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Katz brings the blues to Chester

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By Travis Jenkins

Even if he’s playing jazz, ragtime, soul music or rock and roll, Bruce Katz is playing the blues.

“There is always blues in there somewhere,” he said.

Katz, a legendary Hammond B-3 organist and keyboardist who has toured with the likes of Gregg Allman and Delbert McClinton, is bringing his band to town for a show at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church as part of a 10-city tour.

Katz was a musical prodigy in the truest sense of the term. As a five-year-old, he was able to easily figure out and play the songs his oldest sister was trying to learn on the piano.

“Five is a little young for formal lessons, but my parents figured they’d better get me some,” he said.

Katz was playing Mozart sonatas by the time he was seven and seemed on his way to being a classical pianist, or at least he did until the blues intervened. Amongst his parents’ records was one by Bessie Smith, one of the most popular singers of the 1920s and ‘30s. Katz not only loved her voice, he was drawn to the sound of her trumpet player, who happened to be Louis Armstrong. That served as a sort of musical gateway drug for Katz into the realm of early jazz, ragtime and blues. He immersed himself in those sounds and started learning to play them…outside the watchful eye of his classically trained piano instructor, of course.

“I didn’t tell my instructor,” Katz said. “He was the kind of guy who would hit your hands with a ruler.”

At that point in time, Katz said most people his age were listening to American Blues being played by British acts like the Rolling Stones and John Mayall. He was listening to the artists (like Muddy Waters) that inspired them.

Katz went on to study at the prestigious Berklee College of Music (he would teach there many years later) in the mid 1970s. By that time, Katz already knew that music was his calling and his career, though he said there was never a point where he actively made that decision.

“I never really wanted to do anything else. In fact, I never considered doing anything else. I really have no skill to do anything else,” Katz said.

As both a student and later a teacher, Katz said he met many people at Berklee who were talented and had good ideas, but just didn’t play especially well. With his classical training, that wasn’t an issue for him, so in an odd way, the classical music he learned as a child fueled his ability to play the blues, jazz and rock and roll.

After college, Katz played with numerous musicians both in concert and in the studio. After 15 years, he came off the road for a while, earned a Master’s degree in Jazz performance, taught music and began working on the material and sound that would ultimately make its way to the public in his solo work.

Katz was on the road again with The Broadcasters in 1992, (the same year he released his first solo album) and played with Duke Robillard and John Hammond, who he still occasionally tours and plays with today. His introduction to Allman came in 2007, when the legendary Southern rock and blues giant was about to embark on a solo tour and was looking for a new piano player.

“Gregg Allman didn’t really run an ad in a trade paper. It’s word of mouth and recommendation,” Katz said.

A mutual friend told Allman about Katz. That earned him an invitation to sit in with the Allman Brothers during one of a run of shows at the Beacon Theater in New York. He didn’t get to rehearse with the band and really didn’t know what songs he’d be playing, so his audition would take place live, without a net, in front of 4,000 fans.

“Gregg had it set up where the organ and piano were next to each other at 90 degree angles so he could move from one to the other easily. So when I sat down, we were almost back-to-back. I was just trying not to elbow him in the chest,” Katz said.

He played on three songs, including “Stormy Monday” and “Statesboro Blues.” He managed not to elbow Allman AND impressed him with his playing. He got the job. A few years later, while playing in Europe, he received another recommendation, this one to play with McClinton.

“You can’t be a bigger fan of Delbert than me,” he said.

On top of being inspiring artists, Katz said he always found Allman (who passed away in May) and McClinton to both be “good human beings.”

“What you see is what you get,” he said.

Katz’s band is a three-piece, but sounds much bigger, he said. He has Chris Vitarello on guitar and vocals and Ray Hangen on drums while he plays the organ and piano. There’s no bass player, Katz plays bass parts on the organ. About 80 percent of what he plays is original material (from his eight solo albums), though he will work in a few covers, including some Allman Brothers songs. Much like Allman and McClinton, Katz’s music is difficult to define or pigeonhole, which is exactly how he likes it. There are elements of rock, jazz, soul…and of course the blues. It’s always in there somewhere.

Tickets are $10 in advance and $15 at the door for the 7 p.m. performance this coming Thursday. For more information, call (803) 379-1683 or go to https://www.facebook.com/groups/1708015049476414/.