Composer for stage and film took cello in new direction in the 1950s

By Kenneth Carpenter

Born with the Russian name of “Fedya,” but known to ardent jazz aficionados as Fred Katz, the unassuming octogenarian with wavy white hair sitting before me holds the distinct honor of being the first person to place the beloved classical cello in the often lush, sometimes dissonant, and always unpredictable world of jazz. Before election night 2002 I had heard only murmurs of jazz on the cello.

When a friend overheard me that night say that I play cello and love jazz, he chimed in with, “Have you ever heard of Fred Katz?”

That simple question ignited my obsession to meet him.

It was to become a peak experience in my life.

Katz, a classically trained cellist who helped define the 1950s Third Stream cool-jazz sound as a member of the Chico Hamilton Quintet, has always questioned both his surroundings and himself. He openly expresses sometimes radical political views.He would gladly have dropped out of high school, had his elementary school sweetheart and future wife, Lillian Drucker, not insisted that he graduate. But, most importantly, he wanted to play the music that was in his head, and not just the repertoire of the times, which he also dearly loved.

A prolific composer, Katz’ true essence lies in his music. “I have written so much music, that I can’t find it all!” he says jokingly, the first time we speak by phone. Such compositions as “Granada,” a haunting Latin piece that he enjoys playing each year on his birthday, shows his passion. Concerto for Jazz Cello and Orchestra, recorded by George Neikrug, one of his favorite cellists and a close friend, displays his musical complexity. And his hard-to-find LP recordings, 1956’s Zen:The Music of Fred Katz (Pacific Jazz) and 1957’s Soulo Cello (Decca), will inspire devotion among diehard students of progressive cello literature.

Interestingly, the title of his 1956 debut album foreshadows his current affinity for Taoism and Buddhism.

Jumping into the Third Stream

The transition from classical cellist to full-blown jazz musician began after Katz first heard composer and bandleader Duke Ellington. To the young musician from Brooklyn, the freshness and freedom of jazz seemed like a rejuvenating tonic. The encounter with Ellington led Katz to accept an invitation by West Coast jazz drummer Chico Hamilton to an evening jam session at his home. With his powerful and flawless classical technique, Katz easily navigated the unpredictable nuances that emanated from his newly discovered colleagues. “You can’t use a long bow,” he says during our interview, wildly gesturing a legato motion with his right arm as we discuss the technical differences between the two styles of music.

The jazz cello was born in a simple jam session.

That night also marked the birth of the Chico Hamilton Quintet, with Hamilton on drums, Katz on cello, Jim Hall on electric guitar, Buddy Collette on flute and reeds, and Carson Smith on bass. Word of this new sound—a mix of classical dignity, mainstream jazz motifs, and cross-cultural rhythms and melodies—spread quickly through jazz circles. There was talk, too, of a guy who was redefining the limits of what a cello could, or could not, accomplish.

Highly sought after as a cellist and pianist, Katz also found himself in demand as a composer and arranger, not infrequently for film scores. In the early scenes of the 1957 movie The Sweet Smell of Success, for which Katz co-wrote jazz songs to accompany the Elmer Bernstein score, the viewer is treated to glimpses of the Chico Hamilton Quintet in action (with guitarist John Pisano replacing Hall). The classic film, which revolves around the relationship between a backstabbing press agent and an unscrupulous gossip columnist (loosely based on Walter Winchell), costarred Burt Lancaster and a then-little-known-actor named Tony Curtis.

Katz also composed the music to the original score for Roger Corman’s campy 1960 sci-fi classic The Little Shop of Horrors (he scored seven Corman films in all) and contributed cello to projects as diverse as jazz-poet Ken Nordine’s 1958 beatnik classic Love Words and Bob Dylan’s 1973 score to Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid.

The long list of celebrity singers who have relied on Katz’ vision and inspiration as a songwriter, conductor, or arranger includes Tony Bennett, Carmen McCrae, and Lena Horne.

Cello for Breakfast

Katz first studied piano at age nine. He quickly displayed all the signs of a young prodigy. Two years later, his father brought home a cello. “I took to it like a swimmer to water,” he says. The cello quickly became his primary voice and he soon began his studies. Contrary to common myth, however, he did not study with Pablo Casals, but rather with one of Casals’ disciples, Leif Rosanoff. Like Casals, Rosanoff stressed that his students should try to learn something from everyone. Katz took this guiding principle to heart, and the results can be heard throughout his compositions.

At 84, and with his 1847 Ceruti cello in hand, Katz practices every day before breakfast. On Saturdays he enjoys making pancakes and on Sundays he listens to opera. He is still busy writing etudes, sonatas, and modern compositions. On one of his tables sits the complete manuscript of his own six Cello Suites, which have yet to be published.

As my visit with him comes to a close, we step into his studio. The quiet room is dark, but for the light of one small window, and his musical treasures surround us. There is a brief lull in our conversation. Then he leans over and mischievously says, “Let me play you a little improvisation,” and I am given the biggest gift of all—a peek into a great man’s soul.

[Editor’s Note: Fred Katz died September 7, 2013, at age 94.]


Kaddish

George Neikrug asked me to write a kaddish for Andor Toth, Jr. Toth, who died of cancer—a tragic loss to music and the art of playing the cello—was a student of Neikrug’s and was indeed a delightful personality and an innovative purveyor of the avant-garde. He will be remembered!

At the outset, the kaddish I envision will be composed of three parts: I meditative; II dynamic; III mystical. The first part is shown below. Measure 1 contains the notes F E D-flat, representing intervals from the Phrygian mode—an Hebraic mode. It combines a major interval and a minor interval (F to D-flat is a major third; E to D-flat is an augmented second, heard as a minor third). From measure 8 to measure 13 the cello plays an improvisation (written out here) in which the intervallic phrase is restated as C B A-flat.

The phrase in measure 16 provides a contrast to the opening, from here to a climax in measure 22—not necessarily meditative but rather a moment of grief—ending on a minor phrase (E E-flat D-flat).

The kaddish is recited at funerals, but there is no mention of death; rather it is praise of God’s magnificence.

Fred Katz

Comments