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.
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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.