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Q & A with Musician Ken Peplowski

Clarinetist and saxophonist Ken Peplowski talks American music and the highlight of his career.

Ken Peplowski plays the clarinet on stage, image
Photo caption
Ken Peplowski has collaborated with the likes of Charlie Byrd and Woody Allen.


It’s hard to say what’s more impressive about Ken Peplowski: his résumé or his musical range. The 55-year-old clarinetist and saxophonist has performed on film sound tracks, at Carnegie Hall, and alongside such greats as Benny Goodman and others. In August, he takes the stage at Eugene’s Oregon Festival of American Music, where he has served as music director since 2007.

Q Define American music.
A We concentrate on the period from 1900 to the 1950s: music from Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, and movie composers like George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Richard Rodgers, Johnny Burke. There’s so much material to mine.

Q How do you narrow it down?
A It’s different every year. This year’s focus is songs that were composed for movies of the 1940s and ’50s. So there will be tributes to performers like Judy Garland, Hoagy Carmichael, and also Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack.

Q You’ve made music for movie scores yourself?
A Yes. You can hear me in some of Woody Allen’s films, especially Sweet and Lowdown.

Q How did you get your start?
A My dad was a cop and a frustrated musician. He was always bringing home new instruments, but they’d eventually get tossed aside and my brother and I would pick them up. I took to the clarinet, my brother played the trumpet. By the time I was nine, we were playing weddings.

Q Your career highlight?
A Probably working with Benny Goodman, because he was a hero. I remember a Radio City charity fundraiser with a real A-list lineup: Ella Fitzgerald, Plácido Domingo, Sinatra at the top of his game. At the time, Benny looked old and frail. But when he got up there, he blew us all off the bandstand.

Q Why the festival?
A Nowadays, people have so much music at their disposal that they’re actually starting to stick more with what’s familiar to them. It’s important to remind them of this rich history of music, and also how exciting it is to hear it live.

Q Got any recommendations for visitors to Eugene?
A J. Michaels Books has a great collection of new and used titles. And right next to the festival venue is a terrific Thai restaurant, Sweet Basil. During festival week, we eat there all the time.

Photography courtesy of the Shedd Institute, Eugene, Ore.

This article was first published in July 2014. Some facts my have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.