03 February, 2009

Fred Katz


Fred Katz is an American composer, songwriter, conductor, cellist, and professor.

Always an enigma, even to his friends, musical peers and colleagues, Fred Katz at 89 years old, continues to confound the music business into the 21st Century with his capacity to innovate and his seemingly unique ability to take his music to even wider audiences, over 50 years since he crossed that imaginary line between the ‘straight’ player and the jazzman.

The man, whose work with the Chico Hamilton Quintet in the 1950’s brought him particular attention, as did his writing and appearance in the award winning Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster movie, ‘Sweet Smell of Success’, is still composing for a generation of musicians far removed from the early days of modern jazz.

Being persuaded out of a happy retirement in Orange County, California, by Book of Dreams Music’s chief executive Harry Paton Evans, the eloquent and sometimes mystic Mr. Katz accepted the challenge to write some new jazz and classical material for an emerging generation of talented musicians, at present working their way through music academies and colleges.

Born in Brooklyn, New York on 25 February 1919, Fred Katz quickly became recognised as a child prodigy on both piano and cello. He played classical cello with the National Symphony of Washington following an eight year scholarship with the National Orchestral Society at New York’s illustrious Carnegie Hall under the direction of conductor Leon Barzin.

His war years were served in various capacities. He led the 7th Army headquarters’ band as musical director and was twice invited as President and Mrs. Roosevelt’s White House guest on a number of occasions where he conducted the Federal Employees Chorus in various performances for national radio broadcasts. He was also involved in writing for the Treasury Bond Wagon Shows, aimed at raising much needed financial resource for the war effort.

Initially suspected, in the Los Angeles music scene of the early 1950’s, as an oddball from the ‘classical’ camp, Fred Katz is now widely considered to be the first of the traditionally trained musicians to see the possibilities of using the cello to bridge the traditional restrictions of classical training with the potential of improvisation, to develop new potentials in what was then a new form of the jazz that Parker and Gillespie had branded ‘modern’.

Further approbation came through his years as an A&R man with Decca Records and his, often lauded, work as musical director, arranger and often composer with such musical luminaries as Lena Horne, Carmen McRae, Vic Damone and Tony Bennett led to some classic recordings, many of which are highly sought after by today’s collectors.

His sympathetic and gentle manner, combined with his virtuosity as a major musical talent, provided many of these artistes with a mentor and the guiding hand that could enhance their own emerging talents. In some of his more eclectic moments, Fred was persuaded to collaborate with many of the famous film actors of the day as the creative force ‘to define the moods’ of stars such as Harpo Marx, one of the renowned Marx Brothers, who was also a talented harpist. Fred also composed and directed the music score to the award winning album of actor Sidney Poitier reading from the writings of Plato!

To add to the confusion of working out who Katz the man really is, the albums under his own name have to be studied: with passing reference to the vagaries of the art directors who decided that the album cover for Fred Katz and his Jammers (Decca DL 9217, 1958), should have the man in question ostensibly playing his cello, sitting on a rock, on the beach being ogled by an Elke Sommer look-alike in a skirted bikini bottom! (Oh for the return of those wild, heady days …….. not!)

If a punter could get past this, and believe me, being of a particular age myself, many could and were excited to find that the sextet included Katz stalwarts Johnny Pisano on guitar, vibist Gene Estes and bassist Leroy Vinegar. Pete Candoli is also in there taking trumpet solos supported by drummer Frank Butler until Billy Higgins sits in to back solos by jazz trumpeter Don Fagerquist.

Metronome magazine editor at the time, Bill Coss, commented on ‘the Katz personality, unmistakably virile and lyrical, unmistakably jazz, and an uncommonly happy listening experience’.

This has often been the case with the music of the multi talented Fred Katz; gentle man, incisive teacher, knowledgeable mentor, gifted composer, cellist, musician and all round creative genius.

With much of the same line-up, but including leading reed man Paul Horn, Fred also produced a number of albums under his own name such as Zen, The Music of Fred Katz (Pacific Jazz PJ 1231, 1956), Soul-o-Cello (Decca DL 9202,1957); 4-5-6 Trio (Decca DL 9213, 1958); Folk Songs for Far Out Folks (Warner Bros WS 1277, again available from www.rebooters.net); and innovatively, providing the music for Ken Nordine’s albums Word Jazz (Dot DLP 3075) and Son of Word Jazz (Dot DLP 3096).

With jazz continuing to go many developments stimulated by the revolution created by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, drummer Chico Hamilton decided to innovate still further and invited Fred Katz to add his particular musical talent to a new quintet.

Claimed as the first unit to use the cello as a featured jazz instrument, Fred’s unique input and interest in ethnic music, helped Chico to expand his repertoire beyond cool jazz and bebop and provided the means to explore new areas and weave classical, Middle Eastern and Asian themes into their performances.

During their productive and mould breaking time together, the Quintet created a number of stellar performances, both live and recorded. Some of the most important and exciting work of this period was captured on Pacific Jazz and released and still available as a limited edition box set on Mosaic Records.

Fred and Chico can also be seen and heard in the award winning, Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis movie Sweet Smell of Success. They collaborated on composing the four numbers the group performs in the film and are also spotted hanging around backstage in other scenes.

At the same time, the energetic and diverse Mr Katz continued to work in the studio system, collaborating briefly for the now cult Producer Roger Corman. In under 18 months, Fred wrote original scores for Little Shop of Horrors, Bucket of Blood and The Wasp Woman, although cynics have often suggested that ‘with the similarity of musical cues within the various films, it could be assumed that Corman had used the same score for each’.

In the mid to late sixties, the unpredictable virtuoso again changed tack and accepted the post of Professor in Cultural Anthropology at California State University, Fullerton in Orange County, south of Los Angeles. As well as writing a number of theses on ethnological music and the pre literate peoples, one of which in collaboration with Marlene Dobkin DeRios had the intriguing title, ‘Some relationships between music and hallucinogenic ritual: the ‘jungle gym’ in consciousness’, he developed a department which used other disciplines to fully realize the diversity of cultural anthropology.

Not content with being accredited as the first musician to use and compose for the cello in jazz, this award winning composer of jazz scores for movies and television films has written numerous compositions for piano, cello, jazz ensembles and voice.

Many of his classical works have been acclaimed by both performers and critics and include a major Concerto for Cello and Jazz Wind Orchestra, a Violin Sonata, chamber works for a variety of combinations including two celli and piano, a flute duo, a string quintet, voice, cello and piano, and a number of pieces for solo cello.

Fred Katz ‘retired’ in around 1990, he says, although many believe he was just kidding himself as it is almost impossible for someone with such a given talent to put the brain into even second gear. He continued to practice cello every morning following a period of meditation and from time to time, would sketch his thoughts on new music and from time to time, take the opportunity to play and perform to students and small public gatherings.

In 2003, approached by long time fan and management consultant, Harry PATON EVANS, he took on the task of having a ‘business manager’ and publisher, who cajoles, badgers, pleads and requests and often receives, many unpublished and forgotten scores and an increasing amount of new work, all bearing the unmistakable stamp of the maestro.

The older works are being transcribed from the original pencil scores; the lost works are being re-discovered and the new works are being presented to current generations of players and virtuosi who, like many before them, are having their lives brightened and their senses heightened by the emotion and musicality of the talent who is, simply, Mr Fred Katz.

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