Issue 6 - Fall 2007 - The Sound Issue
The man behind Folk Songs for Far Out Folk
BY JOSH KUN
Tradition is a terrible tyrant. Memory, man. It’s better to live in the moment. I am eating this sandwich. Know what I mean?
Katz moved here in 1970 to teach in the anthropology department at the state university, where for nearly three decades the self-described “high school dropout with radical political beliefs” offered classes on Kabbalah, jazz, ethnomusicology, and magic. He is now eighty-six and a professor emeritus, which he says “gives me the right to park wherever I want to,” but that doesn’t matter much. Thanks to a dose of agoraphobia, Katz doesn’t like to leave his quiet and cluttered house, which looks like his mind turned inside out: ritual sculptures, books on myth and “jungle magic,” a jazz encyclopedia and a battered copy of the Bhagavad Gita, tables covered in chess boards, and, in the middle of the living room floor next to an electric piano and beneath a portrait of Maimonides, a racetrack for toy cars.
He keeps a “Shalom” welcome mat on his front doorstep, but to get there you first have to walk through a Zen garden, complete with a miniature bridge reaching over a river of pebbles.
“I’m open to anything,” he says, “except music that’s played badly.”
It’s a mantra that has served Katz well over the course of an extraordinary career, from his early days as a cello student of Pablo Casals to his work in Hollywood scoring Roger Corman films such as The Little Shop of Horrors and A Bucket of Blood; from his anti–Vietnam War piece for solo cello, “The Soldier Puppet,” to his time as an Artists and Repertoire man for Decca Records in the late 1950s, where he created the experimental Jazz Moods series; from solo jazz cello albums such as Fred Katz and His Jammers (that’s Katz in his pajamas on the cover, playing cello next to a Gidget surf bunny on Malibu Beach) to his 1980s stint teaching jazz in a Benedictine monastery with a bongo-playing nun and a sax-playing priest (“I used to say to him, ‘Father, you’re a mutha—’”); to the gig that usually gets his name in the index of jazz history books, his 1950s run with the legendary Chico Hamilton Quintet when he became the first cellist in jazz.
There had already been a handful of bassists who had played the cello like a bass, plucking it pizzicato-style, but until Katz joined forces with the interracial group that would become the premier experimental unit on the west coast — Hamilton on drums, Jim Hall on guitar, Buddy Collette on reeds, and Carson Smith on bass — there had never been a cellist who played the cello like a cello. He bowed it for “My Funny Valentine” the same way he did for the Saint-Saëns cello concerto, which he had played when he was only fifteen at New York’s Town Hall.
“I have had all these experiences, and I don’t know why,” says Katz, who has also conducted jazz arrangements for Sidney Poitier (the forgotten Sidney Poitier Reads Plato), Harpo Marx (the almost-forgotten Harpo in Hi-Fi), and Ken Nordine (the treasured Beat trilogy of Word Jazz albums). “I know it all sounds like science fiction, but it’s all true. Remember that, man. I never asked for anything. It was thrown at me — here, live this. I just follow my love for things.”
Katz gives most of the credit to his Russian immigrant father, a communist dentist, self-taught kabbalist, and proud member of the Workmen’s Circle who once served in the Russian underground as a spy against the czar. He left Russia when he left the official ranks of the Communist Party and got a new start in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where Katz was born and raised (“What Jew is not born in Brooklyn?”). Katz grew up surrounded by leftist politics, mystical teachings, and musical experimentation. On Friday evenings, his father would host “musical soirees” that became weekly intellectual salons, drawing an eclectic circle of local musicians, writers, and thinkers.
“People would crowd in, sit on chairs, sit on the floor,” Katz remembers. “There would be people playing chess in one corner, having an argument about philosophy in one room, about Beethoven’s string quartets in another.”
A frequent guest was a young Tony Bennett, whom Katz had met when the two played in the same World War II army band. In Bennett’s autobiography, he also counts the Katz salons as foundational sites for the growth of his career. “Those Friday evenings were incredibly inspiring,” Bennett writes. “By the end of the night I was so elated when I walked out of their house I felt like I was three feet off the ground. Sometimes I didn’t leave at all; I slept over so I could do it all again in the morning.”
Katz was raised on a steady diet of classical music, mastering both piano and cello by the time he was a teenager. It wasn’t until he began frequenting the jazz clubs along Manhattan’s 57th Street that he got the improvisation bug and started imagining a way to blend his classical training with jazz techniques. Before long, he was playing piano behind Vic Damone and Lena Horne, and in 1957 he landed his first gig as a conductor and arranger on Carmen McRae’s vaunted 1957 album Carmen for Cool Ones, for which he directed a thirteen-piece string orchestra in a series of innovative, mood-soaked arrangements that many still consider to be among the most legendary in orchestrated jazz.
“It made me love conducting,” he says. “Playing cello, I always had to prove myself, because I had such a reputation as a classical player. I had to prove that the cello had a place in jazz. But conducting? Who’s the one who doesn’t play? The conductor. But from him, all the music flows. It’s a Zen idea. He does nothing but does everything. Who’s playing? Nobody! Very Zen.”
The original idea from Warner Brothers was for Katz to record an album with Brigitte Bardot. He passed, and then managed to convince the label to let him go forward with something just a little less commercial: 1959’s Folk Songs for Far Out Folk, a musical triptych of orchestrated jazz based on Hebraic, African, and American folk songs that Katz would conduct but not actually play on. He considers it the pinnacle of his work as a conductor and arranger.
“Those were the three cultures that were most important to me at the time,” he says. “I was very involved with Kabbalah, studying it actively. The American culture I was very interested in, but mostly as a radical guy who had to learn about folk music and protest songs. And the African element just followed because of my belief in the oneness of man.
“The reason for the Jewish stuff was the mystery,” he says. “I love the mystery of Judaism rather than the idea of justice. There is no tribe in the world that doesn’t believe in justice. What interests me is the mystery, the idea that the Kabbalah does not answer the final answer — the mystery beyond mystery. It’s impossible to ever know what God is. The trillion-faced God!”
Folk Songs for Far Out Folk was produced by pedal-steel guitar pioneer and famed bandleader Alvino Rey and recorded in 1958 during three separate sessions in Hollywood, one for each set of folk songs. Each session also had its own set of musicians, an impressive list of ’50s jazz stalwarts hand-picked by Katz.
The American songs include jazz guitar great Billy Bean and on piano, Johnny T. Williams, better known nowadays as Hollywood film composer and Oscar mainstay John Williams (Star Wars, Jaws, Schindler’s List). The Hebrew sessions featured the flutes and saxophones of Buddy Collette and Paul Horn, Katz’s esteemed Los Angeles colleagues from the Chico Hamilton Quintet, and the African songs include appearances by bongo king Jack Costanzo and trumpeters Pete Candoli (alum of the Woody Herman and Stan Kenton bands) and Irving Goodman (brother of Benny).
On the LP’s back cover, Katz made it clear that for him Folk Songs for Far Out Folk was a jazz album with a philosophical mission, an argument for jazz innovation, musical humanism, and multicultural creativity. “If we accept jazz as a modern culture, then we must also accept all the obligations and soul-searching and experimentation that all other arts are subject to,” he wrote. “The shepherd who plays on his wooden flute … the African who dances and sings … the banjo player in the hills … the jazz musician in the night club have a common denominator, an eternal soul which unites all human kind.”
To flesh out his ideas, Katz dug into the reserves of the ’50s jazz poetry scene in Venice Beach and enlisted Lawrence Lipton — the Polish immigrant Beat poet, ex–Forverts reporter, and author of influential counterculture tomes The Holy Barbarians and The Erotic Revolution (and also the father of Inside the Actor’s Studio host James Lipton) — to write a poem for each set of folk songs.
In his American ode, “Arco Passage for a Blue Bass,” Lipton writes of “new instruments in hands kissed by the morning sun,” and in “African Mirage,” he conjures a drum-beat praise song for the “Healer of Wounds” and the blind “Giver of Life.” Katz’s fascination with the legends and teachings of Kabbalah inspired Lipton’s Hebrew poem, “Trumpets in the Morning,” the story of Reb Yussel’s encounter with Satan. What Satan misses more than anything after being banished from heaven is the shofar call at sunrise — the music of a new day.
With its poems and praise songs, its melding of folk tradition with avant-garde expansiveness, its modern takes on mystical legends, Folk Songs for Far Out Folk is the ultimate Fred Katz album — the perfect crystallization of a personal and musical world view in which ancient thought structures contemporary meaning, belief, and knowledge. In his conducting and arrangements you can hear the stamp of his classical training and that of the jazz globalism he had already begun to dip into with Chico Hamilton. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine Folk Songs without its secret precursor from two years earlier, the Chico Hamilton Quintet’s Zen — The Music of Fred Katz. There, Katz’s compositions — mergers of classical and jazz styles with Eastern philosophy and traces of Eastern European klezmer — were warm-ups for the conceptual arc and cultural crossroads that Folk Songs carries to masterful fruition.
Of course, for Katz — a kabbalist, recovering atheist, and part-time Buddhist — this mix of belief systems and cultural traditions was only natural.
“Zen and Kabbalah and all these folk songs, how about that?” he says. “I studied Zen Buddhism, and every Saturday I read the Hebrew Bible. But I read it differently now. When I went through my militant atheist days I used to read it and poke fun. Now I respect people who relate to what they think God is. I respect the search for God, the search for understanding. What I am now is a deist, like Jefferson and Franklin; all I know is that the world had to be created. The rest is ‘make it up as you go along.’”
On a recent Sabbath morning, Katz put down his Hebrew Bible, shuffled out to the recording studio in his garage, and picked up his cello. He spread out a wrinkled pile of charts for a sixteenth-century Hasidic melody, hunched his back, and dug his bow into the cello strings. Playing beneath a faded Little Shop of Horrors poster and a framed copy of the sheet music to “Satan Wears a Satin Gown” (a song he wrote for Frankie Lane in 1950), he kept his eyes closed — adrift in another time and place — until the last note left the room.
“This is from Hasidism,” he said. Then he inhaled deeply, exhaled slowly, and, with the timing of a Borscht Belt tummeler, added, “That is, before they got corrupted by the Republican party.”
Then he tried it again, this time playing the same melody in what he called “Arabic” style. The similarities between the Hebrew and Arabic styles inspired a riff on the tragedies of the Middle East (“If you listen to the music, they are there together as brothers, but as brothers, they kill each other ....”), which led to a discourse on belief that touched on Spinoza, Plato, and Marx, a quick tangent on the prose of Victorian literature, and a treatise on musical innovation that ended with the virtues of hip-hop.
“All I have ever wanted is new ideas, to be thrust into something I had never thought of before,” he said. “Give me the new, and I will listen.”
Then he lifted his bow, closed his eyes, and started searching all over again. &