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Veronica Swift

Veronica Swift: Challenge = Opportunity By Elzy Kolb

It takes more than a rainstorm, a balky locking system, and the ongoing travails of 2020 to dampen Veronica Swift’s spirits. Her natural ebullience comes through loud and clear during a phone interview the vocalist squeezes into her busy schedule. She’s ducked into a shelter during a downpour, as rental agents struggle to gain entry to a house she hopes to rent. When the door finally swings open, Veronica laughs and shouts out her appreciation: “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I’m buying you lunch!”

Finding the right house is a big deal right now. The COVID era marks the lengthiest period Veronica’s spent in one place in a very long time, a situation this seasoned road warrior doesn’t intend to duplicate. “It’s going to be the longest stretch at home for the rest of my life,” vows the Virginia-based singer, composer, dancer, actor, and filmmaker.

She started the year with an enviable array of club, festival and concert appearances—including Carnegie Hall—on the docket. Veronica enthusiastically describes a September appearance in Italy’s Boboli Gardens. “That was the best gig of my life,” she declares. “I got to perform in front of 500 people with a full orchestra, and even got to dance.” The historic outdoor venue in Florence dramatically reduced its capacity, spacing out the seating for social distancing, checking temperatures at the gate, and observing other safety protocols.

But most of her other engagements didn’t happen—yet! “If people do what they’re supposed to do, if they follow the [virus-related] health and safety checklist, and if people stick to their promises, I will do the majority of the postponed concerts,” she explains. Roughly 80 percent of her planned appearances have been rescheduled. “I have to trust the universe.”

In the meantime, she is delving into other projects, personal and professional. “I’m doing a lot of things I don’t have time to do in normal times,” Veronica muses. “This is a time to reflect and recenter. Time to get my social affairs in order, time to spend with friends and family.”

She continues: “I’m always looking at what’s next and I definitely think the universe is telling us we have internal work to do. There have been a lot of disappointments, but this is also a time of opportunity.”

Though she misses performing, Veronica accepts the necessity of making adjustments for the foreseeable future, and continues to find means for self-expression, even under less than ideal circumstances. “Livestreaming is not for me, it’s really uncomfortable to play without an audience,” Veronica notes. “Twenty people is better than no people, but some audience is better than no gig.”

Veronica performs virtually November 22, from William Paterson University’s Shea Center. The concert is part of its Jazz Room Series at Home. Pianist Emmet Cohen, a regular collaborator, joins her for the date along with his trio. As of mid-October she had no plans of including material from her upcoming release, This Bitter Earth (Mack Avenue). “That material requires a lot of production—synthesizer, electric bass—and we’re going for an acoustic setup this time,” she explains. “We’ll play some tunes, we’ll play what feels good, we approach a lot of gigs that way this year.” With a repertoire spanning standards, the Great American Songbook, opera, bop, pop and show tunes from the 1920s to the present, rock, originals, and more, her remote audience is sure to sample her takes on the familiar, the obscure, and the unexpected.

The idea for This Bitter Earth, set for early 2021 release, has been simmering on Veronica’s busy back burner for five years. It comprises a thought-provoking re-examination of material ranging from standards to witty offerings by the likes of Dave Frishberg and Bob Dorough to Broadway show tunes that must have sounded very different in the mid-20th century. She brings an almost country-inflected ache to the newly released first single, the title track, which was a hit for Dinah Washington circa 1961.

Almost guaranteed to fuel heated discussions is the inclusion of a pop number that was controversial even at the time of its original release: “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss).” Written by legendary tunesmiths Carole King and Gerry Goffin, the song was inspired by a remark made in defense of an abusive boyfriend by Little Eva, who was King’s babysitter as well as a vocalist who charted with the dance tune “The Loco-Motion.” Even Phil Spector’s lavish Wall of Sound production for the Crystals in 1962 couldn’t redeem the cringe-inducing lyrics.

Swift, who has written and acted in films produced by Darkstone Entertainment, is currently working on a movie touching on similarly provocative topics, and how people deal with such situations and the emotions they evoke.

Veronica Swift joins a Smoke Screens livestream Nov. 13-14, celebrating the release of drummer Joe Farnsworth’s new album, Time to Swing (Smoke Sessions). The vocalist performs with the Emmet Cohen Trio, from William Paterson University’s Shea Center, Nov. 22 at 4 p.m.; a meet-the artist session begins at 3 p.m. Go to for tickets and information. Submit questions for Veronica in advance to:

Photo by Matt Baker

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Ulysses Owens Jr

Ulysses Owens Jr.: Disruptive Entrepreneurship By Seton Hawkins

In a field defined by live interaction, how do jazz musicians navigate the industry collapse accompanying the COVID-19 epidemic? How might artists apply practical tools to tackle what may well be their most painful professional and personal challenges yet? As we begin to claw back from the brink, what changes does the music industry need to make and what shortcomings must it reckon with?

Enter drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. As the COVID-19 crisis began to hit America, Ulysses was midway through work with Skyhorse Publishing to release his latest book, The Musician’s Career Guide: Turning Your Talent into Sustained Success. With the pandemic’s arrival, the nearly 15-year project found itself taking one more pre-publication detour as Ulysses prepared a brand-new chapter to address the current reality.

The book, now due out in March 2021, emerged as the germ of an idea in 2006 while Ulysses studied at Juilliard. Though he took two music business courses there—one focusing on the needs of classical musicians, another that discussed the then-impending implosion of the recording industry—Ulysses identified a missing element in the business classes: entrepreneurial action. “I felt like nobody was talking about the elephant in the room, which back then was that you had to be entrepreneurial,” he reveals. “So I started journaling: important things people said on the bandstand, things I noticed while on the road, I wrote it all down and I built this journal.”

After nearly a decade of building his business journal, Ulysses approached Chamber Music America, sharing his work and insights. “I showed them this, and I said, ‘This is what I wish people would have taught me and told me about,’” he says. “It was everything from branding to playing to taxes.” With encouragement from CMA, first Ulysses developed the journal into a lecture and workshop, and later into a blog. As the project grew, so too did industry interest, with Skyhorse ultimately signing on to release a book.

As March 2020 unfolded and Ulysses submitted his book, he found himself with a new dilemma: Proceed as planned with the written text, or delay release in order to address the pandemic in the text? Ultimately, the decision was clear, and the release was pushed back to ensure an additional chapter could be included. “I think this will be the only music business book that actually has a section about the pandemic!” he declares.

To that end, Ulysses identifies several key considerations for creative professionals during the crisis, contemplating practical steps as well as long-term health. “First, you have to be making music with a purpose,” he advises. “Right now, people need music to feel better, to heal. We need to make sure our art is relevant. Second, we need to create the art with a basis in reality. The reality is that we can’t tour right now, so everything we do now needs to have a realistic edge, and we need to accept and embrace the virtual world.” Indeed, he argues, to embrace that reality now is paramount, since once the crisis abates the world will not return to the pre-pandemic status quo.

Third, and perhaps most crucial, Ulysses highlights the importance of artists maintaining mental health during this time. “We are all fighting the same devil,” he explains. “And we need to guard our mental health as we accept that the industry has changed, and that some things are gone.”

As the world begins to emerge from the pandemic, artists and industry support staff are also presented with the opportunity to rebuild the arts world, perhaps even fixing the structural and systemic flaws that have dogged it for years. “In jazz, we have a generational issue,” he points out. “If we want it to stay alive and be relevant, we’ve got to let this thing go through the generations, and promote the generations equally. There needs to be a space for each tier, for the forefathers and matriarchs, yes, but also the new generations. The new generations are the ones who will keep the audiences loving what we do.”

Ulysses also makes a case for the need for disruptive innovation within the industry. “In jazz, we’re musicians who are waiting on a club, waiting on a label, waiting on a booking agent, waiting on a manager, waiting on seven or eight entities to do something,” he muses. “If we take the tech industry, someone created a new phone and now we do everything on that phone. Amazon created a website, and now everyone shops on that. In jazz, we need to figure out how we’re going to create disruptive innovation that keeps our genre relevant. We may think individualistically, but it’s not me against you. It’s us against the world, and if we don’t figure out how to employ technology the way other genres have, we will become irrelevant.”

Indeed, contemplating the array of projects Ulysses has undertaken of late—a scene-building jam session launched in Jacksonville, Florida, to try to re-establish artistic and community connections; a forthcoming multigenerational big band album due out next year on the Outside in Music label; as well as the drumming guide Jazz Brushes for the Modern Drummer released earlier this year—one can see that his broad vision is one he fully intends to embody.

“We are going to get through this,” he affirms.

Ulysses Owens Jr. and his band Generation Y are part of the Thursday online Live from Dizzy’s Club series November 12.

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Ken Peplowski

Ken Peplowski: In the Moment By Don Jay Smith

Clarinetist Ken Peplowski lives to perform, but since March has had very little opportunity to do so.

Like most of us, Ken has been at home–something his adorable dog, Honeypie, has enjoyed immensely. But he has missed fellow musicians and enthusiastic audiences. So while doing long-overdue work on his vast collection of music this past summer, he had an idea that he shared with pianist Glenn Zaleski, a young musician whom All About Jazz earmarks as “quickly becoming one of the most important pianists of his generation.”

As Ken relates, “I was looking to come up with something a little different for an online program, and while going through my extensive files of music, it struck me that I had great material that I had either never or rarely played. So I contacted Glenn about recording a program we called ‘In the Moment.’ It gives us the opportunity to play songs that one or both of us has never played and are often unfamiliar to listeners, although the composer might be well known.”

“In the Moment” premiered on August 20, and features an introduction by Ken in which he describes each selection and explains something about the composer or composers. For example, the initial series begins with “Moon Song,” written by Sam Coslow and Arthur Johnston. The two are perhaps best known for their collaborative effort “Cocktails for Two,” made popular by the likes of Bing Crosby and Spike Jones. Individually they also wrote many popular hits, including “Pennies from Heaven,” by Johnston, and “Everybody Loves Somebody,” by Coslow.

“This series has been fun because I’m always looking for interesting songs and this weekly performance keeps us practicing,” Ken notes. “I select six to eight songs, which we then record in one take. People have said that they like it because it is so different. I try to find material that comes from a variety of sources: films, the Great American Songbook, and even jazz musicians such as Zoot Sims or Duke Ellington. Sometimes we play the melody straight and sometimes we use the melody as a vehicle for improvisation. But no matter what, there is a spontaneity to our performances.”

The series has been so well received that Ken and Glenn plan to keep it going into December, every Thursday evening at 7 p.m. Eastern Time, with back episodes available on YouTube. It is free, but like most musicians livestreaming during the pandemic era, the duo hopes for donations to help with their expenses. Although the performances appear seamless, many hours of work go into each show. As Ken explains, “It’s two or three hours to find the music, at least three to four hours of research about each song, and then several hours to edit each video.”

Ken is known for his extraordinary work ethic. He has recorded more than 70 CDs as a leader and some 400 as a sideman with artists as diverse as Charlie Byrd, Mel Tormé, Woody Allen, Bill Charlap, and Madonna. In normal times, Ken tours most of each year, appearing at jazz clubs, concert halls, colleges, and pops concerts. He was featured as a soloist for a program of Mozart compositions in Oregon, and is a popular performer on the Jazz Cruise. In fact, he was elected to the Jazz Cruise Hall of Fame several years ago.

Fans and critics praise him. DownBeat magazine cites Ken as “brilliantly entertaining,” and the BBC’s Russell Davies regards him as “arguably the greatest living jazz clarinetist.” He has a growing list of awards including the Satchmo Award from the Sarasota Jazz Festival, the Fans Decision Jazz Award from Hot House jazz magazine, and the 2018 Creative Arts Prize from the Polish American Historical Association.

For now, fans will have to tune into the clarinetist’s weekly Thursday night series and enjoy his work with Glenn, the regular pianist for Ken’s quartet. “I’m so happy to be playing with Glenn,” Ken says. “He brings youthful energy, is open to playing anything, and is a genuinely nice guy. Those qualities are so important. Life is short and we have to relish every performance.”

Unfortunately, like most musicians around the world, Ken currently has very few live performances, although he is appearing at Smalls Jazz Club November 12, with Rossano Sportiello on piano and Kevin Dorn on drums. Because of COVID restrictions, the club has limited seating, so reservations are encouraged.

The clarinetist continues to find new ways to challenge himself, and music fans benefit from his resourcefulness.

Ken Peplowski appears every Thursday through November with pianist Glenn Zaleski on Facebook Live. He performs at Smalls Jazz Club with pianist Rossano Sportiello and drummer Kevin Dorn on Nov. 12.

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