Ken Peplowski: Clarinet Conqueror

Ken Dryden By

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I very stubbornly stuck with the clarinet because I love the instrument and made them give me clarinet solos instead of saxophone solos on everything. I was always very proud to play clarinet.
Ken Peplowski has been a busy player on the jazz scene since joining the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra (directed by Buddy Morrow) in 1978. A gifted clarinetist and tenor saxophonist, he met Sonny Stitt while still with the Dorsey band, ended up studying sax with him and landed a dream job playing in Benny Goodman's final orchestra in the mid '80s until the jazz legend's death in 1986.

Before the decade was over, Peplowski was one of many young lions signed to Concord Records, making numerous CDs as both a leader and sideman for the label between 1987-98.

Peplowski has remained a popular draw worldwide, playing concert halls, clubs and jazz parties, while recording for labels on several continents. All About Jazz got the chance to talk with Peplowski.

All About Jazz: Did you grow up in a musical family?

Ken Peplowski: My father was an amateur musician, he messed around with different instruments unsuccessfully; that's how I wound up with the clarinet, one of his rejects. My brother had a trumpet, the same thing. There was always a lot of music in the house. The whole family may have fought about a lot of things but music brought everyone together. We listened to everything: the Beatles, classical music, big band music, jazz. We didn't always agree on everything but we could all sit around and listen to whatever anyone brought home. It drives me nuts that today's kids are such conformists at the age of 18, when they are really supposed to rebel. When we grew up, it would have been a badge of honor to seek something different and find something nobody else knew about. Now kids are completely the opposite way, especially at an age when they should be rebelling against everything.

AAJ: You studied clarinet first.

KP: Yeah, that's right. A couple of years later I added tenor sax, then alto out of necessity, because we had this Polish polka band, but we were playing standards, too. All kinds of dance gigs. I also wanted to play in the jazz band at school, so I kind of had to take the saxophone. I very stubbornly stuck with the clarinet because I love the instrument and made them give me clarinet solos instead of saxophone solos on everything. I was always very proud to play clarinet.

AAJ: Have you ever fooled around with bass clarinet?

KP: It's a weird thing, but I don't really consider myself to be a great doubler. I don't play flute or soprano, because I don't like the way I sound on those instruments, so I quickly abandoned them, the same thing with bass clarinet. I love the instrument, I used to have one, but I don't play it any more.

AAJ: You set aside the alto for a while.

KP: I still love playing it. It's mainly a travel thing. It's hard enough to travel with two instruments dealing with the airlines. It mostly stays home. I haven't used it as much on recordings because I have to spend some time with it to feel comfortable on it, so that's why I don't play it as much as the other two.

AAJ: You've said previously that Benny Goodman was always very nice to you. Why was that, given everyone else's stories?

KP: I think he knew that I really respected him and loved him. His final band was a bunch of younger guys [including Dan Barrett, Randy Sandke, Ted Nash and Murray Wall] with most of us in our 20s. We really wanted to play for him and make him happy. I think he appreciated that. We didn't come on with an attitude, we didn't think it was a drag to play Fletcher Henderson charts. I think that meant something to him at the end of his life. I think I was the only guy not to get fired at least once from the beginning to the end of that last band, though I kept waiting for the call.

AAJ: You've done a number of Benny Goodman tributes on CD, including the studio date A Tribute to Benny Goodman (Progressive, 1997).

KP: It's a blessing and a curse. It's hard to get out of Goodman's shadow, since he had such an impact on the instrument. Every clarinetist, including Buddy DeFranco and Eddie Daniels, gets called to do Benny Goodman tributes. Sometimes it gets maddening and I'm starting to charge Benny Goodman money for them. If they want me to do that and not do what I want, I'll charge accordingly, go in, have fun and I'll do it right. I enjoy it, I try not to imitate him, I just play the way I play. It's amazing that one man had such an impact on the instrument that his name still comes up all the time.

AAJ: You've expanded the clarinet repertoire well beyond Goodman's book. You've recently recorded Django Reinhardt's "Anouman," which is a rather obscure tune.

KP: That's a really interesting song. It sounds like a Bud Powell song, something a lot more modern than Django would have written, really hip. It's really exotic. I learned it from the sheet music. I'm always looking for different things to play because I get bored playing the same things. I look through songbooks and song folios, checking out things people are playing; that's a passion of mine. I don't want to base my version on some famous record. I believe I should put my own spin on it, maybe with some respect to someone else's version I like. I don't like historical retrospectives where people play transcribed solos. You can get a little too reverent to older music; if you want to keep it alive, you've got to play it your own way. That's the way to show people that it is living music and not a museum piece.

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