The fifteen months between March 2020 and June 2021 were rough for most of us, but musicians had a particularly difficult time during that period. Some, like Ken Peplowski, were so unfortunate as to contract COVID-19. In this interview, Schaen Fox talks with Ken about his recovery and his determination to keep making music during the pandemic. -Ed.
Schaen Fox: When and how did you contract COVID-19?
Ken Peplowski: In late March of 2020. I had a fever that shot up to 103. I called my doctor the next day. If you remember how chaotic things were in those beginning days, I think he gave me the right advice. He said “Listen, if you think you can handle this on your own, just stay in bed, and drink a lot of fluids. Avoid the hospitals, the doctors and the walk-in clinics because you’ll get worse if you go into those places right now.” So, I did.
How I contracted it, I have no idea. It lasted almost three weeks. It was just the fever, and almost like pneumonia. You start to feel good, and then as soon as soon as you do anything, like walk to the kitchen, your fever spikes again. I have had some long-term health problems since: I’ve had a weird metallic taste in my mouth sometimes, or waking up on certain days feeling completely exhausted and drained of energy, even though I didn’t do anything before, and congestion in the lungs.
Any difficulty breathing?
No. In the morning; I’ll cough up stuff, but no difficulty breathing. That’s a good thing about what I do for a living. I keep the lungs pretty active.
Where were you the two weeks before you got ill?
In March. I was running the Sarasota Jazz Festival. I’m the musical director of that whenever it happens again. It was going to be an incredible weekend. I had booked the big Saturday night entertainment: The Manhattan Transfer, Terrell Stafford, Houston Person, and Russell Malone. Everybody was there. We did the soundcheck and were ready to go. About an hour before the concert, the phone call from the governor’s office said, ‘Everything’s off, we’re shutting it down.’ I came back to New York.
Did you have difficulty getting a plane back?
No. but the airlines really screwed me over on some of my refunds. They announced, ‘If you change your flight because of this, you’ll get credits for another flight.’ March, April, May, and June, was four months of almost daily gig cancellations. Two of the airlines, United and American, just wouldn’t accept the credit codes they sent me when, much later on, I did occasional one-off traveling gigs. I lost the money and the points.
Alaska Airlines, sent one email, giving a code number, saying that they’re going to honor your tickets for whenever you need to use it next. Then, they sent a second email with the exact code number that you needed to change your flights. And they said, if you don’t have both of these code numbers, we can’t reproduce them, and it’s gone if you didn’t save that. They didn’t make it easy.
The car rental agencies, ever since COVID started, have been charging, basically the height of summer prices. In New York, it’s about $200 a day to rent a car. And the airlines send you emails saying, ‘It’s $53 to fly to Palm Beach.’ But that’s one specific day at one specific time. They’ve jacked up the prices on everything else. Because there’s less options, there are less flights available and, as things open up, the planes are packed.
I was unaware of your situation until you posted on Facebook you were selling your sax.
Some people misunderstood this. I had two saxophones. I didn’t sell my primary instrument, but one that I used quite a bit when I traveled. I haven’t had a month since March 2020 where I’ve made enough income to cover my monthly expenses. I’m living off savings, the generosity of a lot of people, and that Facebook streaming thing. Everybody’s doing that, but I tried to make it different, and people love that opening where I talk about the music they’re about to hear and see.
I’m starting to have guests now, and I’ve gotten financial help from people that I’ve never met. They write these nice letters saying they’ve been to my concerts, and they’re assuming I need help. That’s gotten me through this plus the little income that I make. The bass player Peter Washington pointed out that there’s not a lot of us musicians left where all we do is travel and play. I don’t have a backup teaching job. I’m not with a partner or spouse that works, so that’s it. Since 1981, pretty much, I’ve made my money on the road, and I never, ever thought something would come along and prevent me from doing that.
What happened to the sax?
Maybe I’m too honest for my own good sometimes. A student is a huge fan, and really wanted the saxophone. I gave it to him for a great price. The next day, this guy from California, offered to get together a bunch of money, buy it from me, and let me keep the instrument. But I couldn’t go back on my bargain. This kid is happy to have the horn.
When things get back to normal, do you have any plans to change your lifestyle?
I can’t. I don’t have a college degree. I went for two years and left to go on the road with the Tommy Dorsey band, with Buddy Morrow conducting, I teach some private lessons via Zoom, like a lot of people. But I teach more advanced students, and I give big concepts kind of lessons, not weekly lessons. They come back in a month or two or three, with more questions. I could go against that, but I like to teach the way I feel I need to teach, so I get occasional students that come and go.
Broadway shows never interested me. No offense against the Broadway musicians, because some of the greatest jazz players play Broadway shows, but I have such a low boredom threshold. It’s like punching a time clock for me. There’s less of those jobs now, and those musicians hang on to them dearly, mainly for the health care and other benefits. It’s not an easy thing to get into anymore. So, it doesn’t leave a lot of options.
For us, getting back to normal is not going to happen this year. I’m playing every job that I get, and phone calls are coming in slowly, but everything’s with a question mark, because it’s such an uncertain world. Now we’ve got the variants. We could have a second wave even with the vaccinations. I’m not trying to be a pessimist. I’m hoping for the best. Thank God, I’ve got lots of friends out there, and I’m very grateful to them, and I make them know that. I write to everybody that sends me money.
The Facebook streaming thing has taken off really well. We’re building up an incredible number of followers, and people have passed the videos around, I’m getting donations from people that have watched episodes from months ago. A lady in California, again, I never met her before, now sponsors the streaming thing in such a way that I can pay the musicians, the videographer and sound guy, and pay for the rehearsals and the studio where we record it. Then I can collect the donations as my income. She’s sponsoring this until I stop doing it. That kind of generosity of not just money but spirit keeps me going, because it’s unbelievable.
It’s well deserved. You’ve done great things for us, just being yourself on stage. Although, I don’t know if you are being yourself.
I am really. When you see me on the stage, that’s the most of me you’re going to get. I actually feel the most relaxed and comfortable on stage, strangely enough. So, if I feel like joking around with the audience, or trading barbs with somebody, that’s all spontaneous. I love my time on stage. And if that has gotten through to people, I really do appreciate that, especially now.
I’ve got to say, and every musician talks about this, every job we do now, we realize how lucky we are to do what we do, and how grateful we are that we can see the joy in the audience just to hear live music again. We see the joy and feel it on the bandstand. You certainly wouldn’t take anything like that for granted after this, and I never did.
When did you start In the Moment?
I started with a series of very low budget duos with pianist Glenn Zaleski. That started maybe June, 2020. That was just the two of us, with him trying to operate an iPhone camera. It quickly became apparent that everybody was streaming, and people were getting fatigued of that single-camera, not completely professional sound quality. Fortuitously this California savior offered to sponsor the show.
I had just started doing the quartet at Michiko Studios, a famous rehearsal studio in Times Square. It was costing close to $2,000 an episode. First you pay the guys. Then you rent the studio room for four hours, because even though the show itself lasts about an hour, you rest between songs, or you screw up something horribly and you start over. We have stuck to doing almost exclusively first takes. We’re proud of that, but it takes time, and a lot of money.
Here’s the thing I find curious, though I don’t mean to sound ungrateful because a lot of people are giving money, and a lot of times it’s the same people. But you go to Starbucks, and you’ll gladly spend $5 for a cup of coffee. Now, on Facebook, if you look through some of my older episodes, they have 3, 4, or 5,000 views. If 3,000 people that watched us for even five minutes and enjoyed it gave $5, I would be doing really well. I’m not being churlish about this, but I can’t understand why they can’t get that I haven’t worked in 16 months except for the occasional “one-off” gig? At the beginning, I give the Starbucks analogy, I say, “Every dollar helps.” There’s a guy who gives me $5 each episode, and I thank him just as much as I do if somebody gives me $300, because it all helps,
Have you thought about giving out tote bags?
I’m thinking of setting up on Patreon, a service a lot of the podcasts use. They’ll have a basic thing where if you want to listen to a podcast, it’s free. One that I listened to, if you pay $5 a month, you get two extra episodes a week. If you pay $10 a month, the guy who runs the podcast gives you a personal phone call once a month, and talks to you for 15 minutes. Guys have made a living just from Patreon.
I have all the old shows you can watch for nothing but then if you pay a certain amount, you’ll get free songs that wouldn’t be available anywhere else on this system. Pay something else, and I’ll send you some weird gifts. I’ll come up with some something funny or odd or that kind of thing. I think that’ll help, because a lot of people are doing that. Otherwise, I’ll be selling blood. How much can I give away before I pass out?
June through August I have almost nothing. I was supposed to go to Europe, and everything was completely canceled. I’m going to be at Mezzrow for two nights in June. And Birdland’s still working on this, but I’m going to be doing one night there July 17th.
Who are your usually gigging with?
For the last few months it’s pretty much been Ehud Asherie on piano, Peter Washington on bass, and Phil Stewart on drums. I like to play different things running the whole gamut of jazz history. These guys go with me in any direction and it’s great. But over the next month, I’m going to mix it up a little. just for a change. Nicki Parrott is going to do two on bass, and I might change up some of the other members just so people see something different.
I’ve got kind of different groups that I use in different venues, when I go into Mezzrow I have Rossano Sportiello and Kevin Dorn, and we love to play ’20s and ’30s music. At Birdland, I have Matt Wilson, Martin Wind, and Glenn Zaleski. And then this In the Moment band is working out great.
When things return to normal, do you see In the Moment continuing?
Yeah, I’m enjoying the shows, and I would like it to continue. If I’m working a lot, we obviously have to do maybe every other week or once a month, but it’s fun and challenging. People comment every single episode that they like that it’s multi-camera and a quality production with really good sound. It’s a professional recording: The studio guy has microphones on everybody, and spends hours mixing the sound.
It’s a lot of work. I’m not whining, because it’s the only thing I’m doing, but I’m not doing a Wikipedia thing for my ten-twenty-minute opening comments. Sunday, for example, I started at 10:00 am and finished at 4:00 just taping my introduction. I have all these books on songwriters, and their songs. First, I was researching to find facts that you wouldn’t find by Googling something; then thinking about what to say. I film that myself and then send it off to the studio guy, and he spends hours rendering it into the right format. Then I spend sometimes three hours uploading onto Facebook, because they keep changing the way they let you do these things.
I’m never not working on this show. Like now, I’m coming up with the songs for this coming week, although this week will be a little easier because Catherine Russell is guesting and she’ll do the brunt of the songs. Actually, it’s good for me because it keeps me practicing, and it feels like work.
Had this not grown, I don’t know what I would be doing now. I honestly can’t even think of an alternative, but luckily it has, and I’m proud of our episodes. I’m going to figure out what to do with all of it. I mean, once a week we’re playing eight to ten songs. Half of them are completely unknown to everybody, including myself. I’ll give you an example: I’ve encouraged people to send in requests, and this lady said, “There’s a Noel Coward song, I’ve only heard a few singers do it, and I’m wondering how it would sound as an instrumental.” So, I contacted this big song collector friend of mine, and it’s a beautiful song, and it’s going to be on Thursday’s show.
I hope it does continue. Thank you for doing it and brightening the gloom.
Thank you, and thanks for your help in every way. It means so much to me; I hope you know that.
Portions of this story appeared in the July-August 2021 issue of Jersey Jazz, under the title “Recovering from Virus, Ken Peplowski Started a Facebook Series.” Visit Ken Pelowski online at www.kenpeplowski.com and watch In The Moment at facebook.com/kpeps1.