Entertainment & Arts

Jazz innovator Fred Katz’s birthday surprise

At almost 92 years old, Fred Katz is about as easy to sum up as the contents of the Smithsonian.

Growing up a classical cello and piano prodigy before falling in love with jazz in the Manhattan clubs, Katz went on to help define the sound of West Coast jazz with the Chico Hamilton Quintet, where he was the first to introduce a bowed cello into the jazz vernacular. He also worked with Lena Horne and Tony Bennett, composed film scores for Roger Corman, backed Beat poet Ken Nordine on his “Word Jazz” albums and taught courses in anthropology, shamanic magic and religion at Cal State Fullerton for almost 30 years — without, by the way, any formal degrees. By definition Katz sounds like a Renaissance man, but he would respectfully disagree.

“I’ll tell you, I really don’t think of myself as anything,” Katz said, shrugging off the comparison in the bright living room of his low-slung house outside downtown Fullerton. “It was Goethe who said, ‘Art is long and life is short.’ So that’s what I do, I do all of these things but without any feeling of accomplishing anything.”

Fred Katz: An article about musician Fred Katz in the Feb. 16 Calendar said that the 2010 “Jews on Vinyl” concert at the Skirball Center had been curated by USC communications professor Josh Kun. It was curated by the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation, of which Kun is a member. The article also said that Kun helped arrange the 2007 reissue of Katz’s 1959 album, “Folk Songs for Far Out Folk.” It was the Idelsohn Society that helped get the album reissued. —


Framed by an electric keyboard and a thoughtful clutter of paintings, music and imposing-looking books on history, culture and religion, Katz had been keeping a quietly private life since retiring from teaching in 1990. But he was brought back into the limelight last year with “Jews on Vinyl” at the Skirball Center, curated by musicologist and USC communications professor Josh Kun.

Celebrating Katz’s groundbreaking 1959 album “Folk Songs for Far Out Folk,” a richly orchestrated mix of Hebraic melodies with American and African folk music that Kun helped reissue in 2007, the show marked Katz’s first performance in over 20 years and was such a success that the Skirball invited him back to perform Sunday in honor of his 92nd birthday.

“I think that really he’s the most relevant perhaps to young people who haven’t heard him before,” said Kun, who will return to moderate this weekend’s show. “Because there’s something about him where he never had any boundaries in terms of what he has done in his career.”


Though Katz is honored and even seems somewhat amused by the recent attention, he isn’t interested in a comeback. Planning to touch on his classical work during this weekend’s show as well as pieces comparing the improvisational spirit of jazz with that of the Jewish cantor, Katz expects this to be his last concert. He simply finds the act of performing too much of a hassle. “It’s not a question of age, it really isn’t,” he said. “It’s just not at all what I’m concerned with. It’s like I’ve done whatever I can do.”

Over a free-flowing conversation that touched on fellow composers (“My god is Beethoven”), progressive politics and a variety of Eastern and Western mysticism, it’s easy to forget Katz suffers from a form of agoraphobia that contributed to his longtime absence. Also weathering personal tragedies over the years that included the loss of his wife, two brothers and a daughter, Katz threw himself into his longtime exploration of spirituality and how it intersects with music.

Katz still composes every day, easily shifting from jazz to classical while inspired by sources varied as the cabala, Taoism and Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” Katz still passes his music along to friends and former students (Chapman University has hosted a number of recitals), but he remains uninterested in whatever fame or acclaim it may afford him.

“My life is not involved with showing that I’m good or bad — that has no meaning to me,” Katz said, a thoughtful smile flickering in his eyes. “What I’m interested in now is just, ‘What is it all about?’ That’s all.”

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