It’s comforting to know that Dr. Mortimer Katz went out swinging. The effervescent tenorman and clarinetist, passed away this week at the age of 87. But as recently as August, he was still playing great solos and challenging his fellow players at the JazzWorks jazz camp. Morty started going to camp in 2005, when he was in his late 70s. He missed a couple of recent ones but returned this year. People had to help carry his instrument cases for him, to and from jam sessions, but when he opened them up, he was still a great player, an inspiration.
To give you an example, here’s a clip from the final concert of the camp — Morty playing Benny Golson’s Along Came Betty, along with vocalist Leslie Toope, in Frank Lozano’s combo, aptly named Frankly Mortified.
The sound is not as strong as it once was, but the command of the harmony is still there. This is one of the most difficult tunes in the hard-bop canon and Morty was all over it.
That’s typical of him. Well into his 80s, Morty was still striving to improve. He would get together regularly with his neighbour and fellow tenorman Bernard Stepien and they would work on tunes — the harder the better. Whenever I ran into Morty, he would tell me what tune he was working on, just so I’d be ready to play it with him at a jam session. Invariably it was a lovely tune, but a killer. Along Came Betty was one of his favourites. Another was You Must Believe in Spring, another very complicated tune. One JazzWorks jam session he produced Bill Evans’s Very Early, and left everybody struggling to keep up. This summer he was working on Dolphin Dance. I hope he got to play it.
As Citizen jazz writer Peter Hum wrote a few years ago: “Would that all of Ottawa’s jazz hopefuls delved as deeply as Katz has into the jazz repertoire.”
I should also mention that some recent summers he would attend as many as three jazz camps, including some in the United States. “I might not have that much time left,” he joked with me, when I asked him why so many.
Joking was another thing Morty did so well. Many is the workshop or jazz camp rehearsal that was enlivened by a Katz wisecrack. A few years ago I was playing at the NAC Fourth Stage as a member of the Tim Murray Quintet. After intermission, I got on the microphone and thanked people for sticking around. A voice, undeniably Morty’s voice, came from the back of the room:
“The doors were locked,” the voice said.
We’ll miss that too.
Morty’s daughter, Sharron Katz, is also a musician, living in Toronto. A few months ago, she wrote a song in his honour. You can listen to it here.
There will be a memorial Saturday morning, Oct. 26, at Beechwood Cemetery and Funeral Home, 280 Beechwood Avenue, starting at 11:30.
Many of you already know that the invaluable, friendly and and always patient administrator of JazzWorks, Anna Frlan is also an important artist. On Thursday, Oct. 17, her exhibition, Interbellum IV, opens at the Council of the Arts in Ottawa, at Arts Court, 2 Day Avenue.
Interbellum IV is the fourth in a series of sculpture exhibitions that examine the uneasy peace that follows war.
A previous exhibition at the Ottawa School of Art in January was described by an Ottawa critic as “simply brilliant” and “the best show I have seen by a local artist.”
The current exhibition runs through Nov. 14 in the Micaela Fitch Room and there is an opening reception Thursday night from 5 to 8. You could drop in and still make the jam session.
Speaking of which, the host band for the October jam is !Frayneology!, a band that includes not only exclamation marks but Rob Frayne on saxophone. Other members include Devon Woods and David Fraser on saxes, Hélène Knoerr, voice and double bass, Mary Moore, voice and drums, Marc Salsbury, guitar and Karl Nerenberg, piano.
If memory serves, this group tore up this year’s final concert at the JazzWorks jazz camp with some brilliant arrangements, for which Rob Frayne was responsible, of course.
Don’t miss them. !Frayneology! plays at 8:30 and the open jamming will begin about 45 minutes later.
A further note on jams: The first Sunday one of the season indicates that the Sunday concept is catching on. Attendance is increasing gradually, but the relaxed, uncrowded vibe continues.
Most welcome was the presence of a number of young musicians, many of them students of pianist Yves Laroche. Three of them, pianist Alex Lim-Sersan, bassist Alec Zhang and drummer Cameron Macdonald, played a nice set as host band, and other students were active in the jamming that followed. They held their own well. The jam session is its own kind of learning experience: you learn what to do when the form gets lost, or when different sets of chords are being played by different players, or when the trumpet player ends his solo four bars too early, or how to create an ending on the fly when nobody had thought about it beforehand.
Part of learning jazz is learning jazz survival strategies and the jam session is a good place to do it.
Trombonist Peter Turner is one of many Ottawa musicians who are fans of Bill Gordon. Bill recently retired as manager of Vineyards, the jazz-flavoured wine bar in the ByWard Market and Peter decided to throw a party for him.
He invited musicians who had performed regularly at Vineyards to his home and many attended. Bill established a rotation of local musicians at Vineyards, most of them playing once a month. When a place showcases jazz three times a week, that’s quite a few musicians.
The reason so many showed up is that Vineyards, under Bill Gordon’s management, which began in 1980, was a place that was respectful of musicians. They were paid a decent wage and treated well by Bill and his staff. As anyone who has performed in bars and restaurants can attest, this does not always happen.
It’s not a perfect place to play. There is not a proper stage and the performing area can’t accommodate more than two musicians at a time, yet most of the best musicians in Ottawa have been part of the duos that performed at Vineyards over the years.
No doubt they appreciated the fact that Vineyards was willing to take a chance on jazz and support it on long-term basis, three nights a week.
At the party there speeches and no small amount of wisecracks. There was the usual exchange of anecdotes about rowdy customers and other impediments to jazz performance. After a few of those, I asked Bill if he had any musician horror stories. He said he couldn’t think of any: the musicians had always been co-operative and professional. That’s probably because Bill helped create an environment in which they could be at their best.
We’ll miss him. The good news is that Vineyards carries on its jazz policy, Bill Gordon’s legacy, three nights at week.
Comments will be 'approved' before they are made visible. If you are leaving a comment, please sign it with your full name. Anonymous comments won't be published.
About this blog
Tune Up won't be a calendar of events — Ottawa Jazz Happenings takes care of that. But it will discuss events and issues of interest to the JazzWorks community. Journalist, author, trumpet player and a jazz camper since 1999, Charley Gordon is a former vice-president of JazzWorks.