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Interview: Dick Katz

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It's hard to peg Dick Katz. The pianist was on the New York jazz scene starting in the early 1950s. He has played with virtually all of the greats, including Oscar Pettiford, Coleman Hawkins, J.J. Johnson and others. He has recorded on quite a few significant albums, including Benny Carter's masterpiece Further Definitions. He has arranged sessions. He's been an entrepreneur--co-founding Milestone Records in the mid-1960s. And he has produced many sterling sessions, including Alone Together with Jim Hall and Ron Carter. [Photo by John Rogers]

In essence, Dick Katz has been involved with virtually every aspect of the jazz business--from the creation of sweeping music to the shaping of significant jazz sessions and launching of a major jazz label.

In my interview with Dick, 85, the legendary pianist talked about his experiences with Teddy Wilson, Tony Scott, Kenny Dorham, Calvin Newborn, Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, Jo Jones, Helen Merrill, Orrin Keepnews and John Lewis:

JazzWax: Where did you grow up?
Dick Katz: In Baltimore. I grew up during the Depression, but my family was very fortunate. My father was a big deal in the advertising business, so we did OK financially. He had started his own ad agency and was holding his own. He had started out as a poor kid who worked his way up. There were three kids in my family. My sister was nine years older than me. She died in 1984. I also had an older brother. He died in 1997.

JW: Who first exposed you to jazz?
DK: My brother. He had all these records. They were 35 cents each then. Swing era stuff. One day I saw a stack of new records on the player. The 78-rpm that was playing was by Count Basie and His Orchestra. That record turned my life around.

JW: Do you remember the song?
DK: Yes, It was Roseland Shuffle.

JW: Why did you choose the piano?
DK: Fats Waller. I loved his records. But I quickly realized that I didn't have the physical equipment to play stride piano like that. Stride is a specialty. It's a physical thing, almost athletic. In order to play stride, you have to have a certain power and accuracy. When you hit a bass note followed by a chord. That takes constant practice.

JW: Who were your favorite pianists besides Waller?
DK: I was smitten with Teddy Wilson and Jess Stacy.

JW: Did you meet Wilson?
DK: Yes. I took lessons with him. After I graduated from the Manhattan School of Music, I went to Juilliard to study with Teddy during the summer of 1950. The main thing he had, in addition to technique, was enormous taste. He'd coach me using melodic logic. One note leads to the next, in a logical way. He was a very dignified, educated man.

JW: In 1953, you recorded with clarinetist Tony Scott.
DK: He was a mercurial egomaniac. Extremely talented but headstrong. He was like a salesman who oversold himself. He was multitalented. But he'd get an audience in palm of his hand and he'd keep on going and lose them. It was his personality. He mellowed over the years though. He was one of the major players back then. He taught me a great deal, mostly nuts and bolts stuff. This chord goes to that chord.

JW: You became the house pianist at New York's Caf Bohemia, a hot place to be in the mid-1950s.
DK: Yes, I was working with [trombonists] J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding. One night I sat in with [bassist] Oscar Pettiford and [drummer] Kenny Clarke, and we started played together as a trio there and behind other groups.

JW: In 1956, you joined Kenny Dorham's Jazz Prophets.
DK: I went on the road with that group. Kenny was a sweetheart. He was a lovely man. We traveled the circuit for a while. That's the first time I heard [pianist] Phineas Newborn. An amazing player. We were at the Cotton Club in Cleveland. He was there with his brother Calvin. Calvin played all the instruments--vibes, trombone, guitar, you name it. He's still active today.

JW: How was recording Benny Carter's Further Definitions in 1961?
DK: We did that in two sessions. Benny had heard me play, and Jo Jones called me for the job. Jo and I were working together at the Embers in New York. I was playing with [trombonist] Tyree Glenn, Jo and [bassist] Tommy Potter at the time. Benny's music plays itself. But it can be tricky. Papa Jo was having some difficulty with the charts on the session. He was a very proud man. If he couldn't figure out something, he'd get defensive. Benny had a certain mastery when dealing with people. He cooled Jo out like a psychiatrist. He told him to settle down. Everyone had such respect for Benny.

JW: How did Benny do it?
DK: One of his techniques was correcting without insulting. If a musician messed up while playing down a chart, he'd stop him and say so in a way that didn't set you on edge. Actually he did it with me once.

JW: What happened?
DK: I had referenced a standard while improvising on one of Benny's songs. Benny said, “We're happy to have you on board here. But I don't like people injecting other people's songs into my music. Please don't do that." Then he turned to everyone in the band and said, “That goes for everyone." It was never personal.

JW: You play beautifully on Further Definitions, especially on Body and Soul.
DK: Thank you. Teddy Wilson had showed me some chord changes for the second bridge to Body and Soul. I passed them on to Hawk at the session and he used them in his solo. It's an altered-chord sequence.

JW: Did you write them out for Hawkins?
DK: For Hawk? No way. Hawk had super ears. He just looked over my shoulder and gobbled them up. That session was the high point of my career. There was a lot of great playing there as well as warm joking around and nice feelings.

JW: What was the record business like in 1966?
DK: Things were very rough. The jazz business was in the tank. Record distributors had a thing going that they wouldn't distribute your lesser-known artists unless you also had a star.

JW: Right in the middle of this, you started Milestone Records with Orrin Keepnews.
DK: Yes. Orrin's label, Riverside, had gone belly-up. The label had overproduced, winding up with much more inventory than they could get rid of. At Milestone, we agreed that Orrin would handle the business end and I would do the producing. I produced Alone Together with Jim Hall and Ron Carter, Lee Konitz's Duets and others.

JW: How did you and Orrin come together?
DK: Through our kids. I didn't know Orrin that well at the time. I knew that he was out of a job because of Riverside's hard luck. Aside from playing, I wasn't doing too much either and had always had a hankering for producing. Our children went to the same private school in New York--the Fieldston School. At some school event, Orrin and I got to talking. He was itching to start a new company.

JW: Why didn't he take a job with a major record label after Riverside collapsed?
DK: He couldn't. All the big companies he applied to said he was overqualified. So he was having a hard time.

JW: Where did you get the seed money?
DK: I borrowed $10,000 from my brother-in-law, and we started Milestone.

JW: How did you come up with the name?
DK: When you name anything, you have to go through the copyright office. What you find is that virtually everything you can think of is taken. When we tried Milestone, it was available. Orrin had a few albums in the can that were left over from Riverside, so we issued those. I had produced an album with Helen Merrill in 1965, with George Avakian in the booth. We issued that on Milestone, too, as The Feeling Is Mutual. George is great. He's one of my heroes. He's a giant. There would be no jazz without him.

JW: How was working with Orrin?
DK: Orrin is alright. He's a little crotchety, but he's true blue. He knows what he's doing

JW: Who was the most exciting musician you've worked with?
DK: Probably Roy Eldridge. I consider him to be as big a giant as any you can name, including Louis [Armstrong]. Roy was an amazing artist. The other was Oscar Pettiford. And then Benny Carter.

JW: Which recording session was the toughest?
DK: Probably Jimmy Raney and Bob Brookmeyer in 1956. It was tough because of the way Jimmy wrote. He wrote very complex harmonies, and he had two chord changes for every beat. This required a lot of rehearsal, and we didn't have any. I had to sight read and it was very rough. I played on the first four tracks. Hank Jones replaced me for the next four recorded a couple of weeks later. Hank played much better with them than I did.

JW: What group are you most proud of?
DK: Probably my years in the mid-1980s with the American Jazz Orchestra. [Pianist] John Lewis was the musical director. I got to play the greatest music ever. John was my mentor for many years. John was a renaissance man. He was extremely well rounded. He was originally going to be an anthropologist. When Duke [Ellington] came through Albuquerque, New Mexico, where John was raised, that moment changed his life. He had a resolve and ambition like no one I ever knew. Nothing stood in his way.

JW: Was jazz fun?
DK: Fun? Nothing is always fun. A lot of it was fun. A lot of it was stressful. A lot was wonderful.

JazzWax tracks: Dick Katz's earliest recording sessions with Tony Scott appeared on two different 10-inch LPs: Music After Midnight and Jazz for GIs. It's available as a download at iTunes on Tony Scott in Hi-Fi.

Kenny Dorham and the Jazz Prophets is available used for about $20 at Amazon here.

Helen Merrill and Dick Katz collaborated on The Feeling Is Mutual (1965), A Shade of Difference (1968) and Chasin' the Bird (1979). The first two are available from Mosaic Records on The Helen Merrill-Dick Katz Sessions here.

Jim Hall and Ron Carter's duet album, Alone Together, that Dick produced, is available as a download at iTunes or at Amazon here. The Lee Konitz Duets, on which Konitz plays alto and baritone saxes, is available here.

Benny Carter's Further Definitions is one of the greatest jazz albums ever recorded. It would certainly be in my Ultimate Top 25, if I were to create one. The lineup? Benny Carter (alto sax and arranger), Phil Woods (alto sax), Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Rouse (tenor saxes), Dick Katz (piano), John Collins (guitar), Jimmy Garrison (bass) and Jo Jones (drums). You can download it, but I'd recommend buying it. You'll find it here.

Reader Don Brown notes that Dick's Piano & Pen (1958) is a wonderful album that features guitarists Chuck Wayne and Jimmy Raney on different tracks, as well as Joe Benjamin and Connie Kay. It's available as a download at iTunes or at Amazon here.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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