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Buddy System of Fred Katz

Weekend series provides a forum for composer to pay tribute to his musical mentor Collette.


When composer, cellist and anthropology professor Fred Katz turned 80 earlier this year, his children threw him a birthday party in Santa Monica that drew about 300 of Katz's friends and family.

One was more of a surprise than the others.

As Katz was getting ready to play "Blue Sands," the signature piece of the Chico Hamilton Quintet written in 1955 by Buddy Collette when he and Katz were members of that ensemble, the doors opened as he introduced the number and slowly, on the arm of an aide, in walked Collette, still feeling the effects of a 1998 stroke.

"It was a magical moment," Katz said by phone recently from his home in Fullerton. "He was barely able to walk. There was no way I expected him to come. People were crying and I started to sob. That he would do this to honor me, that will live with me forever."

In his own way, Katz has paid homage to Collette, whom he describes as his mentor. His three-movement "Concerto for Buddy," written a dozen years ago to feature the saxophonist-clarinetist-flutist with string and rhythm section, will be performed during a Buddy Collette tribute Saturday for the California Institute of Jazz's four-day Jazz West Coast II celebration at the Hyatt Newporter in Newport Beach. It will be only the second performance of the piece, which was premiered last year at Chapman University.

Collette, who still hasn't heard it, will be in the audience. "Fred gave me copies of the parts when he first wrote it," he said in a separate interview, "but we never got to do it and I was unable to go to the previous performance."

Collette remembers how Katz, who first played piano with Hamilton's combo, would stay on the bandstand while the group took a break and turn to his cello. It happened at the long-defunct Strollers club in Long Beach.

"Fred had loads of energy, and during intermission he'd play solo cello. He had complete free expression and that classical training. After a half-hour, we'd sneak back up on the bandstand, he'd keep right on playing and with us there, the bandstand was so crowded, he couldn't get back to the piano. So he began to play his parts on the cello."

That orchestration led to one of the most highly regarded group sounds in jazz history: Katz's cello, Collette's saxophone and flute, Jim Hall's guitar, Carson Smith's bass and Hamilton's drums.

"The cello gave [the group] a special sound so everybody started writing jazz lines for me to play on cello," says Katz. "The writing was really, really lovely. Jim Hall wrote some beautiful pieces. We were playing classical music in a jazz framework."

Katz, who had no trouble playing jazz piano for Hamilton, singer Lena Horne and others, says he found it difficult at first to improvise on the cello. "I went into a free fall the first time. All that classical training. It was a psychological problem; I became powerless."

It was Collette who showed him the way out.

"Listening to Buddy brought me up to another level. He's the master, plays wonderfully lyrical phrases equally well on each instrument. He's never played a bad note in his life."

The highlight of Katz's experience with the Hamilton band came, he said, at the 1956 Newport, R.I., Jazz Festival when the group performed "Blue Sands."

"It was a very simple piece, very entrancing; Chico using his ability to make the drums sound like a harmonic instrument," Katz said. "But we didn't know how that audience would react to it. They didn't make a sound as we played. Then, when it was over, the applause grew and grew. They tore the place up."


* "Man of Many Parts: A Tribute to Buddy Collette" featuring "Concerto for Buddy" will be presented Friday at the Hyatt Newporter, 1107 Jamboree Road, Newport Beach. 7:30 p.m. $25. Jazz West Coast II runs today-Sunday. (562) 985-7072.

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