Passions Project: Stu Katz

Jazz pianist and vibraphonist

Photographed at his winter apartment in Los Angeles

Some of Chicagoan Stu Katz’s passions are quiet. He loves his family, his former career as a corporate attorney and complicated word puzzles. But there’s one passion you can’t miss: jazz.

“I have been a working jazz musician for over 65 years. Thankfully, it’s a passion I can indulge myself in even at my age, which is 82,” Katz says.

Katz comes from a musical family. His mother taught herself how to play piano by ear, and his father, a traveling salesman, was a vaudeville tap dancer before he settled down and got married.

Katz started playing piano by ear when he was 3 years old. Later when he tried to learn to read music, he struggled. “I couldn’t take lessons or discipline myself to read music.

But if I heard most songs played one time through, I almost always could play them,” he says.

When Katz was 15 years old, he started playing vibraphone with a dance band whose repertoire consisted of popular music, such as the compositions of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and George Gershwin. After that, he started going to local jam sessions where he would listen to, meet and eventually work with Chicago’s finest jazz musicians, playing vibraphone and piano.

His friendship and musical partnership with trumpeter and saxophonist Ira Sullivan has lasted through the decades. “We started performing together when I was 17 years old, and we performed together as recently as last year,” Katz says.

Katz has played professionally in all kinds of jazz venues, including clubs, jazz cruises, festivals and other organized public concerts. “As long as my passion is burning brightly and my health permits,” he says, “I can and will still perform.”

Photos and Words by Heidi Wagner

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