Thursday, April 11, 2013

Cleveland, Ken Peplowski, and JazzTimes

After New Orleans and Chicago, Cleveland has been one of the more important cities in the development of the jazz clarinet. Though Artie Shaw is associated most with New Haven and New York, he spent his formative years in Cleveland playing, learning the art of arranging, and leading a band for the first time with Austin Wylie. Cleveland was his indispensable training ground.

When he left Wylie's Golden Pheasant Orchestra, Shaw was replaced by one of the unsung heroes of swing era clarinet: Clarence Hutchenrider, later known as a jazz soloist for the Casa Loma Orchestra.

And while the fortunes of the jazz clarinet have waxed and waned over the decades, one of the players keeping the instrument vital has been Cleveland native Ken Peplowski.

Last year, JazzTimes produced an interview with Ken, discussing several topics; among them his development as a young player in Cleveland. His observations in the video are compelling, and serve as a reminder of the importance of experimentation, intuition, and "on the job training" to the jazz process. Likewise, his connections between the Cleveland polka band scene, the forms learned, and his later career as a jazz musician are of great interest, adding yet another layer of eclectic depth and possibility to the music's perpetual need for renewal.

Over the past year, JazzTimes has shown a real interest in clarinetists, beyond the superficial nod more common in magazines. A good example of this depth came last June, when Nate Chinen explored the phenomenon and dangers of saxophone doubling after a player has established a clarinet identity. This is a topic rarely even noticed, let alone discussed. Shortly thereafter, the September 2012 issue featured an insightful cover story by Geoffrey Himes on Anat Cohen. Earlier in the year, John Murph had contributed a similarly important story on Don Byron. So when the May 2013 issue arrived in my mailbox yesterday, I was gratified to see this sort of coverage continuing, with a back page "Artist's Choice" list by Ken Peplowski.

Ken's list is a great primer for those interested in the sheer diversity of sounds and styles available to the jazz clarinetist, inspiring another look at players such as Pee Wee Russell, Jimmy Giuffre, and Jimmie Noone, among others. I highly recommend checking out his insights and the recordings mentioned.

Since the 1940s, the career situation for jazz musicians has been tenuous and culturally frustrating. It can be tempting to spend too much time lamenting the difficulties facing the art, while missing the moments of opportunity. One of the current bright spots in the jazz landscape is a new prominence, slowly ripening, for the jazz clarinet. This wouldn't be possible without artists such as Buddy DeFranco, Bill Smith, Kenny Davern, Ken Peplowski, Eddie Daniels, Don Byron, Dr. Michael White, Evan Christoper, and others who have carried the ball through some lean decades, committing their talents to the service of an often neglected instrument in a supremely important, yet equally neglected art. But it also wouldn't be possible without journals like JazzTimes giving their music and insights a platform. Ken's list in JazzTimes will undoubtedly reach many fans in the coming months, exposing the greater jazz public to a history they might never have noticed--or never have been given the opportunity to consider.

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