Fred Katz, cello, Jim Hall, guitare et Carson Smith contrabasse
Fred Katz, Who Married Cello to Jazz, Dies at 94
By MARGALIT FOX
Published: September 12, 2013
Fred Katz, a classically trained cellist who quite by accident helped elevate his instrument to unlikely stardom in jazz, died on Saturday in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 94.
His son, Hyman, confirmed the death.
Mr. Katz, best known for his long association with the Chico Hamilton Quintet, was also a pianist who accompanied Lena Horne, a composer who wrote songs for Frankie Laine and film scores for Roger Corman, an arranger who worked with Carmen McRae, and a retired professor of anthropology.
In the mid-1950s, when Mr. Hamilton, a drummer, founded his quintet, the cello was a marginal figure in the jazz world. A few jazz bassists, like Oscar Pettiford, sometimes doubled on cello, typically plucking its strings (a technique known as pizzicato), just as they did on the bass.
But jazz had been home to few if any musicians who were cellists first — and who, as often as not, played the instrument using the bow, much as they would in classical music.
Mr. Katz joined the Hamilton quintet primarily as a pianist, playing the cello only on ballads. Between sets, he often took his cello and sat onstage alone, playing a classical work like an unaccompanied Bach suite.
One night, playing between sets at a small club in Long Beach, Calif., Mr. Katz, his eyes closed in reverie, did not realize that his bandmates had crept back onstage. The stage was tiny and crowded, and by the time the band swung into an up-tempo number and he realized what had happened, he could no longer get to the piano.
So he stayed where he was, cello in hand, and played along — and with that the group had its new sound, and went on to become one of the most popular in jazz.
Frederick Katz was born on Feb. 25, 1919, in Brooklyn and reared in the Williamsburg section there. A prodigy on both the cello and the piano, he was performing in public by the time he was a teenager. As a young man he was a cello student of Pablo Casals and a member of the National Symphony Orchestra.
But Mr. Katz found himself attracted increasingly to the jazz he had heard in the Manhattan nightclubs he had haunted as a youth. A Communist as a young man — for him, art, spirituality and progressive politics formed a seamless, imperative whole — he was also deeply drawn to folk music.
“The Communist Party in those days, we used to do hootenannies,” he said in a 2007 interview with “All Things Considered” on NPR. “And that was part of the radical movement, to bring back American folk poetry. We really were terrific that way.”
During World War II, Mr. Katz was an entertainment director with the Seventh Army in Germany, conducting concerts and writing arrangements for musical revues. Afterward he moved to the West Coast and turned his attention to popular music.
As a pianist, Mr. Katz accompanied Horne and Vic Damone. As an arranger and conductor, he was responsible for McRae’s 1958 album, “Carmen for Cool Ones.” As a composer, he wrote several songs sung by Laine, including “Satan Wears a Satin Gown,”written with Laine and with Jacques Wilson.
He wrote music for a slew of Mr. Corman’s sanguinary low-budget films, including “The Wasp Woman” (1959), “A Bucket of Blood” (1959) and “The Little Shop of Horrors” (1960).
“I hated every picture that Corman did, but you’ve got to be a professional about this,” Mr. Katz said in a 2008 interview.
Mr. Katz’s great facility on the cello, combined with its capacious range of tone and pitch (its lowest note is two octaves below middle C, its highest more than two octaves above it), made his cello a singular sonic addition to the Chico Hamilton Quintet.
The quintet appeared in the movies “Sweet Smell of Success” (1957), with Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, and “Jazz on a Summer’s Day” (1960), Bert Stern’s documentary about the Newport Jazz Festival.
An autodidact who left high school before graduating, Mr. Katz held faculty appointments at California State University, Northridge, and Cal State, Fullerton, teaching world music, anthropology and religion. He was a longtime Fullerton resident.
His albums as an orchestrator and conductor include “Folk Songs for Far Out Folk,” originally recorded in 1958. Rereleased in 2007 to wide attention, it features his adaptations of American, African and Hebraic folk music.
His recordings as a cellist include “Soul-o Cello” (1957) and “Fred Katz and His Jammers” (1958).
Mr. Katz’s wife, the former Lillian Drucker, whom he married in 1941, died in 1992; a daughter, Joyce Katz, also died before him. Besides his son, Mr. Katz’s survivors include a daughter, Marian Scatliffe, and five grandchildren.
Though he became renowned as a jazz improviser, Mr. Katz said he found it difficult at first to unlearn the classical approach in which he had long been steeped.
“You are so used to playing along, reading from the printed page,” he told The Boston Globe in 1989. “Then all of a sudden you come away from the page and you don’t know what to do.”