PUBLISHED BOOK REVIEWS, The New Orleans Jazz Scene, 1970-2000
--Paige van Vorst, Jazzology, winter, 2014, p. 12: "....The book is basically organized by decades--there is a prologue covering the 60s, and major chapters devoted to the 70s, 80s and 90s. Each chapter is similarly organized... Jacobsen takes a very even-handed approach, praising those who work behind the scenes to keep things moving, only occasionally expressing frustration over the way things work in New Orleans. His one chief criticism is of the independent fiefdoms that seldom cooperate. The general impression, though, is positive improvement overall... I've been interested in New Orleans and its music my whole life but haven't been there in a long time--this is a tremendous report on what went on during the period covered... A very interesting read and one that should be followed up with a sequel covering the early 21st Century."
--Charles Suhor, Dixieland Jazz Mailing List (online), December 11: "If you haven't yet bought Thomas Jacobsen's new book, 'The New Orleans Jazz Scene, 1970-2000: A Personal Retrospective' (LSU Press), I highly recommend it...You'll recognize dozens of the OKOM and modern players and landmark clubs and events in the book. A lot of the material was new to me because I left the city in 1977, keeping sporadic contact with the music scene through my brother Don, periodicals, and internet sources. I hope someone is waiting in the wings with notes for a 2000-and-beyond book." [NB. That's precisely what I am working on now!]
--Bob Porter, International Association of Jazz Record Collectors Journal, December, 2014: "As someone who was a frequent visitor to New Orleans during the period, I recognize the scene and Jacobsen does a fine job of getting it all out there. Lots of photos."
--W. Royal Stokes, Jazz Journalists Association NEWS (roundup of jazz and blues books from 2014), December 29, 2014: " Thomas Jacobsen's [book] not only renders the musical scene of the period covered in its varietal forms, it renders it as part of a broad canvas that includes essential information on its players, both musicians and support network; the venues that have come and gone, some still active today; the political scene; the journalism and radio outlets that have reviewed and supported the jazz idiom over the years; jazz education, both public school and university; and a number of other facets and circumstances. All of these categories are fleshed out with interesting material on the individuals involved. Jacobsen...has made use of his time there by constant presence on the jazz scene and involvement in its community, collecting his impressions and recording his data whenever he came into contact with that community...His outlook and taste are definitely catholic and his coverage comprehensive. All styles played in the city are given their due in this essential book. Photographs, notes, bibliography, index."
--David Kunian, OffBeat, February, 2015: "Thomas Jacobsen is well qualified to assess New Orleans jazz in the last third of the last century. His latest book is a short survey of jazz in the Crescent City divided up by decade. Each chapter is divided up to sections on live music clubs, festivals, education, brass bands and musical luminaries...an informative...means of providing information. Where he excels is the recalling of some histories that have been glossed over such as the early, controversial history of Jazz Fest, the lack of development of Rampart Street, or the saga of Clarence "Buckwater" Washington. He also gives recognition to some of the unsung pieces and people of the New Orleans music puzzle... This is a great reference book..."
--Charles Suhor, American Book Review (Jan.-Feb. 2015) [excerpted]:
"I've long been an admirer of Thomas Jacobsen's writing, the catholicity of his musical tastes, and his warm personal regard for New Orleans musicians. The last was evident in his 2011 work for LSU Press, Traditional New Orleans Jazz: Conversations with the Men Who Make the Music, and his articles for Mississippi Rag and Clarinet. His new volume is a follow-up to my 2001 book, Jazz in New Orleans: The Postwar Years to 1970.... When Jacobsen spoke to me casually about his plans for the book, I frankly wondered how he could get a handle on the task...Jacobsen ably ferrets out and explains the dominant patterns and underlying currents, making it look easy through organizational skill and a readable style... Jacobsen's framework of major events, issues, and evolving trends rescues the book from being a mere catalogue of names and places. Readers who aren't already familiar with the city's innumerable artists and clubs--after all, only Preservation Hall, Pete Fountain, Al Hirt, Harry Connick, Jr., and the Marsalis family are household names--will find many new names embedded in interpretive contexts... A recurring theme also lends continuity to Jacobsen's narrative--generational factors in the development of New Orleans jazz. The segments touch on many jazz styles and are fraught with irony.
It would be easy to quibble over minor points.... Jacobsen had the thronier task of deciding which musicians night clubs, recording sessions, and events to include from the thirty-year time span. Clearly, he provides an extensive and intensive view of the 1970-2000 jazz scene. The subtitle is "A Personal Retrospective," but Jacobsen's scholarship and fairminded coverage of all jazz style make the book an important report on a slimly researched period in the city's jazz history." [THIS REVIEW ALSO APPEARED IN ITS ENTIRETY IN allaboutjazz.com, May 12.]
--Charles Suhor has yet another review--perhaps his most detailed and thorough of all--in the September issue of the IAJRC Journal (pp. 28-29).
--Monika Herzig, Journal of Folklore Research Reviews, November, 2015:
"Thomas Jacobsen fell in love with the music and lifestyle of New
Orleans during a year as visiting professor at Tulane University.
Just a few years later he took early retirement from Indiana
University and moved to New Orleans, where he immersed himself in the
music scene. The inspiration for the current book was Charles Suhor's
volume, Jazz in New Orleans: The Postwar Years through 1970,
published through the Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies in 2001. In
order to continue Suhor's account of the city's rich jazz traditions,
Jacobsen researched musical trends, musicians, and venues throughout
the decades 1970 to 2000.
The first two chapters, a short prologue on the 1960s and an extended
account of the 1970s entitled "Jazz Is Back," are compiled from
historical records and interviews. Most notably, Jacobsen chronicles
continued friction between the commercialization of the French
Quarter and the preservation of jazz as a living art form. The two
chapters on the 1980s and 1990s, entitled "New Orleans Exposed to the
World" and "A Golden Age for Traditional Jazz," are very personal
accounts by the author. As he immersed himself in the musical life of
New Orleans, Jacobsen kept detailed records of the various clubs,
musicians, and groups, as well as surrounding media that appeared and
disappeared over the years. Each chapter closes with several pages of
photos that provide us with a glimpse into the daily life of the
Even beyond the chronological accounts of musicians and in-depth
discussions of clubs, festivals, and leading family empires, Jacobsen
shares his insights and concerns about racial debates and dwindling
audiences for jazz. Although New Orleans is arguably the birthplace
of jazz, the city was never able to brand itself, as did Nashville
(Music City) and Austin (Live Music Capital), with a slogan that
includes jazz. Furthermore, tourists expect the traditional
repertoire and brass bands in public venues and as a result progress
of the art form has been somewhat stifled. Jacobsen blames ignorance
by many city officials and citizens alike about jazz and its history
for the lack of branding and missed opportunities. Fortunately the
musicians have found alternatives for developing their unique voices
outside of the tourist-driven venues. Many have documented their new
directions on recordings and have traveled beyond the city, for
example Los Hombres Calientes, Astral Project, and Dr. Michael White,
to name just a few.
Overall, Jacobsen has created a very important and most detailed
historical account of the players and venues over the past four
decades in the cradle of jazz. Especially during times of dwindling
audiences and little media recognition, this fundamental cultural
product of the American melting pot needs to be documented and
recognized. The collection is very personal and focused on Jacobsen's
preferred style of mainstream jazz, and hence its musical accounting
is not quite comprehensive and there is little analysis of the
musical products and styles. Personally, I would have been interested
in a deeper look at some of the issues mentioned in the prologue,
e.g., the fact that musicians who work seven nights a week barely
make minimum wage with no health insurance. Jazz is the trademark of
New Orleans and jazz is the essence of attracting tourists; such
negligence of the main cultural goods speaks volumes about America's
continued culture wars. Passionate, enthusiastic, and thorough
accounts such as Jacobsen's The New Orleans Jazz Scene, 1970-2000 are
much-needed documents of the social and economic impact of jazz,
which has been called "America's classical music."
Ron Nethercutt, Amazon, December, 2015. (Nethercutt is a retired music professor at LSU and currently Director for the Center of American Studies at Angeles University Foundation in the Philippines):
"A great look at a formative period in jazz education in New Orleans. Both established musicians and young up and coming performers are covered. As a university professor during that time, I especially appreciated Jacobsen's handling of music teachers during the period."
I will add more as they become available. [Ed.]
Tennessee Williams Festival gets musical—in world of words
by Andrew Adler
It didn't take the 25th annual Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival long to get around to its host city's aesthetic ethos. Author, journalist and jazz clarinetist Tom Sancton moderated a panel March 25  on writing about New Orleans music.
At 2:30 p.m. on March 25, festival patrons took their seats in the Royal Sonesta Hotel's Grand Ballroom (note: are any hotel ballrooms ever labeled less than "grand"?) for a session resonantly dubbed "Play Me Something, Mister: Writing About New Orleans Music."
Four lively panelists occupied the dais. There was Karen Celestan, who spent 10 years collaborating with producer/arranger Harold Battiste Jr. on a volume titled "Unfinished Blues...Memories of a New Orleans Music Man." Next to her were photographer Shannon Brinkman and writer Eve Abrams, who've just produced "Preservation Hall," a lavishly illustrated history of the iconic French Quarter jazz space. On Celestan's left sat Thomas W. Jacobsen, author of "Traditional New Orleans Jazz: Conversations with the Men Who Make the Music," published this month.
Friday's panel was moderated by author Tom Sancton, a former Time Magazine Paris bureau chief who has taught at Tulane University and elsewhere, and who's an avid jazz clarinetist.
First up was Celestan, who told of how she coaxed (and sometimes prodded) Battiste into sharing his life for the project. A legendary figure who worked with artists ranging from Sam Cooke to Sonny & Cher, he was barely familiar – if at all – to most people.
"He'd been in the background all his life," Celestan said, "and he just couldn't imagine that anyone would be interested in him. But he lived a magical life."
Celestan delighted in remembering how her parents used to dance in their living room to Cooke's "You Send Me," and relating how years later that "it was amazing to know" that Battiste "had a hand in that."
"I'm a journalist by trade," explained Celestan, who has worked as a copy editor at The Times-Picayune, "which means I'm a nosy person." She recounted interviewing a reluctant Battiste with "a pad on my lap scribbling things so he couldn't see," and discovering the large numbers of plastic bins in which Battiste kept his photographs and the personal journal he called his "daily digest." Many of his papers are now housed at the Historic New Orleans Collection.
Brinkman, an acclaimed photographer of horses and equestrian events who moved to New Orleans in 1993, began her study of Preservation Hall in 2003. Five years later Abrams joined the project.
The most vital imperative, Brinkman emphasized, was "letting music dictate the image, rather than the other way around." Abrams conducted some three dozen interviews, saying Friday that "if I cry, I know I've got something really good." Her goal in the book was "to try and communicate something kind of transcendent...to keep the cadence, the grammar (of her subjects), but also to make it a smooth read."
Moderator Sancton remarked that "I was struck by the humanity...that came out in these words." Abrams reminded her listeners that "there is much left to be documented– I hope you have your pens and tape recorders ready."
Then it was Jacobsen's turn. A trim, nattily dressed fellow with silver hair and neatly trimmed beard, he was a archeology professor at Indiana University before retiring two decades ago to New Orleans. For years Jacobsen wrote a column for the Mississippi Rag, which ceased publication in late 2008 after founding editor Leslie Johnson became too ill with cancer to continue.
Jacobsen interviewed numerous jazz artists for his Rag feature stories, which often ran as long as 7,000 words apiece. These features became the basis for his book.
"I wrote about the musicians who I liked to listen to," he said. "I tried to be diverse in terms of (their) backgrounds: I wanted locals, black and white. One of the things about New Orleans is that it's a mecca; it draws musicians from all over the world, and I wanted to represent that as well. The common denominator was the commitment of these people – they were totally devoted to their profession."
Jacobsen ended up with 19 profiles, from trumpeter Irvin Mayfield Jr. (interviewed when he was all of 18 – "he had attitude even then") to another iconic trumpeter, 99-year-old Lionel Ferbos, leader of the Palm Court Jazz Band. Sancton invoked the subjects' "passion and sense of vocation." To cap his point, he described a fledgling, somewhat sassy wannabe buttonholing Wynton Marsalis and asking, "How do you break into the music business?" Marsalis' reply was short and oh-so-sweet: "Break into a practice room."
LSU PRESS RELEASE
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Erin Rolfs
Traditional New Orleans Jazz Speaks for Itself
Author Thomas Jacobsen gives voice to the musical hallmark of the Big Easy
“Any jazz lover who picks up this book will not be able to put it down.”
—Bruce Boyd Raeburn, Curator, The Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University
Baton Rouge, LA- About a century after its beginnings, traditional jazz remains the definitive music of New Orleans and an international hallmark of the city. In Traditional New Orleans Jazz veteran jazz journalist Thomas Jacobsen discusses the music’s legacy with a who’s who of the present-day scene’s players, from Lionel Ferbos–the city’s oldest working jazz musician–to Grammy winner Irvin Mayfield.
Through intimate conversations with jazz veterans and up-and-coming talent, Jacobsen elicits honest, witty, and at times comedic discussions that reveal a strong mutual devotion to do one thing–compose and play music inspired by the Crescent City’s earliest jazz musicians. This candid and entertaining book confirms that traditional New Orleans jazz is a culture of its own, and the players in this remarkable volume are its native speakers.
Advance praise for Traditional New Orleans Jazz:
“Thomas Jacobsen is not only incredibly knowledgeable about jazz, he is clearly at ease with the community of artists he writes about – authentic to the core.”
— Charles Suhor, author of Jazz in New Orleans: the Postwar Years through 1970
“This volume is packed with history and should be read by all who are interested in both the evolution of the New Orleans sound and in jazz itself.”
—W. Royal Stokes, author of Growing Up with Jazz: Twenty-Four Musicians Talk about Their Lives and Careers.
Thomas W. Jacobsen received his doctoral degree in classical archaeology from the University of Pennsylvania and is professor emeritus at Indiana University. A resident of New Orleans for the last two decades, he has published extensively on New Orleans jazz in numerous jazz periodicals.
Traditional New Orleans Jazz: Conversations with the Men Who Make the Music
Thomas W. Jacobsen, 256 pages, 5 1/2 x 8 1/2, 19 halftones
ISBN: 978-0-8071-3779-6 $22.50 paper
PUBLICATION DATE: March 2011
Bob Wilber Celebrates his 80th
Since the Bob Wilber exhibit opens at the University of New Hampshire on September 20 (see News page), I add this little tribute to Wilber that I published in The Clarinet (Vol. 35, No. 2, March 2008). The photographs have been omitted.
One of the top jazz clarinetists of our time, Bob Wilber, will be celebrating his 80th birthday on March 15 of this year . Accordingly, this column is devoted to a brief overview and recognition of his six decades as a major figure on the national and international jazz scene. Little of the following will of course come as news to serious jazz fans.
Born in New York in a decade blessed with the arrival of a number of future international luminaries on jazz clarinet--Buddy DeFranco, Tony Scott, Bill Smith, Eiji Kitamura, Rolf Kuhn, Phil Nimmons, and Putte Wickman, to name just a handful--Wilber quickly made his mark. Like most of his contemporaries, he was first turned on by the playing of the two giants of the previous generation, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. But he was soon to come under the influence of a still earlier master, New Orleans' great pioneer Sidney Bechet. Indeed, while still a teenager, Wilber was presented with an opportunity not only to study with but to live, play and eventually record with Bechet. That experience clearly shaped his career in jazz to a great degree.
I think of Bob Wilber primarily as clarinetist (and I am sure he would not argue with that), but he is also much admired as a saxophonist (on soprano, tenor and alto). He was introduced to the soprano early on by Bechet. Yet beyond his reputation as a world-class instrumentalist, he is also a highly regarded composer, arranger and teacher. Honors include a Grammy for his musical score of the 1984 film, The Cotton Club. In 1998 he was awarded an honorary doctorate of music by Hamilton College.
Wilber has led or founded numerous major jazz combinations over the years: the World's Greatest Jazz Band, Soprano Summit (with the late Kenny Davern), Bechet Legacy and the Smithsonian Jazz Repertory Ensemble, among others. Today he freelances as a guest artist at festivals throughout the world and on tours with bands such as the Statesmen of Jazz.
While most widely known as an exponent of the classic jazz and swing idioms, Wilber is reluctant to identify himself with any particular style. "I don't think of categories of jazz," he says firmly. "1 just think of it as jazz. It's all music, and I'm a musician." In fact, his breadth is reflected by his studies with early modernists Lenny Tristano and Lee Konitz and his recordings in the'50s revealing a familiarity with both modern and traditional jazz. Likewise, he has also studied with Leon Russianoff and has recorded clarinet trios by Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms. In all, Lord's jazz discography lists more than 230 recordings by him.
Next to Bechet, Benny Goodman was a major influence. Wilber played and recorded with Goodman's bands in the late '50s, at a time when the bandleader sought out the best musicians of that era. "Having played with him, I got to know Benny quite well," he says. He has called Goodman "the greatest natural clarinet player who ever lived," and he adds, "He played the classics to garner the attention of the classical music world. He stood upright and presented himself in an aura of conservative respect for the music. Had he played classical clarinet with the same joyful freedom that he displayed in his approach to jazz, he could have been one of the greatest classical players."
Wilber has been involved in many tributes to Goodman. In 1988 he led bands at both Carnegie Hall and Royal Festival Hall in London to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Goodman's legendary concert at Carnegie Hall in January, 1938. In 2002 he led the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra in another Goodman tribute. In preparing for that appearance, LCJO director Wynton Marsalis said to him, "You know more [about Goodman] than I do, so you plan the program and lead the band. I'll just sit in the trumpet section."
Wilber has worked closely with Marsalis and Lincoln Center over the years. In addition to that for Goodman, he has done tribute concerts for Bechet, Louis Annstrong and, coming up, a concert devoted to the music of the best of the big bands. He admires the work that the much younger Marsalis and Lincoln Center are doing in the promotion of jazz. "My role with Wynton," he says, "is helping him catch up on what he has missed. He's intrigued by my association with Bechet."
Wilber continues to be deeply committed to teaching and iazz education. (One of his former students is the fine Finnish clarinetist Antti Sarpila.) In May he will again be involved in Lincoln Center's "Essentially Ellington" weekend, a program that "disseminates the music of Duke Ellington, in original arrangements, to high school musicians across the country for study and performance." He will be one of the judges evaluating the 15 high school band finalists from the U. S. and Canada, a number that will be narrowed down to three by the end of the weekend. "I'm just amazed," he says, "how those young bands get into the music."
In addition to the above, his upcoming activities include a spring cruise from Los Angeles with the Statesmen of Jazz and a guest appearance at the San Diego Jazz Festival. In July he will be touring France and Switzerland with French vibraphonist Dany Doriz and his band celebrating Lionel Hampton's 100th birthday. "I will be playing the part of Benny Goodman," he notes. Then in August he will make his annual guest appearance at the Nairn International Jazz Festival in Scotland.
Wilber's most recent recordings are on the Arbors label. Two releases are expected out in early spring, 2008. One is a double CD of previously unissued concerts by the Soprano Summit from 1975, and the other ["Swinging the Changes"] is a new recording with another of his former students, British clarinetist Nik Payton. He calls Payton, "My idea of what a student should be. He's right up there in a class with Antti Sarpila, who is a brilliant player."
When asked about his preference between his two principal instruments, the clarinet (on which he began) and the soprano saxophone, he admitted that he "loved" playing the curved soprano. "But," he added quickly, "the clarinet is the one I practice. It is the one I'm challenged by. I'm always looking for something new to do."
We just hope that the busy Mr. Wilber can find time to celebrate his birthday.
Bob Wilber's primary residence is now in England, where he lives with his wife, jazz vocalist Joanne "Pug" Horton. His comments above are taken from a telephone conversation with the author last November . The reader may be interested to read Wilber's article "Sidney Bechet: Artist of Genius" in The Clarinet (Vol. 10/1, Fall 1982) or his well-received autobiography Music Was Not Enough (1988).
Tributes keep coming to Lionel Ferbos. The Historic New Orleans Collection hosted a "Salute" to the 99-year-old trumpeter on September 14 at which the latter was interviewed by author Jason Berry. The large audience included many members of Ferbos's family. The trumpeter's responses to questions were characteristically spartan but always direct. He is not one to embellish. When asked if he still practiced his horn, he answered, "Oh, definitely. Every day." He ultimately admitted that his practice sessions lasted 45 minutes to one hour.
Following the interview, Ferbos and his family members, along with many of the audience, repaired to Irvin Mayfield's Jazz Playhouse nearby. There drummer Jason Marsalis led a trio (Rex Gregory, reeds; Peter Harris, bass), joined by guests, to continue the tribute to Ferbos. The guests included trumpeters Shamarr Allen and Leroy Jones and pianist Lars Edegran, who performed before a SRO crowd. (Trumpeter Irvin Mayfield--though advertised as a guest--could not be there because he was on a European tour with the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra.) A highlight of the evening for me was seeing Mr. Lionel dancing with his lovely granddaughter Lori to Jones' "Sleepy Time Down South." We can be sure that this will not be the last tribute to the old gentleman. (See Photos page.)
Charles Suhor, author of the excellent JAZZ IN NEW ORLEANS, The Postwar Years Through 1970 sends along the following obituary (for which I thank him):
The last surviving founder of the New Orleans Jazz Club, Gilbert Erskine, died at age 81 in Malone, New York on December 5th, 2009, but his passing was unknown in New Orleans for almost nine months.
Erskine’s sole continuing contact from his New Orleans years, writer Charles Suhor, grew concerned after several months passed without contact. He learned in late August through the internet and a series of phone calls that Erskine had died of heart disease and, surprisingly, no one in the small upstate New York city had an inkling of his formidable historic role and ongoing contributions to jazz.
James Coughlin, executor of his estate, told Suhor that Erskine was known in Malone as a somewhat reclusive retiree from the heady world of high finance. The lifelong bachelor was a "very private person" who spoke mainly about the investments that he scrupulously managed online. A blogger who knew Erskine from the Investor Village site for day traders googled his name after his death and learned that he was "quite the connoisseur of obscure jazz musicians. Who knew?"
But Erskine’s dedication to jazz began early and was unflagging. A native of Louisville, Kentucky, he came to New Orleans in the late 1940s to attend Loyola University and be near the music he loved. On Mardi Gras day in 1948, Erskine, Johnny Wiggs, Donald Perry, and Al Diket stopped for lunch after the Zulu parade and decided to begin a club that would awaken Orleanians and the world to the music that had been overshadowed by big bands and vocalists of the swing era.
The New Orleans Jazz Club was a main force in the local revival of the late forties and early fifties. Erskine was active as a drummer at jam sessions with artists like Armand Hug and Johnny Wiggs at the club’s monthly meetings and the fabled back room of the New Orleans Record Shop. In 1948 he made a recording with clarinetist Raymond Burke and pianist Stanley Mendelson. He wrote for the club’s Second Line journal, continuing sporadically in that role for decades.
Erskine went to Chicago in the mid-fifties to begin a career in business and industry. He was an executive at American Industrial Leasing Company but maintained a vital interest in jazz as a writer for the Chicago-based Down Beat magazine. His crisp, insightful record reviews and deep jazz scholarship were internationally recognized. In 1960 editor Don DeMichael was seeking a New Orleans correspondent, and Erskine recommended Suhor. "I was thrilled," Suhor recalls. "The local dailies had little interest in jazz in those days, so my twice-monthly club listings and frequent reports and articles made Down Beat the magazine of record for jazz of all styles in New Orleans for a decade."
Erskine moved to the New York City area to work as comptroller for a large financial institution, retiring in 1992 to Malone, located near the Canadian border. His public profile appeared mainly in his attendance at the Catholic Church. This was in stark contrast to the vigorous network that Erskine was maintaining via the internet and print publications. In his later years he contributed to sources like IAJRC Journal(International Association of Jazz Record Collectors) and Bixology (Bix Beiderbecke website). He wrote the entry describing the New Orleans Jazz Club for the online Grove Music Dictionary and engaged friends in discussions of jazz YouTube clips and books.
A Renaissance man with wide-ranging intellectual interests and a passion for social justice, he wrote book reviews of Canterbury Tales for amazon.com and commented on Chaucer and Gerard Manley Hopkins in Religion and Ethics Newsweekly. He criticized clerical bureaucracies in the conservative Catholic magazine First Things. He wrote to the SEC and to a New York Times blog protesting "naked short selling" in the stock market.
Albert Haim, moderator of the Bix Beiderbecke site, belatedly hearing of Erskine’s death, wrote, "He always came up with interesting, original and well thought-out postings, and he was a gentleman of the old era." Among the stalwarts of New Orleans jazz lore, Gilbert Erskine is an anomaly—-a quiet legend.
A CONVERSATION WITH KEN PEPLOWSKI
by Thomas W. Jacobsen
The Clarinet, Volume 30, Number 2, March 2003
Ken Peplowski is considered by many--musicians and critics like--as the top jazz clarinetist of his generation. Now 43, Peplowski was born and raised in Cleveland, the son of a policeman who was a strict disciplinarian. His father was also an amateur musician, and it was a result of his "urging" that young Ken started the clarinet at age 7.
By the age of 10 Peplowski was playing in a local Polish polka band and soon came to be thought of as something of a child prodigy. "I practiced like crazy when I was a kid," he remembers. When he was in junior high school, he wrote and arranged a school musical pageant for a full orchestra. He also arranged for the stage band in junior and senior high school, having by then also picked up the saxophone. He was playing in bands four or five nights a week and made appearances on local television and radio shows. "As soon as I started playing gigs and going out and performing, I knew I wanted to play music for a living," he says.
He enrolled at Cleveland State University as a clarinet major, but, after a year and a half, he dropped out of school to join the Tommy Dorsey band fronted by Buddy Morrow. "I played lead alto, and Buddy gave me a feature spot on the clarinet with the rhythm section in the middle of each program," he says. He was on the road with the Dorsey band for three and a half years.
In 1981 Peplowski moved to New York, where he was soon recognized as one of the top jazz clarinetists in the city. In 1984 he joined Benny Goodman's last band, playing tenor saxophone, and stayed with Goodman until his death in 1986. He continues to call New York home, though he performs widely in the States and abroad.
Ken Peplowski comes out of the mainstream jazz tradition, but a hallmark of his playing is his broad musical tastes. He is known for his performances in a variety of jazz styles, from dixieland, swing (both big-band and small-group), Latin, and contemporary, to Third Stream and the classics. During the course of our conversation, he became very animated while talking about Balkan folk clarinetists.
I talked to Peplowski in early November of last year , and the following are excerpts of his comments and thoughts on several topics of interest to him.
On his jazz influences
"I probably played the clarinet because of Benny Goodman, but then I listened to a lot of other kinds of mustcians-non-clarinetists-almost as much as or more than the clarinetists. My practicing on clarinet has always been mostly classical.
"I really didn't get into [Artie Shaw and Buddy DeFranco] until later on. The guys I was listening to were Benny and all of Duke's clarinet players, Jimmy Hamilton, Barney Bigard, and Russell Procope. I really got heavily into Duke Ellington. I always tell people, if you want the history of jazz and you don't want to look that far, you can just go to Duke Ellington. He wrote such great, interesting things for the clarinet, and he had such interesting players doing it. And different styles-that really intrigued me.
"Kind of parallel to listening to the clarinet players, I discovered Charlie Parker-and Sonny Stitt was a big influence. And Zoot Sims and Stan Getz, and then a lot of piano players--from Teddy Wilson to Bud Powell to Art Tatum. I have found that I favor a lot of piano players' tunes, Bill Evans and [Thelonious] Monk and Duke. As I'm telling you this, it's kind of an odd thing, but I didn't listen to a lot of the-for want of a better word-more modern clarinetists. Yet I was listening to more modern music played by other musicians."
On Benny Goodman
"Benny was to me, as far as being a pure jazz clarinetist, the most inventive. I thought Artie Shaw was maybe the better clarinet player, but Benny, for me, just had that incredible drive.
"[Working with Benny] was exciting and really intimidating. He had a reputation of being a real taskmaster. The time that I was in that band, he probably fired everybody but me. I got very lucky, I think. He wound up rehiring some of the guys back. But that particular band was mostly younger guys who had a lot of respect for him, and I think he liked that. He was a nicer person than what I had heard he could be. He was as tough on himself as he was with other musicians, and if you could see that, it was easier to take his sternness or, you know, his strange manners. I think he just played the clarinet-he was obsessed with the instrument-and thought about nothing else but music. Unfortunately, I think he was a little bit of a lonely guy at the end. He didn't have a lot of friends. He wound up calling me up almost every day, and we'd have lunch and talk about the band and everything. He was really excited about that band.
"Here's an interesting thing. He heard me play clarinet on his charts because the first rehearsal, which was an audition with his band, Loren Schoenberg-a tenor saxophonist who has a band-was Benny's secretary... Basically, Benny auditioned that whole band. But Benny was late for the audition, so we were going to run through some stuff and I was playing his parts. As I'm playing-I'm in the middle of a solo and I've got my eyes closed--and I can feel the entire band tense up as one. I knew he was in the room. I once described it as a feeling of, you know, 13 pairs of butt-cheeks clenching-which is exactly the effect he had on people. And he just kind of off handedly said something like, 'Oh, sounds nice.'
"Very naively I gave him a tape that I had been shopping around to get a record deal. This was before I had signed up with Concord. He didn't say anything about the tape except, again in passing, 'Oh, the tape sounds good.' Well, after he died, the president of the label he was on--Musicmasters--came up to me at a gig and said, 'I just want you to know that Benny really wanted us to record you and even offered to produce the record but we passed on it. I just wanted to tell you that.' That blew me away. I didn't think he thought anything about my playing at all. So there was a good side to the guy.
"I've never, before or since, been with somebody who could rehearse a band as effectively as he could, and get such incredible results from a band-if you could take the pressure. I think the key to working with him was you'd have to show up with respect to him but with enough confidence that you weren't intimidated by him. If he sensed that, he didn't know how to react to it-and then the trouble started. Anyway, it was a great thing [for me}.
"[Benny} wasn't playing at his best at the end, but there were moments when he blew us off the bandstand. There was a night at Radio City Music Hall where we shared the bill with Sinatra, Ella [Fitzgerald], and Placido Domingo. I think that was it. That night, I think because all the other performers were in the wings watching, Benny really blew us off the bandstand. In fact, to the degree that, on 'Stealin' Apples' we literally couldn't play. We just stopped playing as he was taking chorus after chorus. I remember Louie Bellson, who was playing drums at the time, saying, 'Man, I haven't heard him play like this since the '40s.' So he still had it in him, every once in a while, especially at some rehearsals and sound-checks. He would jam on something, and you'd hear that old fire."
On type-casting and developing his own sound and jazz language
"I like to listen to all kinds of music, in fact, a lot of non-jazz music. I like to listen to everything. But I think a lot of clarinet players-or any instrumentalist-choose a role model and you start by mimicking them. You play all their tunes and some of their licks, but eventually you should-not everybody does-grow out of that. For years I didn't even play any songs that were associated with [Goodman] because it's hard to get out from under his big influence and that shadow. The funny thing is, I did all these records and for years I'd record all these strange things on the clarinet. I did a John Coltrane song and I did this avant-garde thing with an orchestra. But, even in the reviews for those records, the name Benny Goodman would come up, like the reviewers weren't really listening. I could have cleaned up doing Benny Goodman tributes, as many people were. Now I'm accepting these calls and just having fun with it. After all these years, I feel like I really have my own sound and style, for better or for worse, and it's fun to look back on those things and play them my own way. It's kind of a danger to get too associated with one person like that.
"Robert Marcellus, to me, had and always will have one of the most beautiful pure clarinet sounds ever. That was an inspiration, just hearing him and hearing him on record. I was always trying to go for a sound like that. In fact, in jazz, Jimmy Hamilton impressed me, and I always thought that he could have fit easily into an orchestra with that kind of sound. It intrigued me that you could play jazz and still have that classical approach.
"The Natural Touch [CD released in 1992] was the first record I did where it was just exactly what I wanted to do. It was just my band that had been playing in the clubs. There's a difference. No matter how many great musicians you put together, there's nothing like a bunch of people that work together and like each other--and know which way somebody is going to go. So, in a way, that's my grown-up record. And it paid off, maybe not so much here, but I got the German equivalent of the Grammy for jazz record of the year. From that time that kind of encouraged me to forget about trying to please anyone else but myself and just play what I want to play.
"I think it's a mistake if you're always trying to chase this elusive market place because then there's no you. So what I do is play music that interests me, period. I don't care what style it is, what era it comes from. People are always saying, 'How would you categorize yourself?' Well, the closest I've been able to come up with is, I'm an interpreter of songs. That's what I do, through a jazz setting. I don't think of myself as a swing musician or a bop musician or anything, I just play whatever appeals to me and try to put my own spin on it. I think what eventually happens, if you consistently do that, you'll find an audience anyway. You find them, or they find you."
"I don't consider myself a doubler, and I never have. When I moved to New York I tried to play all the flutes and I couldn't do it. For me, to successfully play clarinet and tenor saxophone and a little bit of alto is to approach them as distinct, unique instruments and not to find tricks or common [denominators]. Even now, when I get the horns out, I just try to refresh myself and say, 'This is what's unique about the clarinet.' I want to preserve the sound and not sound like a saxophone player playing clarinet. When I pick up the saxophone, I play it a little bit differently. Even if I play a song on each instrument...I probably wouldn't play the same solos. I hear certain things on certain instruments and play them on those. This came about because I like the saxophone a lot, but I never, ever wanted to give up the clarinet. Believe me, in the '60s there was not much of a call for the clarinet in jazz music. But I just loved the instrument so much--almost from the beginning it just felt like I should be playing it. It just felt really comfortable. So I never, ever wanted to not play it. When I do my gigs, if it's with a rhythm section, I'll generally split the sets in half, play some on saxophone and some on clarinet. But it tends to be maybe 60-40 in favor of the clarinet."
"If I go to colleges and do workshops, the first thing I tell the students is, if you really want to play music, you're going to have to want it so bad that that's your life decision. A musician is not somebody who does it for a living, it's what they are. A shocking thing nowadays is that many jazz students don't do much on their own initiative. They want to be given everything in school. I can look around the room and, if that's the kind of students they are, they aren't going to make it.
"I tell everybody when they come to me to learn how to play juzz clarinet, 'You got to go back to the classical books and learn how to play, get your fingers moving, learn how to breathe properly.' To me, that's half the battle of playing the instrument. It's breath control and learning how to put the air through the horn. Then you don't have to make all these adjustments for the upper register. People talk about how Sinatra learned from Tommy Dorsey about breath control. Now it's coming back the other way. A lot of musicians learn from the singers. [Sinatra] was a big influence on me. His phrasing was so remarkable and sounded so seamless. It almost sounded like he wasn't breathing. So I always strive to
have breath control like that and try to play long phrases... I always tell these students that the sound should come from you, not the horn.
"Now, most of my students are the kind of people who come in for more long-term conceptual things. For example, there's a guy who came in just recently. He actually plays pretty well, but he comes more from a legit approach. He plays shows and classical things, and he wants to play more jazz. So I'm working with him on his sense of time and rhythmic approach. One interesting thing that I always see in classical players who try to play jazz is their tone goes right out the window. Their embouchure loosens up, or they'll try to do things that are more prone to the saxophone than the clarinet, like scooping notes but not quite coming back to the pitch.
"So my approach to teaching is always this: I eventually want that student to not have to come back to me and for them to be able to teach themselves. I get them to do things like tape themselves, listen to themselves playing. Can they follow where they are in the song without a rhythm section? Is their time that solid that they know where they are at all times? Do they have a good sound? Are they playing flat in the upper register just because they're playing jazz and they've forgotten about breath support and the embouchure just because they're playing a lot of notes? And I also have students write out solos on songs without the horn to test their ear and sense of relative pitch. Then they get the horn out and play it and see if it sounds like they thought it would. So--I don't know what you'd call me--I'm kind of the anti-Christ of the teaching movement because I'm trying to get them to learn on their own."
"One thing I would like to stress because I talk about this a lot in the workshops--and I notice this with clarinet players--is the whole equipment business. I think people drive themselves crazy over that stuff. It actually enforced what I believed when I worked with Benny. He didn't care about this stuff at all. He was picking reeds out of a box, which I do too. I don't work on reeds. He tried them and threw them back in this big cigar box he had. At that time, he was playing a stock Selmer mouthpiece and his barrel was cracked. He put tape over it. I think you just have to find stuff that makes your life easy. Just find equipment
that's not giving you trouble, and you learn how to put that air through the horn and keep an open throat and resonate.
"I've played a Portnoy [mouthpiece] almost from the beginning, with one change. I met Portnoy [the man] out in San Francisco, and he saw that I was playing his mouthpiece. He said, 'I'll make one and send it to you for nothing that I think you'll like better.' And I did. So I changed to that one [BP03], and that's what I'm playing right now. I've never changed. I used to use his ligature, but mine broke and they don't make those anymore. So I switched to those Vandoren ligatures with the changeable middle part. I played the first one that's on there. And I use the Vandoren German-cut White Masters, number fours. They work good with that mouthpiece.
"For years, I played an old Buffet--R 13--and then Mike Bennett from Yamaha came up to me. He kind of knew that I just hate changing equipment. I kind of blew him off, and then he kept calling me. I flew out and went to the factory and tried a bunch of horns, and Ifls.~uaLb really like the Yamaha now--for a strange reason, maybe. I like it because the one I'm playing [Custim SE] plays like the classic old Buffets, but it's got much better action-for me. I can honestly say that I didn't need a free clarinet. I changed really because I like the horn, and I even told them, 'Let's not commit ourselves for a few months. I'm going to go back after three or four months and try the the Buffet and see if I still like the Yamaha better.' I did, and I still prefer this one. And I know what's going to happen. He's going to have all kinds of new instruments for me to try, and I'm just going to stay on the one I have."
On current projects
[After some 17 recordings with the Concord label, which is now under new management], "I got out of my contract and started doing things for different labels. [Concord is] a big mess now...and they had no idea what to do with me, maybe because of what we were talking about. I do all these different kinds of projects.
"So I've actually licensed some live tapes to Koch Jazz. Then I did a couple things for Nagel-Hayer [in Germany], like the new one I just put out [Lost in the Stars, Nagel-Hayer 2020. This record I'm really happy with. It's Greg Cohen [bass] and Ben Aronov [piano] who I've worked with for years, and Lewis Nash on drums. I think it's one of the best things I've done. Usually when I go into make a record there's a whole year-long process before that of sifting through songs and pieces people write and playing them in clubs. So when it's time to do the record, I weed everything down and there's things I've been working on. This one is kind of like the next step from The Natural Touch. It's another small-group record, which I am real proud of. Everything was really great in the studio.
[The Other Portrait is an album featuring Peplowski playing Lutoslawski and Milhaud, among others, with the Bulgarian National Symphony.] "The problem is, the record company completely dropped the ball on that record. This was after Jefferson [former Concord owner] died, the guys that took over. They spent all this money making this record and then didn't promote it at all. They just had no idea what to do with it.
"I would love to do another one like that, but it takes money and I need to find somebody to bankroll such a project. In fact, I did a concert a couple years ago at Merkin [Concert] Hall [in New York] of my take on Third-Stream music. I found all these pieces written for the clarinet that kind of fit that category that either have never been recorded or are almost unknown. There is an Alec Wilder piece that was written for Benny and never performed or recorded. I played a Morton Gould thing. And I revisited a concerto that James Chirillo wrote for me. It was a successful concert, and I recorded it. It's all clarinet stuff, so hopefully I'll get somebody interested in it."
Many readers of The Clarinet will recall Ken Peplowski's wonderful performance at ClarinetFest 2001 in New Orleans. For those unfortunates who missed it, you can hear him live at numerous appearances throughout the country in coming weeks. He will be featured at a jazz festival in Clearwater, Florida from March 20 through March 23 (except for a one-night interlude in Milwaukee on March 22). He will be at Xavier University in Cincinnati for a concert on April 6 and a residency and performances at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, April 25-28. He will be featured at an international jazz festival in Blackpool, England, May 1-4, and at the JVC Festival in New York (along with clarinetists Kenny Davern and Buddy DeFranco) in the last week of June. For a complete listing of his upcoming performances, see his Web site [www.kenpeps.com].
Let's Dance, Musicmasters, 1986 [last recording of Benny Goodman band]
Strictly Instrumental, Concord Jazz, 1987 [with the Dan Barrett Octet]
Peter Ecklund and the Melody Makers, Stomp Off, 1988 [with Peter Ecklund band]
Double Exposure, Concord Jazz, 1988 [Peplowski's debut as a leader] Sonny Side, Concord Jazz, 1989
Just A-Settin' and A-Rockin,' Musicmasters, 1990 [with Loren Schoenberg and his Jazz Orchestra]
Mr. Gentle and Mr. Cool, Concord Jazz, 1990
Illuminations, Concord Jazz, 1991
The Bossa Nova Years, Concord Picante, 1991 [with Charlie Byrd Trio]
Groovin' High, Concord Jazz, 1991 [with Scott Hamilton and Spike Robinson]
The Natural Touch, Concord Jazz, 1992
Concord Duo Series, Volume Three, Concord Jazz, 1992 [with guitarist Howard Alden]
Steppin' With Peps, Concord Jazz, 1993
Live at Ambassador Auditorium, Concord Jazz, 1994
Encore! Concord Jazz, 1994 [with Howard Alden]
It's a Lonesome Old Town, Concord Jazz, 1995
The Other Portrait, Concord Concerto, 1996 [with the Bulgarian National Symphony]
A Good Reed, Concord Jazz, 1997 (with Loren Schoenberg Big Band)
Grenadilla, Concord Jazz, 1998 [with clarinetists Kenny Davern, Marty Ehrlich, 1. D. Parran, and Scott Robinson]
The Feeling of Jazz, Arbors, 1999 [with Tommy Newsom]
Last Swing of the Century, Big Band Music of Benny Goodman, Concord Jazz, 1999
All This...Live in the U. K., Vol. 1, Koch Jazz, 2000
A Tribute to Benny Goodman, Chandos, 2001 [with the BBC Big Band]
The Jazz KENNection, Arbors, 2001 [with Kenny Davern]
And Heaven Too: Volume 2, Koch Jazz, 2002
Lost in the Stars, Nagel Hayer, 2002
*Including record labels and release dates. NB. Ken Peplowski also plays saxophones on many of these recordings
Postscript (August 2010)
I was obviously unable to include here the photographs that appeared in the above article.
Now 51, Peplowski's latest CD, Noir Blue is on the Capri label (74098-2).
PPS (September, 2011):
See my review of his latest CD (also on the Capri label) on the Works page.
The tenth anniversary of SATCHMO SUMMERFEST was celebrated on the weekend of August 6-8. The weather was very hot (as it has been most of the summer), but that did not seem to bother the large crowds that gathered at the several venues associated with the event.
As in the past, the activities included live music, on the grounds of the Old Mint and in the nearby French Market on Saturday and Sunday. And, again, on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, "seminars" devoted to the explication and celebration of Louis Armstrong and his music were held--for the first time--at the Palm Court Jazz Cafe. Space limitations prevent me from detailing all presentations. More can be learned from checking out the festival's website in the quick link at the right.
Dan Morgenstern, director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University and eight-time Grammy Award winner, gave the keynote address. Dan has been here for each of the past festivals, and his talk recounted
the highlights of each one of them. Other presenters included Michael Cogswell, director of the Louis Armstrong House Museum in New York City; George Avakian, Louis Armstrong's producer at Columbia Records and winner of Lifetime Achievement Grammy from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences; Robert H. Cataliotti, professor of American and African American literature at Coppin State University, Baltimore; Ricky Riccardi,
project archivist for the Louis Armstrong House Museum; jazz journalist Larry Blumenfeld, editor-at-large of Jazziz magazine; and Connie Atkinson, professor of history at the University of New Orleans. In 2001, Connie organized the seminars as part of the Louis Armstrong Centennial, the first Satchmo SummerFest. As in the past, New Orleans native (now of Richmond, VA) Mike Gourrier emceed the seminars.
The seminar program also included some wonderful live music. On Friday, trumpeter Wendell Brunious and pianist Steve Pistorius did an excellent job of representing the spirit of Armstrong's music. On Saturday and Sunday, trumpeter Clive Wilson, pianist Butch Thompson and drummer Herman LeBeaux did much the same thing, as well as illustrating the trumpet styles of some of Armstrong's precursors. Clive's presentation was very informative. He should write it up.
I was unable to catch all of the performances of the groups on the outside stages of the festival, but the following were some of the best of those that I did get a chance to hear: clarinetist Tim Laughlin and his New Orleans All Stars; trumpeter Mark Braud and his New Orleans Jazz Giants (who dedicated his set to the late Clyde Kerr Jr.); trumpeter Leon "Kid Chocolate" Brown and his band; cornetist Connie Jones and his Crescent City Jazz Band; trumpeter Leroy Jones and New Orleans' Finest; and trumpeter Shamarr Allen and the Underdawgs. I must make special mention of trumpeter Yoshio Toyama, the "Japanese Satchmo," who, along with wife Keiko, was back in the city again. As in the past, their Wonderful World of Jazz Foundation, made a presentation of musical instruments and cash to a New Orleans public school (this time it was O. Perry Walker High School in Algiers). The Toyamas, first-rate musicians and human beings, have brought cash and some 760 instruments to New Orleans schools in their visits over the years.
Two notable birthdays took place during the month of July, 2010
Pete Fountain celebrated his 80th on July 3 at the new Rock 'n' Bowl, 3000 South Carrollton Avenue in Mid City. He was joined by a very large crowd of friends, relatives, fans and, of course, many members of his Half Fast Walking Club. Music for the occasion was provided by Connie Jones and his Crescent City Jazz Band: Jones, cornet and vocals; Tim Laughlin, clarinet; Otis Bazoon, tenor saxophone; Mike Genevay, trombone; David Boeddinghaus, piano; Kerry Lewis, bass; and Bryan Barbarot, drums. Pete sat in during the second set and, of course, made beautiful music with his protege and heir apparent Laughlin.
Pete's family was responsible for decorating the large hall in an attractively festive fashion. Everyone in the crowd was invited to have a piece of the huge birthday cake, which was in the shape of Pete's clarinet.
The second birthday took place on Saturday, July 17. New Orleans' oldest active jazz musician, trumpeter Lionel Ferbos, was honored on his 99th (this is not a misprint!) at the venue where he plays every Saturday night, the Palm Court Jazz Cafe on Decatur Street in the French Quarter.
The Palm Court was sold out, with a wall-to-wall crowd made up of friends, fans, and a huge contingent of Ferbos family members. There were the expectable tributes and speeches leading up to a champagne toast offered by hostess Nina Buck and a song by musicians' union head "Deacon John" Moore. Birthday cake followed later.
The normal Saturday night Palm Court Jazz Band--with Ferbos on trumpet and vocals; Brian O'Connell, clarinet; Fred Lonzo, trombone; Lars Edegran, piano; Seva Venet, guitar; Chuck Badie, bass; and Lawrence Batiste, drums--entertained the crowd on this memorable occasion.
We all look forward to Lionel's centennial next year.
And two days after the celebration comes this from Al Kennedy: "A very excited Lionel Ferbos called this afternoon to report that, following the noon mail delivery, he had received a total of 268 birthday cards! And we know more will be coming this week."