Musician, composer and educator Fred Katz, the man who helped take the cello into jazz, died in Santa Monica over the weekend from complications from kidney failure and liver cancer. He was 94 years old.
Born in New York City in 1919, Katz was considered a child prodigy on piano and cello. He studied under Pablo Casals and performed with the National Symphony in Washington. Drawn to jazz and improvisation, Katz plied his trade as a pianist backing Lena Horne and Tony Bennett before bridging the gap between classical training and improvisation on the vibrant L.A. jazz scene of the ‘50s while part of the Chico Hamilton Quintet. Katz also collaborated with Eric Dolphy and later Beat poet Ken Nordine on his “Word Jazz” series.
Katz’s musical résumé also includes scores for films by Roger Corman, including “Bucket of Blood” and “Little Shop of Horrors,” and his track record as an educator is nearly as impressive with a more than 30-year career as an instructor at California State Universities Northridge and Fullerton. He taught courses in cultural anthropology, shamanic magic and religion (the Doors’ John Densmore was one of his students) -- all, by the way, without holding any formal degrees.
Stricken with grief after the loss of his wife, two brothers and a daughter late in his career, Katz seldom performed in public after “retiring” in 1990. However, in a 2011 interview Katz said he was constantly writing music, including works inspired by the Kabbalah, “The Divine Comedy” and Chinese mysticism.
“There’s nothing more wonderful than you’re sitting in a quiet room all by yourself thinking as hard as you can, ‘Where do I go from here?’” Katz said in 2011. “And nobody’s there! And sometimes the answer comes, and that’s the mystery: Where does the answer come from?”
His music also earned another turn in the public eye after his landmark 1959 album, “Folk Songs for Far Out Folk,” was reissued by the Idelsohn Society in 2007. A richly orchestrated mix of Hebraic melodies with American and African folk music, the record and its corresponding show, “Jews on Vinyl,” spurred Katz to perform live at the Skirball Center in 2010, his first such appearance in 20 years.
Katz continued to make sporadic appearances around Southern California in the last several years, performing in San Diego as recently as June as part of the klezmer summit “Jews on Jazz.”
In a far-reaching 2011 conversation that covered Katz’s deep interests in spirituality, music and progressive politics, Katz was humbled, even amused, by any accolades thrown his way. “‘Art is long and life is short,’” Katz said, citing an old aphorism. “So that’s what I do, I do all of these things but without any feeling of accomplishing anything. I do it because I love it.
“I have no interest whatsoever with fame -- never did, never will,” he continued. “Because it’s all artificial to me. You do what you do and if people honor you for that or even pay you for that, fine, but you don’t do it for that. You do it because that’s what you do.”
Listen to Katz’s adaptation of “Old Paint” from “Folk Songs for Far Out Folk” below.