This past September, a gaunt Ken Peplowski appeared as the special guest of Frank Vignola at the outdoor Morristown New Jersey Jazz & Blues Festival. His emaciated physical appearance, he weighed only 130 lbs., affirmed the severe life-threatening problems he has endured, but his playing and humor were, as always, uplifting and grand.
Afterwards, I helped carry his equipment through the crowd lounging on lawn chairs and blankets to his waiting ride. As we walked, people repeatedly thanked or complemented him until he said to me, “This is why I do what I do.” He had given a joyously wonderful performance, and those responses sustained him.
These pandemic years challenged everyone, but Pep’s burden was extreme. He loves performing, and the pandemic induced isolation was made even worse by having to put his beloved dog Honey Pie to sleep. Then he caught Long Covid, but never had to be hospitalized. “The worst was complete random episodes of bad fatigue. One day I could do absolutely nothing. Then I’d wake up the next and be completely exhausted, like I ran a marathon.”
He turned to an old family friend, Doctor Jerome Zacks, then one of the leading cardiologists at Mount Sinai hospital, now retired. “I described my symptoms and asked, ‘Can you help me find a good general physician?’ He said, ‘I’ll see you.’ I mentioned that my insurance didn’t cover him, and he said, ‘I’m coming out on my day off. I expect you there.’” This guy saw me for four and a half hours, and gave me every exam, and asked all kinds of detailed questions and wouldn’t take a dime. He then called me and said, ‘You need to get to an oncologist right now. I’m looking at these blood results and, you’ve got something serious going on.’ He’s an excellent doctor. He saved my life.”
What doctor Zacks had found was multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma white blood cells, requiring immediate treatment. Even for a musician of Peplowski’s high status, that posed a serious career problem. For decades he has made his living as an independent musician. Unlike so many other great musicians, he isn’t involved in music education at some institution. He earns his way gig by gig and there is a real danger that if there is a reliability question about your being there for the job, you don’t get the gig.
“I went public, actually, for that reason. I had to cancel quite a bit of work, and I’d rather not have rumors flying around about, ‘Why is he cancelling these gigs? Maybe we shouldn’t book this guy, because he’s either not reliable, or, something’s going on with him.’ So, I thought, ‘I have to curtail this and just be honest with people.’”
Peps released the news on Facebook, and very soon this GoFundMe notice also appeared: “When one of us is down, we are all down. Hi, my name is Frank Vignola. I am starting this campaign for our dear friend, Ken Peplowski, who has cancer and is forced to cancel most or all his upcoming work due to the effects of his treatments.”
For Peplowski that proved the first game changer. Through it all, his lady friend Pam was a rock of support. For the times Pam couldn’t be there he found Corky, a rescue dog, a type called a Velcro dog. “If I just walk into another room, his nose is practically attached to my leg. I love that. He’s just great. He really helped with my depression. I’ve never had an animal so giving and loving as this dog.”
As soon as gigs began again, Peplowski tried to work, but his harsh treatments were expensive and debilitating. Reality demanded he kept his supporters aware of his situation. Here is one of his messages to them:
OK, folks, not a great update – I played last in Toronto wherein I began throwing up in the evening, continuing onto the fight home, and even in the customs hall in NY. Then hospital visits again, mostly fruitless. I’ve now lost 75 pounds and still dropping, and am extremely weak and nauseous. They know that the Multiple Myeloma is in remission so now they’re trying to figure out what else is causing this. Tomorrow morning it’s off to the gastroenterologist…so, sadly and very disappointingly for me, I cannot travel to Oregon this weekend for the OCJP. I’m sorry to let everyone down, I truly am, but I can’t physically make it out there at this point. I’m also going to have to pull out, for the second time, from the Amelia Island Festival and again, you’ll never know how much I regret having to do this. So now it’s back to the doctors performing their very delicate but deft wallet extractions…thanks for being there by my side, and again, I am so sorry for this setback.
Finally, one doctor realized that the combination of medications Peplowski had been taking caused the gastroenteric symptoms, and since he had finished the treatment, the symptoms would fade. When we last spoke, he said, “I’m feeling better now than I have anytime in the last three years. I’m fully in remission, but since it struck, I’ve worked about ten percent of what I would have worked in any one year, pre-pandemic. It was an unbelievable financial blow to me and honestly were it not for the GoFundMe site, and other really nice people outside of GoFundMe that helped me along, I couldn’t have made it.
“I’ve gotten messages from over a thousand musicians, some of whom I don’t even know that well, just reaching out and sending their love and wishing me the best. It really means so much to me to hear from my colleagues and know that they’ve got your back, and they’re thinking about you. It’s a slightly demented family, but it’s a family of musicians. And the fans have been there right from the beginning, and I consider the fans that I know our extended family.”
When I asked if he was earning enough to cover expenses, he replied, “Honestly, no. I’m halfway there. It takes a while to get back on the scene. And frankly, it’s not the same music scene as it was pre-pandemic. There just isn’t as much work out there. A lot of colleagues that didn’t go through what I went through are all scuffling a bit. It feels like we all have to start over again. I’ve been working hard to book gigs, new venues and things like that.”
He had survived a sustained physical and emotional trauma, and he is anxious to continue to brighten the musical scene. Perhaps he’ll be playing somewhere near you.