Lincoln City’s beaches are a draw for visitors who like to play in the sand. But if music is your oyster, the ninth annual Siletz Bay Music Festival (SBMF), now in full swing, offers up a program of classical and jazz that anyone can dig, no shovel required.
Among the returning artists is New York-based jazz clarinetist and tenor saxophonist Ken Peplowski. While Yaacov (Yaki) Bergman continues as SBMF music director, Peplowski heads up the jazz segment this year, picking up the baton from legendary pianist and composer Dick Hyman, who, at age 93, seems to want to slow down a bit for some reason.
“Dick’s always been great at programming, coming up with interesting ideas, and efficient rehearsing,” Peplowski said. “So I feel like I’m not coming in cold.”
Peplowski’s pedigree is etched in performance mileage and enhanced with the kind of patina one only gets from playing with Mel Torme, Charlie Byrd, Peggy Lee and many more. In short, he’s got chops and has appeared in a range of venues, from intimate clubs to the Hollywood Bowl. You also can hear his work in Woody Allen’s movies, and, most recently, in his latest album, “Amizade,” a duo recording with Brazilian guitarist Diego Figueiredo.
In addition to being a performer, Peplowski has been music director of a range of events over the past few years, including the Sarasota Jazz Festival and the Newport Beach Jazz Festival in California. And this fall, he will be co-chairing the Newport, Oregon, Jazz Party with jazz flutist Holly Hoffman. He will be taking over as chair of this event, which he describes as “an organized jam session” next year.
Peplowski began his musical career in earnest at age 12 on his dad’s old clarinet, when he and his brother, on trumpet, played Polish polkas for weddings and dances around Cleveland, Ohio. He eventually added saxophone, which allowed him to broaden his repertoire.
“We’d have to take requests and learn how to play on the fly,” Peplowski said. “It’s like learning how to swim by being thrown into the water.” But he says that it was his background in polkas that taught him to improvise. “Polish polka music is strangely like New Orleans jazz in that the clarinet improvises through a lot of it,” he explains.
Hangin’ with the greats
When asked who he sees as being a major influence on his career, Peplowski doesn’t skip a beat.
“Well, of course, Benny Goodman,” he said. “I got to play in what turned out to be his last band in 1985. He was probably the greatest of all time. So getting to play with him was frightening, thrilling, daunting all at the same time.”
According to Peplowski, Goodman could be tough.
“I played saxophone in that band, and my claim to fame was that another saxophone player and I were the only ones not to get fired,” he said. “Many people would get fired and rehired in that band. It’s almost like he saw us as his chess pieces. He’d always be moving us around until he got exactly what he wanted.”
Other musicians who had a sizable influence on Peplowski include saxophonist Buddy Tate, who played in Count Basie’s band; saxophonist Flip Phillips; bassist Milt Hinton; and trumpeter Clark Terry. And then, of course, there was Dick Hyman.
“He was a big help to me when I came to New York,” Peplowski said. “He got me into lots of interesting gigs and studio dates, and really did a lot for me.”
In fact, it was Hyman who introduced Peplowski to Bergman.
“Dick called me up and said, ‘There’s a festival I’ve been doing, the Siletz Bay Music Festival, with a great conductor named Yaki Bergman. You need to do this. Don’t ask about the money,’” Peplowski said. “And he was right. I met Yaki in New York. He’d seen some gigs of mine and we hit it off immediately.”
Up for a challenge
Peplowski says he embraces a variety of music.
“I’m not a jazz snob by any means,” he said. “The fun thing about doing the Siletz Bay Music Festival is that I get to play some classical music too. This year I’ve got the daunting task of playing Stravinsky’s ‘A Soldier’s Tale.’ But I like a challenge.”
Peplowski notes that the SBMF programming is always interesting.
“Yaki doesn’t play it safe,” he said. “He pushes all the musicians to do their best. And when he gives me something like Stravinsky, I say yes because I want to be challenged. And then I almost immediately think to myself ‘What have I done?’ But he knows I can’t say no. So I’ll do it as long as he wants me to.”
And for those of us who dig good music — with or without sand — that’s a good thing.
The Siletz Bay Music Festival runs through July 4 at various venues throughout the Lincoln City area. For more information, see the coast calendar on pages 12 and 13 or go to siletzbaymusic.org.