’ve also been doing regular streaming that has been getting very popular. It’s called In the Moment, and I record them every Friday at a studio in midtown Manhattan. I set a challenge for myself. I never repeat songs. Every week is a different repertoire. I have a massive collection of old songbooks and sheet music. I dig through them and find songs to play. Almost an album a week. Before every episode, I talk for 15 to 20 minutes about the song and songwriters. I try to tell interesting stories about what they are going to hear. It premieres Thursdays on Facebook at 7:30 p.m. EST. I’m not doing a paywall, so it’s up to viewers if they want to donate something.

When did you sign on with the Oregon Coast Jazz Party?

This will be the second time. Last year, the former music director Holly Hofmann kind of handed the reins to me.

You direct several jazz festivals.  What do you hope to accomplish here?

I’m not just saying this — I love Oregon. Honestly, it’s one of my favorite places. I’ve worked a lot in the states, all kinds of gigs, festivals, one-off concerts. The coast is a beautiful place to be. The concert hall has great acoustics. The new staff has been absolutely great to work with. This year, we’re doing two days instead of three, easing back into it. The two days are packed. We’re doing three hours Friday night, and Saturday afternoon and Saturday night. The kind of jazz that we’re playing is so accessible. If people aren’t sure if they like jazz or know much about it, this is the event to go to.

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This story is supported in part by a grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust, investing in Oregon’s arts, humanities and heritage, and the Lincoln County Cultural Coalition.

About the author

Lori Tobias is a journalist of many years, and was a staff writer for The Oregonian for more than a decade, and a columnist and features writer for the Rocky Mountain News. Her memoir “Storm Beat – A Journalist Reports from the Oregon Coast” was published in 2020 by Oregon State University press. She is also the author of the novel Wander, winner of the 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award for literary fiction and a finalist for the 2017 International Book Awards for new fiction. She lives on the Oregon Coast with her husband Chan and rescue pups Luna and Monkey.

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