The Anthropologist Jazz Pianist


When the folks at Reboot Stereophonic told Fred Katz they wanted to reissue his long-unavailable album, “Folk Songs for Far Out Folk,” the cellist was amused but slightly baffled.

“At first [my reaction] was ‘Who me?’” the 88-year-old Katz said in a phone interview from his home in Fullerton, Calif. “This album was written in 1958 for God’s sake. I was very pleased, of course, but I didn’t feel an enormous amount of great exultation, because as someone who is constantly writing and creating and composing I’m into what I’m doing right now.”

You might say that this latest event is just one more highly unlikely turn in a highly unlikely life. Unlikely but always punctuated with Katz’s boisterous laughter and undauntable good cheer.

Katz grew up in a family in which, as he recalls, “the conversation at the breakfast table between my father and his three sons was about Spinoza, the Brooklyn Dodgers and Karl Marx.”

It was his father’s deep love of humanity — his boundless concern for the little guy — that fed Katz’s interest in other cultures, leading him to combine a love of music with academic training as an anthropologist.

“I studied different cultures — what they thought, what they felt, even their laughter,” he says. He is probably the only professional jazz pianist and classical cellist to teach anthropology at two universities. So it was inevitable that Katz, who was also one of the first musicians to play cello in a jazz context, with Chico Hamilton, would combine those two passions when offered a chance to do his own record.

“It came to me that I would love to do a jazz thing about three different cultures,” he says when asked about the genesis of “Folk Songs.”

It wasn’t quite that straightforward, though. Nothing in Katz’s life ever is.

“I got a call from Warner Brothers asking if I wanted to do an album with Brigitte Bardot,” he explains. “Hey, it’s a gig. It’s not like Moshiach has come. It’s a gig. So I said, ‘yeah, it’s good money.’”

But when the project failed to materialize, the record company asked Katz what he would like to do instead.

The result was “Folk Songs for Far Out Folk,” a startling record that dips into three different folk music traditions: African, American and Jewish.

“I studied the American folk culture, which I knew pretty well,” Katz says. “I studied the African, which was very close to me and the Hebraic, which I read a lot about through Gershom Scholem, who was a great mentor of mine without him knowing it.”

Each of those traditions has a strong improvisational element in it, he notes.

“Every ethnic culture has within it the ability to improvise,” Katz says. Although his father was a nonbeliever and Katz has described himself as “a recovering atheist,” the Jewish tradition was one with which he felt a particular affinity: “I always loved the folk tunes that struck my heart like an arrow.”

He was introduced to chasidic niggunim by a rabbi who was married to one of his students. At a Shabbos dinner at the couple’s home, Katz was shown “this book with beautiful melodies of the chasidic culture,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Oh my God. These are wonderful.’ I kept it to this very day and every Saturday morning I go through one of these melodies and am transported.”

With the very first melody in the book, a niggun of the Baal Shem Tov, Katz knew that this was the music he had to work into “Folk Songs.”

Remarkably, Warner Brothers gave him carte blanche on the recording. He admits that he was shocked by the total freedom he enjoyed.

“This was a revolutionary idea in terms of jazz and still is,” he says. “Taking three cultures like that and making it into a jazz experience was quite different.”

Heard today, nearly a half-century after its initial release, the album still sounds fairly radical, with eccentric but utterly effective instrumentation and jagged, piercing rhythms and colors. It isn’t hard to figure out why it disappeared for almost five decades.

Enter Josh Kun. An English professor who recently joined the faculty at University of Southern California, Kun has been writing about music and popular culture for a dozen years, and exploring the nature of his Jewish identity through those lenses.

“I’ve been trying to live with a sense of Jewish identity that is my own, not scripted by others,” he explains. “Music is a big part of that. Music can be public and mainstream but also contains lots of underground secrets and codes that don’t get retold in public ways.”

Kun began to collect unusual Jewish recordings as he tried to construct a fulfilling sense of who he was as a Jewish American. That, quite unexpectedly, led him to an avocation and a second career of sorts.

“I met a great group of guys who said, ‘You’re sitting on a gold mine and these are our own struggles, too. Why don’t we put out some of this music that’s been left to rot?’”

The result was Reboot Stereophonic, a new record label that is part of a larger nonprofit organization whose other arms include the magazine “Guilt and Pleasure,” a film division and a research group.

Their first CD was a highly successful reissue of “Bagels and Bongos,” a funky fusion of Jewish and Latin music created in 1959 by Irving Fields.

Kun says, “Bagels and Bongos’ was an all-time favorite of mine. I just loved everything about it. It was timely, the music is interesting and it’s smart and sexy in its own strange way. For all of us that was a no-brainer.”

Since that initial success, Kun and his colleagues at the label have allowed themselves to be guided by only one thing: their passion for a record.

“We don’t want to be pigeonholed,” he says. “We’re trying to represent the diversity of the musical ideas out there.”

For Fred Katz, Reboot’s decision to make his musical orphan child their newest project was a satisfying denouement.

“The feeling of an immediate jolt was there, but it peters out because I’m working on something totally different now,” he confesses. “But the fact that it’s being recognized — the Hebraic thing in jazz — that’s fine.”

He laughs, then adds, “I’d say I felt reborn, but Jews don’t get reborn.”

But you could say he’s been rebooted.

“Folk Songs for Far Out Folk” by Fred Katz will be released on the Reboot Stereophonic label on July 10. It is available from the label’s Web site: