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January 25, 2005
On January 16, 1938, jazz went legit when Benny Goodman brought his band to Carnegie Hall for a soldout performance at which, according to DownBeat magazine at the time, “3,900 people were made ostensibly joyous while a swing band made music in the nation’s Number One concert hall.”
The program that evening included familiar hits from the Goodman repertoire, some new Fletcher Henderson arrangements not yet recorded, a thumbnail history of the music called “Twenty Years of Jazz” and an all star jam session that included soloists from the bands of Count Basie and Duke Ellington. It turned out to be one of those defining moments in American popular music history, when jazz graduated from the dance clubs and speakeasies to become “respectable.”
On Friday night, today’s top jazz clarinetist Ken Peplowski comes to town to recreate that famous event for the first Jazz on Granby show of 2005 at the Roper Performing Arts Center. If anyone has the credentials to pull off such an undertaking, it’s Peplowski. He played saxophone in Goodman’s last band in the mid-1980s.
“I played with Benny for the last year and a half of his life,” he told me recently from his home in New York City. “After he died…we had about a year’s worth of jobs booked, but we didn’t want to do a ghost band and he didn’t want one either. So, the band decided as our final tribute to him to fulfill the next date we had. It was this thing in Cape Cod and I played his parts. Man, it was a really emotional night because we really loved him.
“You know, there were a lot of stories about the mean Benny Goodman. But he mellowed out a lot when he was older. The band was a bunch of younger guys that really loved him and loved to play for him. He was doing things that you’d never hear about him doing. He’d send us thank you notes and bonus checks. He was really excited about that band.”
Peplowski himself was already a seasoned veteran when he played with his idol in his mid-twenties. Born in Cleveland in 1959, he first picked up a clarinet when he was seven years old and soon was leading a local band with his older brother.
“My father brought home some instruments for my brother and I to play,” he remembered, “and I wound up with the clarinet. And I loved the instrument.
“My brother and I had a Polish polka band. My father was an amateur musician and he loved music, but he couldn’t really play well enough to play professionally, so he kinda spurred us on to do that. And we had a band when I was really young, I think I was 10 or 11 and my brother was 12 or 13….and that’s tough music too. The clarinet improvises in that music so I learned how to improvise that way.
“Then there’s a whole cycle of events that happens once you start playing jobs and you get paid for it, you buy some records and you want to check out other people on your instrument. So I started buying records by Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington; you read the liner notes and you start finding out about Charlie Parker. So, that opened up that whole world.
“I grew up with kind of two parallel lives---the normal life for a kid my age, listening to everything that was current, and then listening to jazz music at the same time.”
He studied clarinet at Cleveland State University after graduating from Garfield Heights High School, but left college at the age of twenty to go on the road with the Tommy Dorsey “ghost band.” He then settled in New York where he began the process of establishing himself. He played in every type of setting he could find and after the stint in the Goodman band, began his own recording career with an album called Double Exposure for the Concord Jazz label in 1987. Since that time he has been one of the most in-demand players on both clarinet and tenor saxophone, and has a lengthy discography. One of his favorites is The Feeling of Jazz, recorded in 1997 with Portsmouth’s Tommy Newsom.
“It was a really fun session,” he said of that disc. “It was one of those things where we just clicked and we had a great time together, on and off the bandstand. It helps to get along with the people you’re playing with.”
Friday night he’ll be playing with a couple of old friends in a big band that will also include some local favorites. Trumpeter Randy Sandke was in the Goodman band with Peplowski, and vibist Chuck Redd, who’ll be playing the Lionel Hampton parts, is well known for his many years working with Charlie Byrd. Pianist John Toomey has put together the rest of the lineup.
The program is the same as the original Benny Goodman Carnegie Hall concert. But don’t come expecting a mere history lesson. You can buy the record for that.
“The thing about Benny,” Peplowski said, “he always played them like it was the first time. There was always that spark. And that’s a true artist.
“I’m not of the ‘let’s do a historical creation exactly to the solos,’ that kind of approach. I’m going to have the guys play their way. I play my own way; I put my spin on it. We’re doing the tunes and the setlist from the original, and the arrangements. But they’re going to be played, obviously, with a more contemporary feel. And you’ll see that the arrangements still hold up. If something swings, it swings, no matter how different guys play now from 70 years ago. I try to give it a fresh approach. We try to show people that it’s not a historical piece, the music is still alive.
“I love those charts,” he continued. “It’s amazing, they’re written so well. Fletcher wrote for three trumpets, two bones, four saxes---such a full sound.
“I don’t want people to think that jazz music is some dead history lesson. I think people are put off by jazz the same way that they’re sometimes put off by classical music. They think it’s difficult to listen to. This was the pop music of the day, and once you get there, it’s infectious. Even if you don’t know the songs, they’re easy to catch on to. It’s fun music.”
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