Age can't dull Kaplan's passion for music, teaching

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If this is his retirement, no one told Lloyd Kaplan. 

With his 85th birthday today, Kaplan will be working. Tonight, he’ll lead his band of well-seasoned musicians, The Aristocats, in a night of swing at The Towers in Narragansett. 

Kaplan, who earned his bachelor’s degree in music education from the University of Rhode Island in 1959, isn’t even the oldest of the band’s core members. That honor goes to 98-year-old guitarist Nat Piccirilli, of Johnston. The youngsters are drummer Joe Holtzman, 71, of Warwick, and bassist/vocalist Dennis Pratt, 75, also of Warwick.  

At the Towers, The Aristocats will play a set of jazz, swing and Dixieland standards from the early 1900s through the 1940s – Ellington, Gershwin, songs from Tin Pan Alley and the Great American Songbook. They’ll also play a number of audience requests. With a couple of centuries of musical knowledge at their fingertips – Piccirilli himself has a mental library of more than 2,000 songs he can play on guitar or banjo – the band is seldom, if ever, stumped.  

“We’re flexible,” says Kaplan, with a smile. “Not physically, but musically.” 

But making music is just the B side of Kaplan’s retirement plan.

While he’s been playing tenor sax and clarinet professionally for more than 60 years, he may be better known as an educator. He has taught music history for nearly as long. In the mid-1960s, Kaplan was the second educator hired in the music department at the fledgling Rhode Island Junior College (now the Community College of Rhode Island), where he created much of the music curriculum, including establishing jazz as a degree program. And he’s continued his love of teaching through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, at URI and in South Carolina.

It’s a legacy that was honored this spring when Kaplan was named the first music educator inducted into the Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame. He already was a member of the CCRI Hall of Fame.

 “Lloyd was a beloved educator,” says Rick Bellaire, vice chairman of the Music Hall of Fame. “He has a very mentoring character. He wasn’t just, ‘Read chapter two and there’ll be a test on Friday.’ He has a broad scope of music. He basically shaped the curriculum at CCRI, and he wrote the book for a lot of these courses.”

Born in Fall River in 1933, Kaplan learned his interest in music in a family that wasn’t so much musically inclined as they were music lovers. He took up the clarinet in seventh grade in Pawtucket, and was influenced by the likes of Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and Woody Herman.

Kaplan recalls those early influences sitting at his kitchen table of his home in a shady Warwick neighborhood. His wife, Sheila, sits about 10 feet away in the adjoining living room. As he talks, he occasionally turns to her, “What do you think, Sheila?” He plucks names from decades past with ease – fellow musicians, teachers, colleagues, neighbors – and he punctuates most stories with humor. As he talks, he sees life’s turning points as a trained musician picks out chord changes.

He remembers a neighbor, Harry Wingate, a minstrel man. Summer nights, he’d play his ukulele on his porch and sing, and young Lloyd would accompany on clarinet. He remembers his older brother playing guitar before he went into the service in the 1940s, his older sister sharing her love for jazz and her records, old 78 shellac records.

“When she brought them home, I would listen to them a lot,” he says, “so her tastes were transported to me to a good extent.”

 That first chord change came early. After high school, his parents wanted him to pursue a safe career, so he went to Bryant College for two years. “I did just enough to get by because that wasn’t my interest,” he says. “My parents thought I should know something about business. Little did they know me.”

After graduating in 1953, he joined the Army. He ended up at Fort Bliss, Texas, where he discovered there was a band. “I like to say that I squeaked by the audition,” he jokes.

With the 62nd Army Band, he moved from low man on the clarinet to the lone tenor sax player. The band played troop reviews, parades, concerts in the park, and with his independence as the only tenor saxophonist, he grew as a musician.

“That changed my life,” he says of his Army stint. “I finally matured and became awake to the world.”

He knew music would be a big part of that world. A number of his bandmates in the 62nd were music majors and educators; that interested him. Using the G.I. Bill, he enrolled at URI in 1956 because of the University’s music program. “I had a good time there,” he says. “It was a good experience – good instruction, good teachers.”

After three years at URI and one at Brown University, where he earned his master of arts in teaching, he started his career at Hugh B. Bain Junior High, in Cranston, in 1961. Besides teaching music, he taught reading and spelling. He had no training, but he loved it. He realized he enjoyed teaching in a classroom setting more than the band room.

In 1966, he was hired at Rhode Island Junior College, in only its third year of existence. The music department had only one other member, department chair Arthur Chatfield. With his epiphany at Bain, Kaplan wanted to focus on creating and teaching lecture classes in music history, more than music method. He also wrote several books, including “Who’s Who of Rhode Island Jazz,” co-written with Bob Petteruti.

“It was just the beginning,” says Kaplan, “and, as we were growing, that gave me the chance to create a lot of the music history and music lit courses that became part of the curriculum.”

“His teaching and playing have always communicated his love for music and a joyfulness about playing it,” says Stephen H. Lajoie, director of jazz studies at CCRI and a professor there for 30 years. “His legacy is that he started the first jazz-studies degree program in Rhode Island. He dreamed of it and he made it happen.”

At CCRI, Kaplan’s course load was fitting of a person who never slows down. As a full-time professor for 29 years, he taught about five courses a semester, plus the occasional night class. After retiring in 1995, he spent another seven years as an adjunct professor, teaching about two courses a semester.

In 2010, he began creating courses and teaching in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at URI. He has taught 23 courses there, and more during the winter at OLLI at Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina. This fall at URI, he’s teaching “Jazz Saxophonists and Female Vocalists,” along with “Women in Jazz” at the Beechwood Senior Center, in North Kingstown.

As it did at CCRI, his passion for researching and creating a course goes hand in hand with teaching. “That’s what makes it so exciting for me,” he says. “I’m learning all the time and it helps my teaching because if I’ve just learned it, it’s fresh and I am enthusiastic. And hopefully that translates.”

It translated to the Kaplans’ two children. Son Mitchell played at the Newport Jazz Festival with a high school all-star band and now teaches piano in the Boston area; daughter Marjorie Seidenfeld, a pediatrician in New York, sang and played guitar in a band before life got too hectic.

Kaplan has kept his passion for performing since returning from the Army in the 1950s. Over the years, he has played alongside some top Rhode Island jazz musicians, such as guitarist Frank “Red” McDonald, trumpeter Tony Tomasso, and tenor sax player Art Pelosi, and in numerous big bands at such venues at Rhodes on the Pawtuxet, in Cranston.

“It was at the tail end of the swing days,” says Kaplan. “But people who liked to dance would come out. We had big audiences. Many people met their spouses at the dances.”

Kaplan formed The Aristocats in the mid-1980s and has seen numerous members retire over the years. The current lineup has been together for about seven years. And while they’re almost as old as some of the oldies they play, the only concession has been the occasional four-hour show has been shortened to three.

The Aristocats play about 50 gigs a year, dances and concerts at senior centers, assisted living residences, libraries. Even in the winter when the Kaplans are in South Carolina, Kaplan and Piccirilli get a band together and play two nights a week.

Being jazz musicians, the band lives on improvisation. No sheet music will be found on stage, nor is there ever a rehearsal. Bassist Dennis Pratt, who teaches at CCRI, says the key is their experience, as musicians and as bandmates. “The thing is we all have great ears and we’ve all been playing for years,” he says.

“I love spontaneity,” says Kaplan. “That’s the thing I like most about our music, because every time we get together, something new happens.”

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