The Coda interview with Fred Katz | 1979

The professor of Anthropology: Fred Katz |  March 20, 1979 | Photo by Mark Weber

Interview done during April 1979 at Fred’s Fullerton home. Also speaking is Fred’s wife of 38 years, Lillian.

MARK WEBER: You’ve been studying anthropology all along?

FRED KATZ: Well, more or less. Just as a guy I’ve been interested in a lot of things. The way I got involved with this was, I used to take the cello out to play at the Gas House, Venice Beach, and one day there was a guy there who was an anthropologist at Cal State Northridge, and he asked me to write a score for a little movie called “The Puppet’s Dream,” a very beautiful animated film, very clever, very fantastic, we got a couple of awards for it. As we walked out of the studio I said to him very casually that it would be very nice to teach here at this school. He thought that was a great idea and being the head of the anthropology department the next thing you know I found myself teaching primitive music. It was almost like a lark. I got so involved with it they finally made me assistant professor and then I came over to Cal State Fullerton and all of that.

But you know what’s interesting, the anthropologist who got me started in the academic life is a guy by the name of Ted Carpenter, a very famous, internationally-known anthropologist, and he wanted me to teach half in music and half in anthropology — he was forming an anthropology department and he wanted some creative people in it. But the music department turned me down (laughing), because I didn’t have a degree! So he got bugged by that and said all right I’m going to make you a full time anthropologist. So I’m a full professor of anthropology now, this is really a wild story! A professor that never went to college!

So what I teach is anthropology, a jazz history course, which I know a little bit about, aesthetics and symbolism, you know things that I’ve always loved. I teach about Jewish mysticism which has pervaded much of my life, and ethnological musics — I pretty much teach what I damn please. Do you believe that story? It’s unbelieveable!

Mark: What are some of the earliest musics that you have come across? Music, say, maybe during the period that Fraser is dealing with in “The Golden Bough.” Say like 15,000 years ago.

Fred: Well it would never be that old. Of course they had to have something. The first instruments had to be flute-like arrangements, you know, playing with grass or reeds in the mouth.

Fred’s thinking, “Ah, Longbottom Leaf from the Shire” |  March 20, 1979 | Photo by Mark Weber

Mark: The Lascaux Cave paintings in the Pyrenees in southwestern France have a depiction of a man playing either a flute or a mouth-bow, they haven’t decided yet. That dates to 15,000 B.C.

Fred: Sure. It had to be something like that first. The drum is a very sophisticated instrument. You know to hollow out and burn the wood, then stretch skins is very involved. And the idea of rhythm, a constant metered time, is of extreme sophistication. In Africa right now there are tribes that don’t use any drums. You know some of the first rhythms probably came about as hunters sitting in wait for prey found the sound the string of their bow makes. You know an interesting thing about rhythm; most people feel uncomfortable when music has no easily dis-cernable rhythm, like when they listen to some avant-garde thing. That would be an interesting study.

But for us to say anything about the earliest music, it would have to be written down. In ancient Greek music they have a fragment of what they call a Delphic hymn, it’s a hymn and only a fragment in an old notation. Now some of the ancient Tibetan music that I’ve heard is very interesting. Probably the most primitive maybe would be the Vedda people in Ceylon where they have maybe two or three notes. But surprisingly primitive music, even though it sounds very primitive when you first hear it, when you analyze it it is a little more complicated than you think. There are a lot of primitive chants, one-note, two-note, maybe three-note sorts of things. The oldest piece of music that is actually around is in the Bible. When you study the Bible in Hebrew, over every word they have what you call a cantalation motif, and they might be one-note, two-note depending on the amount of syllables, there are 27, what they call tropal motifs. And these have already been translated into music so that you can recite the entire Bible as a musical composition.

So that’s probably the earliest notated music. As a matter of fact, when you go to a synagogue temple and you hear all those melodies, they come from those early motifs. Eventually those melodies got involved with the Gregorian chant. Mark: Didn’t the Greeks sort of complicate music a little bit? Where the musics before them were closer to what we have now. Fred: Well yes, but they didn’t have any of the complex harmonies that we have now or the polyphony that we have now. It was pretty much monophonic-melodic, maybe they might have antiphons, you know like one voice against another, but nowhere near the complication that we have since the ninth or tenth century, much less now, now it’s another world. Very few people know about that Hebrew thing. I think that a lot of the basic melodies that came out of the church, which is the story of Western music, came from those ancient motifs. I’ve written a lot of jazz things based upon that idea.

Mark: You did a liturgical service, in 1964?

Fred: The last one I did was about St. Francis of Assisi. I’ve written a couple of Jewish services where I used a cantor as a jazz vocalist, and a jazz group, and there was also dancing. I did a service of “Song of Solomon” which is as you know some pretty raunchy poetry, yeah you better believe it! Some very erotic poetry that he did.

Mark: Did you record any of that?

Fred: No, I never bothered to record it. It’s all in the cosmic air (laughing), floating around, somebody’s dancing to it now. I don’t know where in the hell it is. And you know something else that I did, I did a Bar Mitzvah with my son, Hyman. See in the Jewish tradition at 13 years old you do a Bar Mitzvah, a Rite of Passage, but actually it’s not that way because you can do a Bar Mitzvah at any age. It means to be committed to Judaism, so I did it at age 50. With my son who was 13 at the time, we had a whole jazz Bar Mitzvah, and Paul (Horn) played, and some other good players. I eventually played for Paul’s Bar Mitzvah. It’s interesting, the story between Paul and myself. He joined Chico Hamilton’s group in Philadelphia and was so nervous that I thought he was going to have a heart attack because at that time Chico’s group was a big thing.

He was always a good player. In my mind, all of the things or most of the things that I ever wrote for him I wrote for clarinet because that to me is his best instrument. He’s an incredible clarinet player and I’m sorry that he doesn’t use it more. I wrote a piece for him called Siddhartha, the story of Buddha, for clarinet and string quartet, you should hear that playing, it’s beautiful. You know when you’re on the road you talk and you think, et cetera. I got involved with Zen and then Paul got involved with Zen, then later on after we had left the group the next thing you know Paul got involved with Maharishi. So Paul became very much involved with Cosmic Consciousness and all of that stuff. Then Paul initiated me into meditation. Our lives are really intertwined a lot.

Buddy Collette & Fred Katz | May 9, 1981 | Photo by Mark Weber

Buddy Collette-Fred Katz Quintet | May 9, 1981 | Los Angeles Press Club, 600 N. Vermont Avenue |  Llew Matthews, piano; Paul Humphrey, drums; Nathan East, bass | Photo by Mark Weber

Buddy Collette-Fred Katz Quintet | May 9, 1981 | Photo by Mark Weber

Buddy Collette-Fred Katz Quintet | May 9, 1981 | Photo by Mark Weber

Mark: Is that when Buddy Collette left the group, in Philadelphia?

Fred: Yes, he was doing a lot of studio work, that sort of thing and it was very hard for him to be away from his home and his family. That is probably the reason that I lefttoo. Not so much the money, I was just away from my family for so long, six to eight months at a time. My kids were just growing up and all of that. I left in New York, about 1960 I think.

Mark: What is the status of all of those records you’ve made? The ones on Pacific Jazz and Decca and Warner Brothers. Who owns them?

Fred: (looking at the Jepsen Discography) Yes, I’ve forgotten about a lot of this stuff. There’s more than this. And then of course there’s the two I did with Ken Nordine, “Word Jazz” and “Son of Word Jazz”. That was one of the first times that jazz and poetry and prose were done together, it was very important. The electronics on The Sound Museum were done by a guy by the name of James Cunningham, and the voices on The Flipperty Jib were ours, we were singing. I’ll tell you man, we had so many laughs. If you can imagine, we had Chico Hamilton and myself and a couple other guys singing this damned thing that I wrote, (humming) It broke us up so much every time we tried to sing this thing. I never will forget that.

Mark: So Chico Hamilton is on “Word Jazz”? Is he Forest Horn?

Fred: Yes. You see Chico’s real name is Forest-orn Hamilton, but they didn’t mention his name, something with the contract. As a matter of fact, something that should be on that list too, I did an album with Milt Bernhart, you know the solo trombone player with Stan Kenton, he was around in the sixties. Great player! I shared the writing with Calvin Jackson, a great piano player and a great, great arranger. It was one of my privileges in life that I was able to help him when I had the chance. He happened to be a great arranger in those days, you see he was black, so it made it hard. He went up to Canada and made a very big reputation for himself there, that’s where I met him.

I was with Lena Horne and he was in the audience one night and afterwards he came up and we talked and I found him to be very nice. He wrote a concerto that he played with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. His arrangements are just absolutely impeccable! As a matter of fact he wrote a couple of arrangements for me, for one of my albums, and they’re beautiful. He never seemed to be able to crack through this god-damned system. I don’t know what happened to him, I think he might be living in San Diego. You know I also wrote the music for an album with Carmen McRae. And there’s one I did with Harpo Marx, Harpo and I were very close.

Mark: How about the beginnings of the Chico Hamilton group?

Fred: Well I was playing with Lena and Chico was playing with Lena and that’s where we met. Then I came back (here) and later he came back and I was playing piano for a girl who was going for stardom, she was a big vocal star and she got married and that didn’t work out and so on. So I was in L.A. and I called up Chico and asked if he wanted to play with this chick at Mocambo’s which was still active in those days and he said sure. I was playing piano, although Chico knew me as a cellist. It’s kind of an involved story but I’ll try to cut it short. In New York City (I come from New York City), Lena came in to play a vaudeville gig at a place called the Capital Theater. This is a pretty long time ago! And I was asked to play the cello in the orchestra, a little string group. Now, Phil Moore was one of the top arrangers in the country, composer, vocal coach. He wrote a beautiful symphonic arrangement of Frankie And Johnny, like a saga, and in it I had a cello cadenza.

So I played the cadenza at the rehearsal and I remember Chico looking over at me. I didn’t know Chico then, in fact I wasn’t involved with jazz then at all. We did five shows a day in vaudeville and I would always play that cadenza perfectly, I never made a mistake and Chico came over to me and said, “Hey man that’s really great! That’s the first time that we’ve heard that cadenza really played, and so consistently.” Near the end of the gig Lena comes over to me and tells me how much she appreciates me playing that cadenza. At the end of the gig we have this little cast party, so I sit down at the piano, you know just kibbutzing around, playing standards. Believe it or not two or three weeks later I get a call from Lena Home’s manager asking me if I’d care to join Lena as her musical director and pianist. That started my whole new life and at that time Chico was still playing with her. All right, now to carry that whole thing on further, Chico left Lena, I was here for other reasons, we got together like I said with that girl and one day we were sitting at this bar and Chico said he’d like to form a group but he wanted to form it with maybe a different instrument, French horn maybe and I said, “French horn is okay but why not cello?”

So we got together at Chico’s house, Buddy Collette, eventually Carson Smith, Jimmy Hall who at that time was working as a librarian, he was bald, I think he was born bald. We started fooling around with little tunes like My Funny Valentine. And we all wrote, Buddy’s a fine writer and Jim Hall is a much better writer than he has been given credit for. Last time I saw Jimmy a couple of years ago I really bawled the hell out of him. I said, “How could you not keep writing?” Because Jimmy Hall is a very fine composer, but he never writes and it just infuriates the hell out of me. So we kept playing and one day Chico says, “Hey I got this gig down in Long Beach at this little joint.” A bar where sailors, pimps, prostitutes and whatever would come in. The Strollers. You know just to play, we didn’t even have a book. The book that we used was written by a guy named Bob Hardaway, a very fine tenor man, he was very big in those days. Every once in a while he would come and play with us.

In six months’ time the owner loved us so much that he tore off one half of the room and made a little sitting room out of it. This was a bar! The worst kind of place you can imagine, you know right on the waterfront. And one half of our first album was made there, the other half in the studio. And that’s how it started. As soon as the record came out we were big stars, it was incredible. And we started out originally just to see what the cello would sound like. In those days I was playing both cello and piano; I’d be sitting at the piano on a round stool where I usually played the swinging things and for the arranged I would turn around and play the cello. And then one day after rehearsal we decided that the piano sound had been done so much that it would be better to concentrate on the cello so we could build the sound. That’s the first time where a cellist was really developed in jazz, as a classical player would be.

Fred Katz, cello; Father James Peronne, alto sax; Althea B. McLaren, sculptor | April 20, 1979 |  Southwest Community Center/YMCA, Fullerton | (note the bust of Fred by Althea on top the piano) | Photo by Mark Weber

Fred Katz, cello; Father James Perrone, alto saxophone; Fred’s son Hyman Katz, flute | April 20, 1979 | Fullerton, California | Photo by Mark Weber

Mark: Oscar Pettiford came along around that time.

Fred: Yes, but all of those guys really weren’t good players with the bow. They did pizzicatto but not arco. But I came to the cello as a thoroughly trained classical cellist and they came to it by just fooling around, and in some instances with it tuned like a bass.

Mark: Did you ever cross paths with Eric Dolphy in that band?

Fred: Sure, and that’s another album that’s not listed in that book. I wrote an album for Eric Dolphy with strings, called “With Strings Attached”. When I left the group there was a cellist, Mate Gershman, who replaced me. He never played jazz, he only played what was written down, a,fine player who eventually did a lot of studio work. At the rehearsal in order to showNate what was happening I played and that’s how I met Eric. Chico asked me to write an album for the group and I did four pieces, Eric with strings and two especially for Eric, Modes and Nature By Emerson. To me those two pieces were some of the best I’d ever written for a player. He was a very warm, charming and sweet guy, full of life and love, just a wonderful man.

Mark: Did Frank Rosolino ever step into that band?

Fred: No. I was shocked by his suicide. I couldn’t believe that. He was very swinging, funny, mischievous, twinkle in his eye, practical joker, that’s how I knew Frank. You know I loved Frank very much, I always remember him with a smile, always a joke, always with a kibbutz. Broke my heart. You know who substituted for us when Buddy Collette couldn’t play was Don Byas. He played with us in Arizona. And of course our book had a lot of written things in it, classical, avant garde and all of that but when Don was there all we did was standards, standards all nightlong. Oh wow! What a player!

Mark: How about Lenny Bruce?

Fred: Yes we played with Lenny a couple of times, when he was just getting started. There was this little place called The Interlude and we were the featured group, or we shared billing. I n those days he was doing pretty much straight comedy; a couple of years later he was Lenny Bruce, you know what I mean? As I remember Lenny, he was a very hip guy and a terrific jazz lover and a swinging comic, but not at all the social commentator that he became several years later. We talked a couple of times over a cup of coffee. He was very quiet offstage; he was never really “on” offstage. He loved jazz and the musicians. There seemed to be a cameraderie among the jazz audience then, young people 17 and 18 up to 60 & 70-year-old people.

I mean we would often be invited to their homes. It was really a jazz age, there was really an appreciation of the art of improvisation. Now there’s no jazz consciousness that seems to really be going on. In my jazz class I make the point that it is one of the greatest crimes in our country that we have to teach young people what jazz is. Here we are, the country where it all happened and we have to teach young people what jazz is, something’s wrong. In the ’40s and ’50s the audiences were very hip, very jazz-wise. Now the audiences seem naive and innocent, they don’t really know what’s happening.

Althea B. McLaren & Fred Katz | April 20, 1979 | Photo by Mark Weber

Fred Katz & Father James Perrone | April 20, 1979 | Photo by Mark Weber

Lil: But every once in a while you meet some young people that are really on to it.

Fred: Oh sure. Teaching here I’ve come across quite a few kids that are really good jazz players. Surprisingly enough in this little town of Fullerton.

Lil: Fred started Tim Weisberg into jazz. Did you tell him about Jerry? Unbelievable singer!

Fred: Yes, this terrific kid who is a sensational singer, as good as any of the great bop and scat singers I’ve heard, her name is Jerry Hagen and you’ve got to be hearing of her. Mark: What was Ornette Coleman doing around Los Angeles back in the ’50s? Fred: Around 1954 I did a concert that evolved into another album I did that’s not mentioned there. I did an album entitled “Jazz Canto” where I was one of the arrangers, composers for writing jazz behind great poetry with Larry Lipton. You know Lawrence Lipton?

Mark: Yes, the fellow that wrote the column “Radio Free America” in the L.A. Free Press during the ’60s.

Fred: Larry and I were very dear friends, did a lot of things together. And we did a concert called “Jazz Canto”, that was his title. I shared the writing on that one. I did the music for Dylan Thomas’ and Walt Whitman’s poetry. That’s a beautiful record. Anyway, we did this concert at the Ebony Showcase and that night Ornette played. I had never heard of Ornette Coleman and I remember this crazy guy started to play this weird kind of jazz (laughing) and I said, “What is this? Man, what is happening?” At first I thought, “Oh well, he’s out of his skull”, but then the more I listened to him the more I loved it. I met him very casually that night, and I think that night — I don’t remember exactly, maybe Ornette could tell you — I wrote a piece where Ornette’s playing clarinet. I don’t remember what group he played with.

Lil: It was kind of a pick up group I think. 1956 I think, you were still with Chico then.

Fred: I wrote some music for Larry Lipton’s poem on nuclear power and all of that stuff, he was way ahead of his time. And I remember Ornette playing that night. I said, “What is this? A plastic alto?” I couldn’t believe that! It was beautiful. What is he doing now?

Mark: I don’t know. He lives in New York City. His last couple of albums are kind of strange, sort of Ornette-rock. On one of the records there is a piece with him playing with Moroccan musicians, out in the street jamming with them, that is kind of interesting.

Fred: I bet it is! (laughter) You’ve got to listen to it all man, you know. If he was doing it there has to be a reason for it. I try to suspend judgement.

Lil: What’s Johnny Pisano doing these days? I haven’t heard from him. He was with Herbie Alpert.

Fred: I spoke with Johnny about a year ago. As far as I know he was going around with Peggy Lee and doing studio gigs.

Mark: He says in Leonard Feather’s Encyclopedia of Jazz that his favorite guitar solo is on your composition Zen.

Fred: I think that is one of the most beautiful, perfect solos ever played. Every time I hear it I get the chills. It’s like a perfect musical composition. No 16th notes, no running around, no technique just pure lyricism. Which is what I think jazz is all about. You see I think a lot of kids want to sound like Parker and Coltrane, those are their gods, not so much Coleman. I say to them, “You’re playing a lot of notes, but you’re not playing any musical ideas.” I mean, to blow is to play a musical idea, not to play a lot of notes, that’s not what jazz is all about. Charlie Parker was a great technician but if you listen to Bird long enough you hear that every one of those runs goes to a musical idea. It’s lyric! Jazz is lyric, it’s not just a series of rhythmic ideas, it’s a lyric world. The phrases have got to be like a rainbow. You don’t have to play a lot of notes to be good, it’s musical ideas that count. Jim Hall is a perfect example. Jim Hall is not a great technician, as compared to, for example, Joe Pass. But every note that Jimmy plays has got something about it, it’s beautiful man! It’s like a diamond in a setting. And that’s the solo on Zen. As a matter of fact that’s what started Paul Horn really I think in his career because Zen was basically built around Paul. That was the first time that he was ever really featured that way. I have great respect for his talents.

Mark: I read somewhere that you have played with Erroll Garner.

Fred: No. We’ve shared the same bill but never played together. We shared the bill at Basin Street East: Chico Hamilton, Erroll Garner and Max Roach. Dig that man! When we played Erroll used to say, “Fred would you play My Funny Valentine?” He just loved the way I played Funny Valentine. When I played it he would sit there beaming, saying “Man this is groovy!” And when I’d play that last run (scatting) he’d flip out and jump out of the chair.

Lil: That was Dinah Shore’s favorite too.

Fred: Yeah. You know another album that’s not listed in there is the album I did with Sidney Poitier. It’s called “Poitier Meets Plato”.

Lil: They re-issued it and called it “Journeys Into The Mind”, they use it in a lot of psychology classes.

Mark: We haven’t spoken much about Ken Nordine yet. What year were those records done? “Word Jazz” and “Son of Word Jazz”.

Fred: 1957 and ’58. The first one was done as a tax write-off. We were in Chicago then, playing at a place there. And some people came in to hear us and they asked me if I would make an album with this guy Ken Nordine, that he only had a few days. So I got together with him. A very strange guy, but also a genius. Ken has got tapes that nobody has ever heard that would blow your mind away. An authentic American prose genius. We met at a cocktail party and then we went to his house and listened to some of his tapes, and decided on these particular things. I started to work on it Tuesday evening and by Friday morning all of the music was written. And then we did it Friday. That’s when I almost had a breakdown. I had worked for 72 hours without a break to meet that deadline. You see, in this business you never say “no”, you always say “sure”. As soon as I got done with a score the copyist took it. Then the next thing you know is this thing kicked off.

April 20, 1979 |  visitation of the muse of improvisation | Photo by Mark Weber

Lil: It was one of the top selling albums.

Fred: Yes, and on one of his TV specials Fred Astaire took My Baby and danced to it, with Barry Chase. For the second album, I was in L.A. so he sent me his tape and, like the Sidney Poitier one, I did it to his tape. It’s easier for me to put music onto the voice than to put a voice onto the music. I did an album on Warner Brothers, “Folk Music For Far Out Folk”. I took American folk songs like Foggy Foggy Dew, and then a tune by Leadbelly, some American-Hebraic 17th-18th century melodies, an African piece, and wrote jazz things based upon each one of them. On the back of the album was poetry by Larry Lipton and there was an original oil painting that I commissioned on the cover. I had complete control over that album. By the way, to be fair: you know Paul Winter’s Consort also had a cellist who would improvise; not in the jazz tradition but more or less in a modal sort of way. He did some nice things, I liked his playing. This was in the ’60s and even now maybe. I have a lot of respect for Paul Winter. Obviously we had a lot of influence on him.

Mark: So you were pretty busy during the ’50s?

Fred: Oh yes. I did TV and film scores, TV commercials, I wrote a concerto….

Lil: He did the commercial, “Self styling Adorn….” (singing and laughing).

Fred: I did that one in about ten minutes.

Mark: What’s Carson Smith doing these days?

Fred: Last I heard Carson was in Las Vegas gigging in the various casinos and stuff.

Mark: His younger brother, Putter Smith plays on Wednesday nights up in Sierra Madre with John Tirrabasso.Gary Foster and Dave Koonse.

Fred: You’re kidding. I remember him as a little person.

Lil: Remember, he used to wear that little sailor suit. Carson was a beautiful player.

Fred: He’s another cat that never achieved recognition. Carson is one of the greatest, finest lyric bass players ever. Through our group he began to write music. He had never written before that. I wrote a piece for Ramsey Lewis called Seven Valleys, based upon the Ba’hai religion and he recorded it on what was called then Arco Records. Later on he started to do the rock thing and that’s when the bass player, Eldee Young and the drummer Red Holt left him. They didn’t want to play that stuff. Jazz is the most extraordinary world of all. Sometimes when I talk about it in class I wish I could be more eloquent to express the extraordinary world of improvisation, where you sort of go into this semi-meditative trance. It’s the world of the mystic, because every time you play you’re exploring things you’ve never done before.

Of course you repeat certain phrases that you like and certain things that feel good on the instrument. But still, every time you play it’s a new world and for that reason it can be very intense, because you’re always in a new area of cosmic awareness. To me it’s the world of spontaneity and joy, it really is. It’s a joyous world and also a very hard world. It’s a very lonely world because when you’re playing you are all by yourself, really. I compare the world of the mystic to the world of jazz. I play with a priest every once in a while, Father James Perrone.

San Bernardino Freeway heading toward Los Angeles (downtown in distance) | May 9, 1981 | Photo by Mark Weber

Lil: Before he became a priest he used to be in all the big bands. [Asking Father James later I found that he had been in the bands of Ben Pollack, Tony Pastor and Teddy Powell. He was a saxophonist and vocalist, or crooner as Fred added. Also had an association with Don Fagerquist].

Fred: We meet at a monastery and supply the music for a dance workshop and their liturgy. We do a whole series of improvisations based upon Christian and Hebraic poetry. The highlight of the week is when we meet in the chapel where the monks usually pray, and play for them. The first time, the woman involved with the dancing said, “Gee,Fred, when are you and Jim going to rehearse with us?” I said, “We will never rehearse with you. When the performance is ready we’ll play.” And she said, “Well how can you do that?” And I said, “Don’t worry about that Carla.”(laughing) That was seven years ago and we’ve never rehearsed anything. We just see the dance movements and she shows us the poetry. Maybe she’ll say, “I need something exciting here, or something pastoral here, something mystical here.” I say, “You got it. Whatever you do we’ll be there.” And she says, “Freddie, you’re driving me crazy.”

I always tell her she should never worry about it because the improvisor is always ready, there’s an ever-flowing source of music ready to come out. And Jim is a very special guy: a priest of the streets, and he plays like a dream. Do you know what the jazz man is to me? He’s literally an unceasing fountain of music. It’s extraordinary that you have these guys who can play music any time; day, night, sick or whatever and whenever, it’s always music. I’ve played jazz a lot of years and this is the truth: I don’t know how it works. When I sit down to play the cello or the piano, I don’t know why my fingers to go certain places. It’s a mystery, an adventure. It’s a glorious world. And it bugs me to no end that jazz is so ignored. It should be taught at all levels of school, from kindergarten on up. The music of America. I worked with the mentally disturbed and I used jazz as a technique. I had people improvising the blues. If they only knew maybe two or three chords, it didn’t matter.

We did free form. If they couldn’t play an instrument I’d say, “Play a cup” or “Play the ash tray.” You know, just play and feel what you want to do, it doesn’t have to be a big musical composition. Anything spontaneous, just to make sound. We had some of the most dramatic cures ever documented. It was called the CATA Program, 1965. I had people improvising poetry and doing sounds with their voices, and we put it on tape and when they heard it back they thought, “Look what I’m capable of doing!” We were supposed to get funded to continue but we never did.

Lil: Remember that guy in the catatonic state?

Fred: Near-catatonic.

Lil: He just sat and stared. After the first night Fred got him up and he was playing the strings on the piano. And when Fred had them improvise a dance this kid started dancing. It was like a miracle. For two years nobody was able to break through. And now he was able to go out and get a job. He walked everywhere, and before he couldn’t walk. Now he was the first one to the sessions.

Fred: And when the program was over he came over to me and hugged me for half an hour and cried. It was unbelieveable. It was the greatest experience of my life. But that’s what I think jazz can do and it’s being ignored. Because you see, jazz is spontaneous; sure, you have to know your chops and all of that, but it’s also a spontaneous thing that comes out of you. And what could be more curing for a person than to be spontaneous? Because mental illness is in fact a blockage of spontaneous action, a blockage of love, a blockage of tenderness. That’s what jazz can really do. If I had more time maybe I should be involved more with that. I think that is maybe what happens to a really hip audience: whether they know it or not, as they are following the blowing, they are blowing, too.

Fred Katz in his office @ Fullerton College | March 20, 1979 | Photo by Mark Weber

Original graphic by Ken Nordine in the Fred Katz collection

This interview was taken from CODA The Jazz Magazine, Issue Number 176 – 1980

1 Comment

  1. Glenn Ferris

    Great Interview, a must read !!

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