Octojazzarian profile: dick katz

For the first time in jazz’s brief century, many leading artists are staying active beyond their 8th decade. OctoJAZZarians is an on-going series celebrating these living legends, pioneers of the art from who were first hand participants in the evolution of America's greatest art form.

Our subject this month is pianist Dick Katz.

by arnold jay smith

             Dick Katz, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

When my wife, singer/percussionist Fran McIntyre, was recording her debut CD, Lucky in Love, she was short a couple of tracks. She asked me what I thought might fit. I replied, without blinking: duets with Dick Katz.

Dick has maintained a fairly low profile over the years, yet he has a sparkling track record. He was the favorite pianist of Benny Carter, JJ Johnson & Kai Winding, Roy Eldridge and Coleman Hawkins, as well as vocalists Carmen McRae and Helen Merrill. Born in 1924, the Baltimore native is still among the outstanding piano accompanists of all time—and not too shabby a soloist, either. Our conversation took place at his apartment on the East Side of Manhattan. It covered a wide range of subjects, from baseball (specifically, the Cal Ripken-era Orioles: “I don’t pay much attention [to them] these days”) to his life as a jazz pianist.

Dick's first big gig was in 1958 with clarinetist Tony Scott at Minton’s. (Seems Scott was very important in introducing unheard talent to the public. N.B.: OctoJAZZarians© Toots Thielemans.) “He was the first guy to put me on the map,” Dick said. “He was high energy. I went to hear him at Minton’s, and the next thing I knew I was on the bandstand with Philly Joe Jones and Milt Hinton. It was quite an experience.”

But that wasn’t Dick’s first foray into New York City. Earlier, he'd attended the Manhattan School of Music, and after serving in the Navy, he married a New Yorker and began playing small joints in Greenwich Village. That's where he met Scott, in 1952.

That same year, Dick was involved in panels at the Music Inn in the Berkshires, with the pioneering jazz scholar Marshall Stearns. “Berklee [School of Music] grew out of those lectures,” Dick explained. “There were roundtable discussions at the Music Inn, which was down the road from Tanglewood.” [For more on that, check out the documentary, Music Inn, co-produced by George Schuller.] “Stephanie Barber, who always dressed like a young girl with her then hippie pigtails, was the director [of the discussions],” Dick remembers. "Randy Weston was a dishwasher, would you believe, down the road at another resort. He would come over. She would invite people from Boston and NYC. People like Willis Conover, John Mehegan, Bill Coss—and those were just the talking heads. The musicians were an unbelievable cross section: Wilber deParis, [Charles] Mingus, Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith, Max Roach asking questions of Baby Dodds. There was never anything like this before, trying to make jazz academic for the first time—having an exchange of musicians with each other and the public.”

Katz singled out The Lion. “Seems that every time there was a gathering like this, Lion felt compelled to be ‘on.’ So he was a show unto himself, what with his derby hat and cigar. ‘You guys are talking about modern, I’ll show you modern,’ he’d say. Then he walked across the room and played all his stuff. It was wild.” Afterward there were jams in the lounge. “You could hear [people like] Tony [Scott] arguing with the old guys, and Rex Stewart playing with the [traditional, New Orleans-style] players.”

Katz and his wife lived in two rooms on Sullivan St. in the Village. “Downstairs there was a small club,” Dick related. “It was called ‘The Little Casino.’ He had six singers down there, one of whom was Sylvia Syms. They’d go damn near all night. I was upstairs waiting for my union card and going to Manhattan School of Music on the G.I. Bill, which paid for everything: tuition, books, records, meals, even spending money. The first guy I befriended was ‘motor mouth’ Ram Ramirez. I really liked him. He would come upstairs between sets.” Ramirez, who was born in Puerto Rico but moved to Harlem as a child, composed “Lover Man.” Dick remembers him as a masterful accompanist, much like Ellis Larkins. Dick would sit in, and somewhere along the way he met Scott.

“He would dominate you,” Dick said with emphasis. “I spent six months at Minton’s with Tony. Amazing experience!” It was 1953 and jazz was about to experience its second coming. Monday night was jam session night at Minton's, and it seemed like every musician living in—or even visiting—the Apple would come. Katz remembers one Monday night he “was bumped off the stool by Bud Powell, who sat down and played 40 choruses of 'Crazy Rhythm' and never once played the bridge. Another Monday night it would be a tap dance challenge with Baby Laurence, Bill Bailey and others. Today, that would be like having Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis together. We played stop time for them. Baby just washed them away.”

The regular girl singer at Minton’s was Carmen McRae. Dick was McRae’s first accompanist, after herself. Johnny Mandel (not yet the Johnny Mandel) visited Minton’s and recorded some sets on a professional recording device—a Concord open reel deck. He sold the tapes to producer Bob Thiele, who was then with the Brunswick label. “I’d been on some record dates before,” Dick continued. “But this was the first one that made any sense.” As he said this, he went to his library and pulled out some 10-inch LPs. “After that first live date, we went into the studio and recorded.” Dick noted that Percy Heath, already a bebop star, was on one of those recordings. “We did some charts for dances, and recorded with Osie Johnson and Earl May. I cut my teeth on that stuff. The writing [in 1953-4] was a really important experience for me.”

Then came 1955, and the JJ Johnson/Kai Winding two trombone quintet “experiment,” as the trombonists once called it. Dick Katz was about to be thrust into the public eye. The group, two ‘bones plus rhythm, was a hallmark of the ‘50s jazz resurgence. The trombone had been the butt of jokes since the tailgate era, but Johnson made it a bebop instrument, and Kai helped create the sound of the Stan Kenton band. “I made six albums with them,” Dick said proudly.

(His comping created an avenue for my junior high and high school club date bands; no one I knew played that way. I became an iconoclastic keyboardist to my friends. Thank you, Dick Katz!)

Jay & Kai, as they were known, played clubs and concerts, and recorded at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956. Mosaic has combined the band's two Columbia LPs on one CD. My personal favorite is still Jay & Kai Plus Six: eight ‘bones and a rhythm section, plus Candido on Latin percussion.

For Katz there were other combos with such players as Al Cohn and Freddie Green. After Jay & Kai, he was well recognizable. “I don’t remember how I got the job, but Oscar Pettiford hired me for the [now legendary] Café Bohemia gig,” Katz remembered. “That place was run by gangsters … Pettiford would argue with the owner all the time until he finally got thrown out. Talk about on-the-job-training: the drummer was Kenny Clarke, and the front line had Gigi Gryce, or Donald Byrd, or Miles Davis. All the greats came in. And we were the house rhythm section, so I got to play with them all.” (Dr. Billy Taylor tells a similar tale of his time at Birdland in his OctoJAZZarians©.) “But it was playing with Kenny and Oscar that really developed my chops. There’s [hardly] anyone around [today] who drops those 'bombs' or handles the brushes as he did," although "Kenny Washington does a great job.”

Pettiford also played the cello, out of necessity. Dick related that when Pettiford was with the Woody Herman band, there was a big band softball league. It was during one of those games that Pettiford broke his arm. He taught himself to play the cello until his arm healed. “He was one of my major influences,” says Dick.

Pettiford fronted a 13-piece big band that included two French horns—David Amram and Julius Watkins—two tenors, an alto, a baritone, two trumpets, a trombone, harp, and rhythm. The band played Birdland regularly, with some sets broadcast on AM radio. The instrumentation was such that Katz needed to rehearse the rhythm section parts. He took the charts home with him on the subway. Or so he thought. “I get off the train, walked up the stairs; no bag. This was Friday, and we opened Saturday. I related this over dinner that night to John Lewis and a friend, who both proceeded to torture me for the rest of the night. ‘This is Oscar Pettiford. He might punch you out. (Pettiford had that reputation.) You’d better find that music.’ Torture like that. But they also suggested that I go to the end of the [subway] line because stuff is turned in there. Seems that some lady had told the clerk that she found a bag, but took it home with her … and here’s her address. She lived one block from me.” A bottle of Champagne later, he had his music back. The gig, and perhaps a life, saved.

Dick also worked with Roy Eldridge. “I played with Roy for years,” Katz began. One performance of which Dick is particularly proud was a part of the long-running Highlights in Jazz series in New York City. He played a duet with Lee Konitz, among other things. “It was quite a concert,” he said. “That was about the time I was playing with Roy at Ryan’s [a trad jazz joint on West 54th St. in NYC]. We were there for six or seven years. The bass player was Major Holley, the drummer Eddie Locke, front liners were Joe Maranyi and Bobby Pratt. We were supposed to play New Orleans-style warhorses, but Roy was never into that so we wound up modernizing all the time.”

On the subject of melodic-versus-harmonic improvising, Katz noted, “What people overlook most about Roy was that he was a rhythmic improviser. Whether or not a solo reaches you depends, like speech, on the spaces. Bebop’s harmonic improvising is not what threw all those swing players. People like Coleman Hawkins gobbled that up. What threw them was the rhythmic language, the irregularity. They were used to a romantic musical language, sameness of tempo. In all advances in music there’s a rhythmic thing going on. Roy’s sense of swing is what turned Dizzy [Gillespie] around. It’s evolution, not revolution. Louis Armstrong knew nothing about harmonies, but he could hear the harmonies change and make the melodies fit.”

Katz believes that rhythm is the road less-traveled. “The first to do that was Lester Young,” he said. He demonstrated by humming something from Prez’s “Lester Leaps In.” “The point is, that melodic and harmonic improvising are not the only improvising alternatives. Rhythm is that third element.” Hey, are we talking hip-hop here?

Then there are the lyrics. There’s that apocryphal story of the saxophone player who stopped mid-chorus and proclaimed that he had to pause because he forgot the lyrics. Katz demurs. “Lee Konitz teaches by telling his students to sing, but not necessarily the lyrics. Musicians want to interpret [the song] sometimes by changing the tempo. [Konitz’s one time leader Lennie] Tristano threw out the song and recreated a new melody. Charlie Parker never referred to the melody at all in 'Quasimodo,' for example. Ben Webster played 'Embraceable You' [the harmonic structure for 'Quasimodo'] thinking, ‘now how can I make this melody better and make people feel this song.’ Coleman Hawkins never played the melody on his 'Body and Soul' recording, but it remains 'Body and Soul' nonetheless. I never pay too much attention to the lyrics; neither did John Lewis. Someone said Sarah Vaughan could sing the telephone book [and it would still be beautiful.]” Dick played with Hawkins on many occasions including at Newport, but the most memorable was on Benny Carter’s Further Definitions. “Benny was very supportive. At one point during the famous arrangement of 'Honeysuckle Rose,' producer [Bob] Thiele clicked on his mic from the booth and said ‘If you don’t mind, I’d like some Count Basie in that space.’ Benny quietly replied, ‘If you don’t mind, I’d like some Dick Katz in that space.’”

Dick related that at particular moments during the session drummer, Jo Jones would “get frustrated not because he couldn’t play something, but he might not have been able to understand and articulate his problem. Jo could get nasty and agitated in those moments. Benny handled him as though he were a diplomat at the U.N.”

On the sensitive topic of racial politics in music, Dick, a Jew, sometimes found there were different attitudes when black musicians spoke to black musicians and when they spoke to white musicians. “It was almost like the blacks didn’t want the whites to know what they were thinking. After all those sessions [and socializing] I got to know the difference, except for Benny. He seemed to be on the [same] level all the time. Only two other musicians I knew were like that: Pettiford & Eldridge. What you saw and heard is what you got.”

Another memorable recording session took place at Jazz the Vineyard, a short-lived series on East 15th St. hosted by cornetist Dick Sudhalter and presented by a winery. “I went down to hear Doc Cheatham, who was playing with Johnny Guarneri [a scion of the Italian instrument maker]. I had been on vacation and hadn’t touched the piano in weeks. Sudhalter came over to tell me that Johnny was sick and it didn’t look like he was going to make it through the night. Would I sit in? I said sure, but I might be all thumbs. Sure enough, Guarneri didn’t make it out for the second set. Johnny Guarneri went home that night and died. As they were due to record that night, I later played duets with Doc, and the record was released.”

Katz was friends with John Lewis since their days at Manhattan School of Music days. Their friendship continued to blossom later, when Dick was playing on the bar at the Metropole Café on Broadway. It reached full flower when Dick played and recorded with the Lewis/Gary Giddins (and later Loren Schoenberg-managed) American Jazz Orchestra (N.B.: Benny Carter’s Central City Sketches, MusicMasters). Katz told a story about happening upon Lewis on a Village street in 1953. Lewis asked Katz: “Would you sub for me at Birdland with Bird?” There was a pause, and Katz said, “No, I’m not ready for that, here,” and pointed to his head. Dick explains, “The only people playing piano for Bird were John, Al Haig, Duke Jordan and Walter Bishop, Jr. I didn’t feel I was on their level yet. I was still a student.”

Katz turned down another notable gig in 1959. “I always wanted to play the Apollo. I came off the road with Carmen McRae, and she had a gig at there. I was tired and didn’t want anymore of that. I should have done it.” Dave Frishberg took his place. He’s proud of his recordings with McRae, including her first on Decca; Billy Strayhorn guested on the album.

With funds borrowed from his brother-in-law (now that's living dangerously!), Dick and Orrin Keepnews started the Milestone record label. It was during one of those valleys in the record business (1966), but “we made many records, including a few good ones with Joe Henderson, Wynton Kelly. Some great stuff.” It was during this period that Katz began an important affiliation with singer Helen Merrill.

“The first one we did together, The Feeling is Mutual, was already in the can. I was trying to get someone to put it out. One record company owner was rumored to have said, ‘I don’t record white singers.’ I don’t know that to be true; it was hearsay.” Keepnews stepped up to the plate and they put it out on Milestone. All the sidemen worked, “for the love of the project” and went onto greatness: Thad Jones, Jim Hall, Ron Carter, Pete LaRoca (now Peter Sims, esq.). George Avakian, “the guy in the booth,” contributed $200. “A five-star record [in Down Beat magazine], and it didn’t sell … of course. As I said before, the record business was in the tank.” The second recording, The Feeling is Mutual, featured Katz, Carter, Jones and Hall plus Gary Bartz, Hubert Laws, and Richard Davis. “Those things I did with Helen remain among my favorites.” (Mosaic has combined the two LPs on one CD.)

REGRETS: “I didn’t stay with Carmen for that Apollo gig.” Dick also narrowly missed a chance to work with Gene Krupa. “He had a trio and he heard me at the Metropole [Krupa and Cozy Cole had a drum school upstairs]. Eddie Wasserman, the trio’s saxophonist, told me that Teddy Napoleon was leaving and that I probably could get the gig. I heard he was paying a lot of money, so when Gene asked me how much I wanted, I told him the same as Napoleon: $400 a month. He later called me and told me that was more than he had in mind. [Looking back] my mistake was not compromising; I didn’t like the music he was playing and where he was playing it, like Las Vegas. Pride got in the way. Loren Schoenberg would have been on that piano bench in a minute.

“I worked with Stan Getz, with whom I got along well, but he was looking for more adventuresome rhythm sections so our recordings never got out,” said Katz. “I would like to have those. He had a photographic musical mind. I would have liked to have played with Don Byas. I would have liked to have gotten closer to Dizzy Gillespie, to get [bebop] from the horse’s mouth, like Mike Longo did.”

One more: “You know,” he said regretfully, “I never played with Billy Higgins.”

UNFINISHED: Dick teaches at Jazz @ Lincoln Center and MSM. “Justin DiCiocco, the jazz director [at MSM] is doing a great job bringing [things like] Dizzy’s music to the band. There’s no teaching like what you learn on the bandstand on a gig,” he said emphatically. “[I’d like to] keep teaching, writing more articles and liner notes. I don’t play as much, but that’s my fault. I could get out more.”

Loren Schoenberg: Having started his musical life as a pianist, tenor saxist/bandleader Schoenberg first met Dick Katz when Katz was with Lee Konitz. “I was recommended to him not as a teacher in the classic sense, but more as a mentor, someone to hang around with,” Schoenberg began. “As I look back on it now, the time he gave me and patience he showed me [are of incalculable value]. Now that I'm 50, I can understand what it’s like to have a younger friend. [laughter].”

There was a symbiosis. Loren met John Lewis when he was a student at Manhattan School of Music. The mere mention of Dick Katz’s name was the beginning of a life-long friendship with Lewis, which would flourish later with the Lewis-led, piano-by-Katz, Schoenberg-managed American Jazz Orchestra.

“One of the other things I admired about Dick Katz was his prose writing. I was introduced to [Rutgers Jazz Institute curator] Dan Morgenstern when I was 13. By then, Dick had written about Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk and others. I always wished that he had written more. He wrote not just anecdotal, but from the musical standpoint.

“Since Dick agreed to be in my band—I didn’t hire him; he agreed to play— some 20 years ago, we’ve been together in many different circumstances: duo, trio, quartet. He’s a real improviser. That’s why he and Konitz got along so well. There’s no difference between Dick Katz the musician and Dick Katz the person. People’s personalities manifest themselves in different situations, but Dick is one-of-kind.”

Helen Merrill: “The whole project was so unusual that producer George Avakian said that it was too good; ‘it will never sell,’” said Helen Merrill, remembering her initial recording with Dick Katz. “All of those sidemen became big stars. About a century ago, he had this trio in Greenwich Village, and we just got together for fun. Dick’s music was never straight ahead. He used to say that I had ‘radar ears.’ His playing can be deceptively simple, but it’s really complicated. Doesn’t sound that way, but it is.”

Helen knows whereof she speaks, having sung with many avant-garde-ists worldwide—including famously with Gil Evans and George Russell. “It’s always challenging; you have to be quick to respond. After all, I’m a jazz singer. What we do is sometimes copied without credit. As Quincy Jones once told me, ‘they copy, but without soul.’ It’s all about the phrasing. Dick told me after that first session not to do any more pop singing; it’s damaging. I didn’t listen, but thanks to Dick, I did some interesting things with [European] classical composers.”

Helen is not so much a singer as she is a musician who uses her voice, which is why she and Katz are simpatico. “I like to work as part of a group, not as a singer with accompaniment,” she said. “After those sessions it was difficult to take that music on the road. The [brilliant] musicianship that Dick put together for the recording wasn’t there with me. What it did was put me on the map with other musicians; they thought better of me after that.

“With Dick you don’t have to think too much; he just lays it down for you. Others may play so many notes that you have to remember where you were.”

Despite the fact that that both Helen and Dick were deflated by Avakian’s initial response, they all remain close friends—proof that the project was, indeed, a labor of love; it shows.


December 22, 2008 · 4 comments

  • 1 Ed Goodstein // Dec 24, 2008 at 12:33 AM
    Thanks for interesting interview/feature on Katz. I learned a great deal about him from it. I think the Katz/Merrill recordings are among the best in vocal jazz since WWII (along w. her 1st w. Clifford Brown too). I hadn't realized he was a founder of Milestone Records either. Thanks.
  • 2 Colm "Red" O'Sullivan // Dec 24, 2008 at 04:38 AM
    I'm so delighted to see this appreciation of Dick Katz. I had this rising awareness that he was on so many of my very favourite records - the most important records in jazz often have Dick Katz on there!! I was delighted, too, to see the comments on Benny Carter - and the anecdotes surrounding the Pettiford big band are gems too. I surley love Dick Katz! RED (Ireland).
  • 3 Tom Surowicz // Jan 19, 2009 at 09:35 PM
    While enjoying my LP of "In High Profile" by Mr. Katz, I thought I'd dial up the interweb and see if he was still hale, hearty and playing somewhere. Very happily, this fine, informative, thorough and fun e-feature popped up -- thanks very much for your efforts.
  • 4 Bill McLarney // Jan 25, 2009 at 04:45 AM
    Nice to know this exists. Nice writing.