Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series

Part 55 - Ken Peplowski
Story filed September 1, 2000

In a little over 15 years, he catapulted from playing polka dances in Cleveland to performing on the most respected jazz stages in the world.

Ken Peplowski was born May 23, 1959 and grew up in the Cleveland suburb of Garfield Heights. Like most musicians, his first musical influence was at home.

Peplowski remembered, "My father was a policeman and an amateur musician. He used to bring home instruments and try to play them himself. He started with the trumpet and gave it up in frustration. Then, he tried the clarinet. Gave that up. He wound up messing around with the accordion for the rest of his life." While not a successful musician, Peplowski's father was determine his two sons would learn to play their instruments.

"He did what they say you're not supposed to do with kids," laughed Peplowski. "He was the stereotypical father who sat there with his arms crossed, making us practice. You would think we would rebel against it. But I loved the music so much! And I loved the clarinet from the first time I played it. I just loved the sound of the instrument."

At first, Peplowski was not a big jazz fan. But, he loved playing the clarinet and played at every opportunity. "When I was about nine or ten years old," he said, "my brother and I formed a Polish polka band. It was a great way to immediately jump up a couple of levels in playing. It was like learning how to swim by being thrown into the water."

He took lessons at Cattell's music store on Turney Road and learned how to read and write music and make arrangements for their band. When Ken and his brother began playing for Polish polka dances, they learned they also had to play some big band standards. "That's when he got a saxophone." he recalled.

Ken and Ted Peplowski's kids polka band began making a name for itself around Garfield Heights and Greater Cleveland and was soon doing radio and TV broadcasts. "We used to play on that old TV show Polka Varieties (on WEWS-TV)," said Peplowski, "and got a taste of what it was to be professional musicians. From the first time I played in public, I thought, 'This is for me! This is what I want to do.'" To this day, he has never been employed in any other line of work.

At home, the Peplowski family was listening to all kinds of music - "The latest Beatles record, classical music, polka music and jazz music." Before long, Ken was using most of the money he was making with the polka band to buy records. That is when he discovered all-time clarinet legend Benny Goodman. "I was so into the clarinet," said Peplowski, "I gravitated toward records of people who played the same instrument."

He also bought records by the Duke Ellington Orchestra and was "knocked out" by the clarinet styles of Jimmy Hamilton and Russell Procope."

As a teenager, Peplowski went to see and hear the big bands whenever they came to Cleveland. He saw Goodman, Ellington, Maynard Ferguson, Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald.

At Garfield Heights High School, he played in various jazz and classical music groups and got to meet some of his musical heroes. "Maynard Ferguson's band and Stan Kenton's came to our school for programs and workshops," he said. "For a kid like myself, it was so exciting to not only hear those people play, but to talk with them and get tips from them. That was a big deal!"

After graduating from high school, Peplowski was more convinced than ever that he wanted to devote his life to playing music. He enrolled at Cleveland State University where he studied clarinet and began playing jazz gigs around Cleveland. "We used to play at a place called Newman's Corners," said Peplowski, "and built up a huge following. I was playing a couple of nights a week with that jazz group and jamming around town with guys like Bill Gidney, a great piano player.

At the time, he recalled, "My teacher at college, Al Blazer, got my quartet booked on a jazz festival in downtown Cleveland. It was the Tommy Dorsey band, the Teddy Wilson Trio,and my group. Buddy Morrow, who was leading the Tommy Dorsey band, heard me play and made an offer to come on the road playing lead alto and a feature spot with clarinet and the rhythm section."

In 1979, at the age of 20, Peplowski dropped out of Cleveland State and went on the road with the Tommy Dorsey ghost band. He spent the next three years touring the country in an almost never-ending series of one-nighters. His roommate on the road was Akron trumpeter Jack Schantz who recalled, "He practiced all the time and was a very funny guy." Peplowski said, "We had a lot of laughs on that band with 12-hour poker games and hijinks on the bus."

According to Schantz, Peplowski was also studying the music of Benny Goodman. "He had all these Goodman solos on tape," said Schantz, "and he knew them all. He would just sit on the bed (in hotel rooms) and play along with the Goodman solos. He could play them all, note for note."

While traveling with the band, Peplowski also got to meet another musical hero. Saxophonist Sonny Stitt was staying at the same hotel in Chicago. Ken said he timidly knocked on the door to Stitt's hotel room. "At two o'clock in the afternoon, he was in his pajamas," said Peplowski, "and invited me inside. He had me get my horn and we wound up spending the whole day together. He gave me lessons. It was an amazing day!"

After touring with the Dorsey Orchestra for three years and studying with bopster Sonny Stitt, Peplowski settled in New York City in the early 1980s and began a long struggle to become a respected jazz musician. "I didn't knew anyone (in New York) except one saxophone player who was on the Dorsey band. And I was running out of money," recalled Peplowski. "I applied for a job at a photo processing plant. I was supposed to report for work on Monday. It would have been my first non-music job ever. I woke up that morning and said, 'I just can't do this! I gotta hang in there.' When I called the people and said I had changed my mind, they thought I was nuts."

Like other musicians who have faced job crises in New York City, Peplowski decided the only way to get started - and keep food on the table - was to accept a variety of playing jobs even if they didn't measure up to his musical goals. He took jobs playing with avant garde jazz groups, symphony orchestras, bebop bands and even with aging dixielanders at Eddie Condon's.

He also joined the big band of Loren Schoenberg. Besides leading a band, Schoenberg was an archivist and personal manager for Benny Goodman. In 1985, Goodman hired Schoenberg's band to appear with him in a PBS television special. The Clevelander found himself performing with his longtime hero. The Garfield Heights native soloed on several numbers during that TV program.

Peplowski remembered, "Goodman was really excited about that band. We were playing all those old Fletcher Henderson charts and we had nights when that frail old man blew us off the bandstand." Goodman at the time was 76 years old and had not played much in public for years. One night at Radio City Music Hall, Benny played so good that we missed every entrance. The saxophone players were just sitting there open-mouthed. We couldn't play! Louie Bellson, who was playing drums, said, 'I haven't heard him play like this since the 1940s!'"

After Goodman died in 1986, Peplowski said, "They wanted us to keep the band going because they had jobs booked all the next year. We decided to play one last tribute concert, our memorial to him." During that concert Peplowski played Goodman's clarinet parts.

After playing with Goodman's last band, Peplowski's career began to blossom. He was soon playing at jazz festivals around the world and recording a series of compact discs for Concord Records - drawing on a wide variety of influences - from the polka music he played as a kid in Cleveland, to the Benny Goodman classics, and the bebop of Sonny Stitt.

"I'm doing good," said Peplowski. "Got a nice career happening and it's a good life, playing music. It's one of the most rewarding things you can do."

He was glad he turned down that job at a photo processing plant in the early 1980s.

Copyright 2000 Joe Mosbrook

CLICK HERE for the last installment of "Jazzed in Cleveland"

You can hear radio versions of Cleveland Jazz History on WCPN/90.3 Monday nights at 9:30 and Friday afternoons at 12:30. Mosbrook's 1993 Cleveland Jazz History book, based on research for earlier broadcasts, is available at some Cleveland area bookstores, libraries and the Northeast Ohio Jazz Society (216-426-9900).