Fred Katz

Elliott Simon By

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At the age of 88, Fred Katz carries on today as a consummate Renaissance man. Philosopher, anthropologist, composer and musician, he continues to produce new works...
Fred Katz is generally credited with being the first musician to explore the possibility of the cello as a jazz instrument. He accomplished this while an integral member of drummer Chico Hamilton's influential '50s quintet and through his own solo works such as Soul-o-cello (Decca, 1957), Fred Katz and His Jammers (Decca, 1958) and Zen (World Pacific, 1956). Katz met Hamilton while the two were backing vocalist Lena Horne and when Hamilton was looking for a different kind of instrument for his quintet, Katz suggested French horn player John Graas. Katz recalls the formation of Hamilton's quintet as follows, "Johnnie Graas was very good...but Johnnie dies maybe two weeks later so Chico and I were talking and I thought about the cello. So we went to Chico's house and [multi-instrumentalist] Buddy Collette was there, one of the greats. They asked me if I knew any standards and I did on the piano but not cello and I said I think I know "My Funny Valentine" so I played it and Buddy and Chico said very good...So that's how it started."

His scores for cult movie classics such as Little Shop of Horrors (Rhino, 1984), backing tracks for Ken Nordine's offbeat Word Jazz series (Dot, 1957) and holy grail novelties like Harpo in HiFi (Mercury, 1957) and Sidney Poitier reading Plato, Journeys Inside the Mind (Warner Brothers, 1970) make Katz a giant among collectible musical obscurities. A child prodigy on both piano and cello and a professor of anthropology for 22 years, there is much more to him than historical footnote. Katz is also a serious musician and superb composer who studied with the great classical cellist Pablo Casals and he continues to maintain contemporary insight into a myriad of topics both musical and philosophical. The recent release of his prescient ethnic/poetic/jazz journey Folk Songs for Far Out Folk (Warner Bros.-Reboot) on CD for the first time, nearly a half-century after it was recorded, served as an initial entré into his current doings and as fodder for some looks backward.

As Katz remembers, "The record was released in 1958 so it's going back a few years. I was known as a writer and an arranger, they knew me as a player, but my arranging and writing was getting out there. So Warner Bros. found out about me somehow and asked me to do an album on Brigitte Bardot but for some reason it didn't go through I don't know why because I would have loved to have met her. So instead [guitarist] Alvino Rey came over the house and he asked me if I would like to do an album for Warner Bros. and then it suddenly occurred to me, because I have always been interested in different cultures, the jazz experience, which to us means the improv experience, was indigenous to every culture, so I decided to pick the American and the African and then eventually the Hebrew."

Hamilton's group had some of the finest musicians of the time in it and several like Collette and saxophonist/flutist Paul Horn appear on these cuts. Three separately recorded sessions present folk tunes in a very contemporary jazz format as the camaraderie among disparate tunes like "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" and "Mate'Ka" are exposed through jazz. In addition, Katz enlisted beat poet Lawrence Lipton to write a poem representing each culture. Katz remembers a young pianist in the studio who would go on to greatness as a composer: "I walked into the studio and there was this guy Johnny Williams playing the piano. I wrote this arrangement on "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" and I left room for improv and as Johnny was playing he said, Fred, there is no bass part. I said, I did this on purpose because I want you to make your own bass part as you play so there would be more polyphony going on and he did it—forgetting his composing he was a wonderful jazz player and, if you follow the piece, he is playing these wonderful beautiful lines without any bass and that's quite interesting."

The Hebraic session features a piece entitled "Rav's Nigun" which, upon mention, sets Katz off onto multiple topics. "I was teaching Anthropology and I had in my class this woman who used to bring her husband who happened to be a Rabbi. One day he invited me to the house for a real Friday night dinner. We had a wonderful time, he did the prayers in Hebrew and sang and it was absolutely a night of magic. At the end of the evening he gave me this book on Hasidic and Chabad melodies of the 17th and 18th century. The first one goes sort of andante (singing the tune). I wondered how would that sound fast (singing the tune); You can hear it on the album and the reason why I made it fast is because I want the Rabbi to really dance...I wanted to express the feeling of dancing with ecstasy...dancing with the Holy Spirit to achieve a moment of unity, a sense of wonder, a sense of magic."

Moving on to the African set, its commonality with jazz is obvious but what is not so clear is its harmony with the Hebraic material. Katz goes back to the roots as part of an explanation. "I did a Friday night Shabbat service with a cantor, Cantor Michaelson—we did a jazz service called Jazz Hebraica—the whole Torah is a melody. What they have on the letters are these little dots and markings, cantillation, and I have studied them. So that tradition of music and improvisation is very much a part of the Hebraic tradition... I played some rather avant-garde stuff on the piano and the cantor would sing around it and it was rather exciting... I opened up the ceremony with a guy on a completely empty stage with a bongo. And they said why did you do it? I said have you forgotten where we come from? Have you forgotten Egypt is in Africa? We have African roots... they think we come from Brooklyn."

With today's worldwide dogmatic and nationalistic divisiveness, Katz' pluralistic view on spirituality is refreshing and timely. "Beyond religion there is God. The great Gregory, from whom you got the Gregorian chant said to define God is impossible. I have always believed that. Behind every dogma, there is that one unexplainable moment that creates every other unexplainable moment and the idea is not to understand it but to be moved by that mystery. For me it is the Hebraic moment, for other people it is the Christian moment, for others it is the Islamic moment. That is why that I think when Jesus said I have a house of many mansions, what does he mean? Many different kinds of ways of looking. At this moment that is what I believe. Maybe when I hang up I'll change my mind."

At the age of 88, Fred Katz carries on today as a consummate Renaissance man. Philosopher, anthropologist, composer and musician, he continues to produce new works, expressing his creativity through innovation and playing his beloved cello and piano. In the process, he shares those wonderful unexplainable moments with all who take the time to listen.

Recommended Listening:

Chico Hamilton—The Complete Pacific Jazz Recordings (Pacific Jazz-Mosaic, 1954-59)

Ken Nordine—Word Jazz/Son of Word Jazz (Dot-Rhino/London, 1957)

Fred Katz—Soul-o-cello (Decca, 1957)

Fred Katz—Folk Songs for Far Out Folk (Warner Bros.-Reboot Stereophonic, 1958)

Fred Katz—4-5-6 Trio (Decca, 1958)

Fred Katz—And His Jammers (Decca, 1958)


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