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Mortimer Katz remembered: a very long life filled with bebop

Updated October 25
Dr. Mortimer Katz, an Ottawa physician who proved that playing jazz can be a truly life-long avocation, died on Monday afternoon, according to his long-time friend, saxophonist Bernard Stepien. Katz was 87.

Mortimer Katz at Hanoi Pho in June: he loved both listening and playing. ©Brett Delmage, 2013

Almost certainly the oldest active jazz musician in the city, “Mort” was well-known in the jazz community. He frequently participated in local jams and jazz camps as well as the occasional professional gig, playing tenor saxophone, clarinet, and piano.

He was one of the featured musicians at the 2010 Ottawa JazzWorks Gala, where he was described as “the last man standing at many a jazz camp jam session”. The Ottawa Citizen report on the gala noted that “The jam session continued well past midnight, with tenor saxman and octogenarian Mortimer Katz one of the last to leave.”

“What I always remember most about Mort is his irrepressible smile, but I believe that he was special and inspirational to many for continuing to be so musically active into his advanced age,” said vocalist and former JazzWorks jam coordinator Peter Liu. “He oozed love and passion for jazz, both as player and listener, and being around him made you feel it more too. He is a role model for me to keep the jazz spirit alive throughout my own life.”

JazzWorks board member John Graham said he last saw Katz at this August's JazzWorks jazz camp at Lake MacDonald, Quebec. Katz looked “pretty frail” this year, and napped through some of the masterclasses, he said, but “he kept going”.

Katz's jazz style was bebop, “the avant-garde of his time. That was his music,” said Stepien.

Stepien and Katz lived only one block apart. For the last 30 years, they had regular Sunday night jam sessions in Katz's basement, playing his Steinway piano. “I play piano, too, and we would take turns: I would be on the piano and him on either the clarinet or tenor sax, and then we would reverse.”

They played bebop and its successors, but not the easy, one-chord tunes which Katz disliked. He preferred more intellectually satisfying material like John Coltrane, Warne Marsh, and Lee Konitz, Stepien said – but not Thelonious Monk, whose compositions he found difficult.

“He provided me, first-hand, with the exposure to the real bebop language from the 40s and the 50s. That was very precious to me. And playing alone, or playing with someone who doesn't know how to play, is a very different thing from playing with someone who clearly states the language.”

Katz had been playing jazz since the 1930s, Stepien said, starting with boogie-woogie when he was a kid, and playing jazz when he was in medical school in Toronto.

Graham said that Katz told him he had played in dance bands in Toronto. “And he also could do claves because he had played in a Mexican-themed big band where they all wore giant sombreros. We quite liked the idea of Mort in one of those enormous four or five-feet diameter ones!”

Stepien met him at the Jazz Ottawa jam sessions back in the 1970s. “I was trying to play some of my avant-garde stuff as a solo, and all of the sudden I heard a piano player behind me and it was Mort.”

Graham met Katz at a jazz jam at the Bayou club around 2000 or 2001. At the time Katz was still recovering from illness, Graham said, and tottered onto the stage, having trouble even stepping over guitar cables on the stage. “But then we counted the tune off and he just played so well, because he was such a good player.”

“Once he was playing he was an entirely different guy than when he was tottering up. And then of course, he got better. I think he got a lot spryer [over the next few years]. But I just remember what a great player [he was]. You can't make judgments about people before they get up. You can't tell by looking at them how they'll play. I just remember he was kind of frail and then – boy! – could he play!”

Bernard Stepien listens as Mortimer Katz plays at Hanoi Pho in June. ©Brett Delmage, 2013

Ottawa pianist and trombonist Mark Ferguson said Katz asked him to play at his 80th birthday party, together with guitarist Roddy Ellias.

“And I showed up on the night that he told me to be there, and there were no cars or anything, so I figured that's really strange. I thought there was going to be a big party with a whole lot of people there. And it turned out the only people he invited over were me and Roddy and Bernard. It turned out on his 80th birthday, that's what he wanted to do: he wanted to just play with me and Roddy and Bernard. We had a lot of fun. We drank some champagne and it was nice.”

Stepien said he was inspired by Katz's continuing to play even at an advanced age. “I would tell him very often that he was a role model.”

As a person, “he was rather difficult, because he was very perfectionistic. He absolutely hated what I was doing outside of his basement [with avant-garde jazz], of course, except for the later stuff I was doing in bebop.”

Katz went to a jazz camp in Vermont for at least a decade, Stepien said, and was a regular attendee at the JazzWorks camp. Saxophonist Davina Pearl played with him in a combo at the JazzWorks camp, although she'd heard of him well before that: “He was the biggest personality around.”

“He made any gathering way more real and way more funny. So honest and off the cuff.”

By profession, Katz was a medical doctor (an allergist), and Stepien said he never retired from that, either, with an active practice still in existence at his death.

Graham said Katz treated him, his wife, and his daughter in the 1980s. “My wife has real issues with allergies, and she said [after] going to him and the stuff he was doing for her, that was the only time she ever felt really healthy. She was really impressed with Mort; he was good.”

As with bebop, Katz adopted a computer technology early and stayed with it. Graham said Katz had an IBM mini-computer from the 70s, the size of a bar fridge. “Of course, having spent that money on it and of course computers became so much smaller and cheaper than that, but he refused to give it up. So when you went and sat and talked to him, and he asked about your medical history and that, he would type on this thing, and it would punch cards, and then he would have the punch cards go through the reader and that way he would have all your information annotated in the system. In 1989 he was still running this enormous computer. And I said, 'Wow, it's old', and Mort said, 'Yes, I'm not getting rid of it; I'm getting my money out of it.'”

Stepien said he had seen Katz declining slowly over the past years. “At the end for the last two, three, four years, I really kept playing with him to give him a little bit of motivation to continue his quest here for the perfect solo and song. Because always when I wasn't showing up he wasn't playing anymore, except when he was going to jazz camps.”

In June, Stepien invited Katz to play with him and guitarist Nathan Corr at a gig at Hanoi Pho which OttawaJazzScene.ca attended. Katz immediately fit in on clarinet, adding swing and texture, playing intricate solos, and clearly having a great time performing for the whole of the last set.

Katz died of natural causes, Stepien said. A memorial service will be held at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, October 26, at Beechwood Cemetery & Funeral Home, 280 Beechwood Avenue, Ottawa.

The following musicians are scheduled to play at the memorial service: Roddy Ellias, Brian Browne, Mark Ferguson, Charley Gordon, and Bernard Stepien. Peter Hum may also play.

    – Alayne McGregor

October 24: Updated to add memorial service time and location.
October 25: Updated to add list of musicians playing at memorial service.

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