Versatile musician pioneered use of cello in jazz


Fred Katz performs on Aug. 19, 2010. (Mitch Maher)
September 18, 2013

Fred Katz, a musician, composer and educator who helped introduce the cello to jazz, died Sept. 7 in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 94.

The cause was complications from kidney failure and liver cancer, said his son, Hyman Katz.

A child prodigy on piano and cello, Mr. Katz studied under Pablo Casals and performed with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington. He also backed Lena Horne and Tony Bennett on piano before bridging the gap between classical training and improvisation in the vibrant L.A. jazz scene of the 1950s as part of the Chico Hamilton Quintet.

During that period, he arranged the landmark 1959 album “Folk Songs for Far Out Folk,” a richly orchestrated mix of Hebraic melodies with American and African folk music. The recording was reissued by the Idelsohn Society in 2007 and led to Mr. Katz’s first live performance in 20 years in the Los Angeles-based Skirball Cultural Center’s 2010 show “Jews on Vinyl.”

Frederick Katz was born Feb. 25, 1919, in Brooklyn. He began playing cello at age 12. At 15, he played the Saint-Saens cello concerto at New York’s Town Hall.

He dropped out of high school to devote himself to music. His diverse résuméwould grow to include the scores for Roger Corman films, including “A Bucket of Blood” (1959) and “The Little Shop of Horrors” (1960).

One of the founders of the Hamilton combo, he played piano during sets and took out his cello during breaks.

“And a lot of times, he’d play too long, and we’d have to get up on the bandstand, which was very small,” Buddy Collette, the influential saxophonist, clarinetist and flutist, recalled in a 1993 Los Angeles Times interview, “and by the time he’d open his eyes and look up, there we’d be.

“Chico would start playing, and Fred was trapped up there in front of the band; he couldn’t get back to the piano. So he’d start playing his piano parts on cello. And that’s the first time, we knew it would work.”

Soon, “everybody started writing jazz lines for me to play on cello,” Mr. Katz told the Times in 1999.

Mr. Katz appeared as a member of the Hamilton group in the 1957 film “The Sweet Smell of Success.”

Although Mr. Katz had no formal degrees, he had a long career as a college instructor, teaching for more than 30 years at Cal State Northridge and Cal State Fullerton. His specialties included cultural anthropology, shamanic magic and religion. (The Doors’ John Densmore was one of his students.)

Mr. Katz made sporadic appearances in Southern California in recent years and continued to write music, including works inspired by the cabala, “The Divine Comedy” and Chinese mysticism.

His wife, the former Lillian Drucker, died in 1992. A daughter, Joyce Katz, predeceased him. Besides his son, Mr. Katz’s survivors include another daughter, Marian Scatliffe; and five grandchildren.

— Los Angeles Times

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