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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Now, a story about an extraordinary musical talent. Among other things, Fred Katz is credited with bringing an unlikely instrument into modern jazz, the cello. He did it as a founding member of the Chico Hamilton quintet, one of the signature groups on the west coast jazz scene of the 1950s and 60s. He also played piano for Harpo Marx, composed film scores in Hollywood and taught college anthropology.

Today, Fred Katz lives with his daughter in California. And one of his classic recordings has been reissued. Jon Kalish visited Katz at his home.

(Soundbite of music)

JON KALISH: Fred Katz lives in a ranch house on a quiet street in the suburbs south of Los Angeles. As I walk up the driveway, I can hear the sound of the piano coming from the garage.

(Soundbite of door-knocking)

Mr. FRED KATZ (Musician): Hello. Yeah.

KALISH: Hello.

Mr. KATZ: Hi there, young (unintelligible).

KALISH: (Speaking in foreign language)

KALISH: Katz's music studio is in his garage. On a wall is a faded poster of the 1960 version of "Little Shop of Horrors," one of three Roger Corman films Katz scored. At the age of 88, Katz is still composing, often as he sits in front of the '88.

Mr. KATZ: My son asked me to write a lullaby for a friend of his who has just had a child. So I sat down and wrote something.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KATZ: And it seems to work, you know? I just got through with it as you knocked on the door.

KALISH: We walked from the garage into the house passed a Zen garden, a nod to his embrace of Buddhism a half century ago. Katz is also a Jew. And inside his home are many Jewish mystical texts that he studies on the Sabbath. His life and career has been similarly all embracing. By the time he was a teenager, he was an accomplished pianist and cellist and a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. And that lead him to folk music.

Mr. KATZ: The Communist Party in those days, we used to do hootenannies. And that was part of, I think, of the radical movement to bring back American folk poetry. We really were terrific that way.

KALISH: Katz's interest in folk music would play a big part in his life later on. But after World War II, he played piano for the likes of Vic Damone and Lena Horne. Horne's drummer was Chico Hamilton, who was putting together a group of his own and invited Katz to join as a pianist.

(Soundbite of drums)

Mr. KATZ: I was very good in improvisation. On piano, it was no problem. But on cello, it was another world to me. I couldn't think like a jazz man on the cello.

(Soundbite of music)

KALISH: The group's saxophonist and flautist, Buddy Collette, remembers a gig in Long Beach where that changed. During the quintet's breaks, Katz would sit at the front of the stage and play solo cello. When the rest of the musicians returned to the bandstand, Katz was stranded out front.

Mr. BUDDY COLLETTE (Musician): He really couldn't get back to the piano. We were all in the way. So then band would hit without him. And now he's got the cello in his lap, so he starts playing the lines from the piano on the cello. We've created something without even looking for it.

(Soundbite of music)

KALISH: The quintet's sound, cello, guitar and reeds up front, became a distinctive part of West Coast jazz.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. FRED LONBERG-HOLM (Musician): So often, the cello ends up sounding kind of square or folkie or something not jazz. And Fred managed to find a way that it makes it swing.

KALISH: Fred Lonberg-Holm is a Chicago-based jazz cellist who's recorded a tribute album to Fred Katz.

Mr. LONBERG-HOLM: What stands out most, really, is the sound and the humanity of the sounds. He's a Buddhist and a very, sort of, open-minded, verbal, non-barrier oriented individual - forget about him as a cellist - and trying to explore as many aspects of humanity as possible. And it comes out in his music.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KATZ: To me, the art of improvisation and composition is that you are exploring something which you never expected to find. And when you find it, or at least you think you found it, it's a great moment of fun.

KALISH: Fred Katz was attracting enough attention as a member of Chico Hamilton quintet that he started making records of his own. In 1958, he recorded "Folk Songs for Far Out Folk."

(Soundbite of music)

KALISH: Katz doesn't play on the album, but he considers it the pinnacle of his work as an arranger. He assembled three separate ensembles to play his arrangements of African, American and Jewish folk songs.

(Soundbite of music)

KALISH: Katz continued recording and performing into the 1960s. But at the end of the decade, this high school dropout joined the anthropology department at California State University at Fullerton, where he spent close to 30 years teaching comparative religion, ethnomusicology and magic. Katz retired from the university in 1990, but he has continued to compose. Over the course of his remarkable career, he has written solo cello sweeps, works for orchestra and today he's working on piano preludes inspired by Jewish mysticism.

Mr. KATZ: What I'm looking forward to is, where is my next plateau? Where do I go from here? That's always a problem. That's why I'm going back again to study the mystery of everything. And somehow, hopefully, that will give me an idea. Maybe a note or a series of notes or a chord.

KALISH: Today, Fred Katz suffers from agoraphobia and rarely leaves his home, so it's unlikely that anyone will hear his latest compositions. They can hear "Folk Songs for Far Out Folk," which was recently reissued.

For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish.

BLOCK: You can hear much more of Fred Katz's music, including full songs from "Folk Songs for Far Out Folk" at our new music website, NPR.org/music.

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