Musician Fred Katz dies

Fred Katz, above, was "one of those guys who will get under your skin and kind of change your life without you knowing it right away," musicologist Josh Kun once said. (Photo courtesy Hyman Katz)

Fred Katz, a musician, composer and educator who helped introduce the cello to jazz, died Sept. 7 in Santa Monica from complications of kidney failure and liver cancer. He was 94.

His death was confirmed by his son, Hyman Katz.

A child prodigy on piano and cello, Katz studied under Pablo Casals and performed with the National Symphony in Washington. He also backed Lena Horne and Tony Bennett on piano before bridging the gap between classical training and improvisation in the vibrant L.A. jazz scene of the '50s as part of the Chico Hamilton Quintet.

During that period he arranged the landmark 1959 album "Folk Songs for Far Out Folk," a richly orchestrated mix of Hebraic melodies with American and African folk music. The recording was reissued by the Idelsohn Society in 2007 and led to Katz's first live performance in 20 years in the Skirball Center's 2010 show "Jews on Vinyl."

"I can guarantee if you haven't seen him or heard him play, he's one of those guys who will get under your skin and kind of change your life without you knowing it right away. That's what he did for me," musicologist Josh Kun, who curated the Skirball show, told The Times in 2011.

Born in New York City on Feb. 25, 1919, Katz began playing cello at age 12. At 15 he played the Saint-Saens cello concerto at New York's Town Hall.

He dropped out of high school to devote himself to music. His diverse resume would grow to include the scores for Roger Corman films, including "A Bucket of Blood" and "The Little Shop of Horrors."

One of the founders of the Hamilton combo, he played piano during sets and took out his cello during breaks.

"And a lot of times he'd play too long and we'd have to get up on the bandstand, which was very small," Buddy Collette, the influential saxophonist, clarinetist and flutist, recalled in a 1993 Los Angeles Times interview, "and by the time he'd open his eyes and look up, there we'd be. Chico would start playing, and Fred was trapped up there in front of the band; he couldn't get back to the piano. So he'd start playing his piano parts on cello. And that's the first time we knew it would work."

Soon, "everybody started writing jazz lines for me to play on cello," Katz told The Times in 1999.

Although Katz had no formal degrees, he had a long career as a college instructor, teaching for more than 30 years at Cal State Northridge and Cal State Fullerton. His specialties included cultural anthropology, shamanic magic and religion. (The Doors' John Densmore was one of his students.)

Katz made sporadic appearances around Southern California in the last several years but continued to write music, including works inspired by the Kabbalah, "The Divine Comedy" and Chinese mysticism.

In addition to his son, he is survived by a daughter, Marian Scatliffe, and five grandchildren.

chris.barton@latimes.com