Dr. Ernst Katz — 70th Anniversary of the Jr. Philharmonic

Circa 2006

People young and old lined Los Angeles’ city blocks waiting for food handouts. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, a young Ernst Katz—son of Russian immigrants who by his teens had made a name for himself as a concert pianist—believed this depressed and hungry city was also hungry for the uplifting power of music. In 1937, amidst these dismal days, Katz summoned his passion for the importance of early musical training and launched the Jr. Philharmonic Orchestra, giving young people in Southern California a place to go and a challenge to enrich their minds and lives. His first young musicians staged their debut performance on May 15, 1938, and remarkably, the now 92-year-old Katz has almost never missed a practice or performance since. One of the longest-standing youth orchestras in the country—and the only orchestra of its age with its original conductor—the JPO has spawned musical talents populating the greatest symphonies across the world. Furthermore, the more that is learned scientifically about the cognitive benefits of music training, the greater Katz’s gift to his young musicians appears to be.

Over the years, springtime in California has come to mean the JPO’s anniversary Concert Spectacular, the culmination of its concert season, featuring the fun-filled Celebrity Battle of Batons, a star-studded competition allowing many of Hollywood’s best-loved characters to take a turn directing the group. From grand baton-waving to silly walks to breakaway tuxedos, the guest conductors pull out all the stops, the contest builds, the audience delights and the young musicians appear to bloom. And thus another season begins for this widely acclaimed group.

Composed of more than 100 members from ages 12 to 25, today’s orchestra hails from a variety of social, economic and ethnic backgrounds, some traveling over 100 miles for each practice and performance. The prototype of a community volunteer, Katz personally funds the orchestra, providing the music, often the instruments and even concert dress for JPO members who need them—without government subsidies, without soliciting contributions and without charging his young musicians audition or membership fees. Over the years more than 10,000 of his young people have performed for hundreds of thousands of audience members. Interspersed among the regular schedule of performances have been numerous benefit concerts for charitable organizations, with 100 percent of the proceeds going to the host organization.

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Through the years, many who have lauded Katz’s gifts to the community have pointed out that in a world of drug abuse, gangs and other negative pressures, he facilitates a preoccupation with something positive. At the same time, he is fostering another profound benefit—helping develop the minds and thinking skills of his young musicians far beyond their music training.

Since the mid-1970s, research on the effects of music training on the brain, particularly in children, has burgeoned. A multitude of studies from diverse institutions report the same news—that music training, especially in the younger years, generates neural growth and greater cognition, especially in areas of visual-spatial, verbal and mathematical performance, a long-lasting effect many researchers call long-term enhancement.

Dr. E. Glenn Schellenberg of the University of Toronto at Mississauga explains that music training involves experiences that positively affect cognition, requiring kids to pay attention for longer periods, to read notations, to memorize passages and to master fine motor skills.

On a biological level, Dr. Gottfried Schlaug of Harvard’s Medical School, in concert with colleagues both in America and at Heinrich-Heine University in Germany, found structural and functional differences in brains of adult musicians when compared to brains of nonmusicians, such as an increased size of the corpus callosum, a brain structure that facilitates communication between the two brain hemispheres. The differences were especially profound in subjects who had received music training before the age of seven.

Early criticisms of research examining the academic impact of music training raised the chicken-or-the-egg question: Do children with music training score higher on verbal tests, for instance, because those with better verbal skills already are more likely to take music lessons? Or does the music training itself make the difference?

Taking these criticisms into account, the most recent studies have been structured differently, yet appear to show the same results—early music training, in particular, is linked to cognitive development, with an effect greater than other types of stimulating activities. For example, Schellenberg assigned 132 six-year-olds randomly to groups receiving music training, drama training or no artistic lessons at all. With this random assignment, the effects of family background, socio-economic status, intellectual readiness, preferences, etc. made no difference to the outcome. On follow-up testing, those who had received the music training scored highest in academic achievement and IQ, an effect noted across all IQ sub-tests and index scores.

Clockwise from L: Dr. Katz; with Jack Dempsey, Annette Funicello, George Segal, Mia Farrow, Shirley Jones and Mary Pickford
Clockwise from L: Dr. Katz; with Jack Dempsey, Annette Funicello, George Segal, Mia Farrow, Shirley Jones and Mary Pickford

Similarly, Dr. K. Yoshimura of the University of Texas investigated the correlation between music and arts training and test scores on the ACT, SAT and other standardized tests. Across all socio-economic groups, students immersed in arts education scored higher than their peers. Furthermore, the longer the training, the greater the increase in test scores. Thus, despite other elements of their background, students with arts education have an advantage.

On the other hand, Yoshimura’s study and others have shown that socioeconomic status greatly affects whether children have access to music training, within their schools or outside of them, a finding that highlights the importance of opportunities like the JPO, which facilitates training for students of all backgrounds.

As tightening budgets over the past decades have forced many schools to cut their music and arts programs, researchers have appealed to the government to help stem the loss for children of venues for music training. In a 1997 presentation before the House Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies, Dr Frances Rauscher of the University of Wisconsin discussed her research in collaboration with Gordon Shaw of the University of California at Irvine. Speaking specifically of the at-risk child, she noted, “Researchers have found that the failure to develop abstract reasoning represents the most glaring deficit of deprived children—and abstract reasoning is the very skill that is positively affected by music training.”

Thus, we can see in broader terms the scope of Katz’s gift. He provides an important venue for young people of all backgrounds. His students garner not only the joys of music for its own sake, but also the likelihood of enhanced cognitive ability and a boost to future success in whatever fields they choose to enter. Whether Dr. Ernst Katz ever had any notion of the latter makes no difference—many thousands are better off because of him.

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In 2002, Chet Cooper, editor-in-chief of ABILITY Magazine, first met Dr. Ernst Katz at a private White House ceremony. Both men were among a select group of Americans awarded by President George W. Bush with the President’s Community Volunteer Award, the nation’s highest award for individuals who have devoted extraordinary time, energy and resources giving back to their communities. Katz received the award for his work with the Jr. Philharmonic, Cooper for his creation of the ABILITY House program.

Through the years, Cooper has become a loyal patron of the JPO and was especially pleased to talk to Dr. Katz about the 70th anniversary of the orchestra.

Chet Cooper: Good morning, Dr. Katz. How are you?

Dr. Ernst Katz: Well, for an old man I’m good. (laughs) I’m doing my best.

CC: I’d like to ask you about your early experiences in America that inspired you to create the Jr. Philharmonic. Where was your family from?

EK: They came from Russia…They’re an import. (laughs)

CC: What did your parents do?

EK: Well, my father was a hat man, and he founded the Golden Gate Hat Company, the building where our offices are today. My mother was what you would call a housewife.

CC: Was there music in your family?

EK: Yes, there was. My great-uncle was a conductor in Russia and a very fine musician. The Russians held him in very high esteem.

Clockwise from L: Billy Barty, Mae West, Frankie Avalon, Johnny Mathis, Henry Fonda, Barbara Stanwyck and Jack Benny
Clockwise from L: Billy Barty, Mae West, Frankie Avalon, Johnny Mathis, Henry Fonda, Barbara Stanwyck and Jack Benny

CC: Did you ever go to Russia to visit, to see where your family had come from?

EK: No, I never wanted to go to Russia. I had five invitations to go, and I refused to go while it was a Communist state. And then it evolved, but I never did go. I played host to a lot of musicians in my orchestra, though, from the Moscow Conservatory.

CC: How did you get started as a musician? Did your parents have a piano in the home?

EK: Yes they did. That you have to have—you may not have a violin or some other instrument, but a piano you have to have!

CC: (laughs) I see. How old were you when you started to play?

EK: I began when I was 14 years old, which was very late in life, so to speak.

CC: How did you take to it?

EK: I was extraordinary.

CC: (laughs) So it went well?

EK: (laughs) Yes, I really was a phenomenal pianist, if I must say so myself. I’ll pat myself on the back.

CC: And from there with your career, how did people find out that you were so talented?

EK: Newspapers and magazines published it right away. I was quite a story at 14 years of age. And also I was a very cute kid—everybody loved me.

CC: (laughs) So you had an early rise to stardom with your music. At what point did you say to yourself, “I want to share this with others….with the youth?”

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EK: Oh, right away. Because there was nothing at that time for young people. So I started on the East side of Los Angeles, which was the poorest of the poor, and I built the orchestra up from there. It became known so quickly around the world—it was like electricity. There was nothing like it around.

CC: You started it out of your home?

EK: Yes I did. And that house is still standing on South Woods Avenue, a block from Atlantic Boulevard—it was Atlantic Boulevard when I first lived there. But anyway, it’s been a happy journey.

CC: A happy journey for you and for thousands of kids.

EK: Yes. Every major orchestra around the world has roots in our orchestra. For instance, the conductor of the National Symphony in Washington DC is one of our kids.

CC: (laughs) How old do you think that kid is now?

EK: (laughs) I guess he must be…well, I don’t keep count.

CC: You must have thousand of stories…any humorous incidents that come to mind?

EK: The whole thing is humor—because if you don’t have a sense of humor about this sort of thing, you’re likely to drop it immediately! But I’ve got tough skin, so I’m able to hold my own, so to speak. The stream of producing young talent is tremendous, just tremendous. I’ve brought young people from all over Southern California together to make music that sounds terrific. I’ve touched not only the people who were actually in the orchestra, but also their offspring—their children and their children’s children. It’s a wonderful ripple effect. People come back after 50 years, and I look at them, and they are the same people I knew when they were originally in the orchestra. Now, that’s a nice feeling.

CC: Over the years, have you been able to show others how music helps young people with learning, and helps them in school?

EK: Oh, yes. I’ve been invited to talk to assemblies and to orchestras to try to influence other people to do the same thing I did. I can’t force them to do it, but I can talk about it. You have to have enthusiasm, to be thrilled to be alive and thrilled to do anything that will make this world better. And it is better because of the music. Without music, there is no world.

Clockwise from L: Ed Asner, Norm Crosby, Richard Pryor, Jackie Cooper, Dick Van Patten, Joe E. Brown and Buddy Ebsen
Clockwise from L: Ed Asner, Norm Crosby, Richard Pryor, Jackie Cooper, Dick Van Patten, Joe E. Brown and Buddy Ebsen

CC: Do you think your longevity and very active mind are evidence that music really helps the brain?

EK: Definitely. Music is a very special art. I wouldn’t have done it if it didn’t make me feel so good. It’s a magnificent feeling to stand up on that podium, pick up a baton and put a downbeat out there. You’re followed like God—everybody should have that feeling.

CC: Is that the thought behind the Celebrity Battle of Batons?

EK: Yes, because everybody wants to become a conductor. Whether it’s popular music or classical, they all want one thing—to hold the baton to conduct. Hundreds of people have vied for that Golden Baton, and thousands more have enjoyed seeing them do it.

CC: During the years of the Battle of Batons, have many people been injured?

EK: (laughs) No, nobody was injured.

CC: Has any contestant stood out by doing something you didn’t expect?

EK: Oh, many. Jack Benny actually came up, took the concertmaster Gary Greene’s violin, and impromptu played the violin as he conducted.

CC: Well that’s funny, because he played the violin in his comedy act, didn’t he?

EK: Yes, he did. He played it and he joked about it. He was really serious about the violin, but no one took him seriously because he was a comedian.

CC: How have you met the celebrities who have participated in your concerts?

EK: I just picked up the telephone and called them up. When they understand what the Jr. Philharmonic is all about, they take a special interest in it.

CC: Yes, we have some great spirited people who want to give back.

EK: Well that’s what America is all about, you know. When our ancestors came here, there was nothing here. And look at what a magnificent country we have.

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For several decades, Jr. Philharmonic Orchestra concertmaster Gary S. Greene has played ebony to founder Dr. Ernst Katz’s ivory. As Katz’s nephew, he says he was “brought up in the family of music,” attending JPO concerts and rehearsals as a young child, long before he would join the orchestra himself as an adolescent. He became concertmaster—the lead first violinist—when he entered college and has stayed on with the JPO ever since, now taking on many of the day-to-day duties of running the orchestra. Greene reminisced with Chet Cooper about his history with Katz and the noted youth orchestra.

Chet Cooper: What are some of your earliest memories with the Jr. Philharmonic?

Gary S. Greene: Well, there is a picture of me at the 17th anniversary, and now we’ll be celebrating the 70th, so I’ve been around for a while. I remember at that 17th anniversary concert admiring the concertmaster and setting my goal that someday I would become concertmaster just like him. When I turned 12, I joined the orchestra as a violinist in the second violin section. From there I practiced and worked my way up, and I never left. Now I take on a lot more of the duties, including auditioning, and I do a little more conducting each year. In fact, this last concert I did almost all of it.

In a nice turn of events, that concertmaster I idolized as a child attended our last concert, and I invited him to solo with the orchestra at our 70th anniversary.

Clockwise from L: Phyllis Diller, Leslie Nielsen, Chevy Chase, Dick Van Dyke, Arte Johnson, Michael York, Buzz Aldrin and Louis Nye
Clockwise from L: Phyllis Diller, Leslie Nielsen, Chevy Chase, Dick Van Dyke, Arte Johnson, Michael York, Buzz Aldrin and Louis Nye

CC: Do you have a day job, besides working with the orchestra?

GG: Well, by profession I’m an attorney. The interesting thing about the orchestra is that it’s an all-volunteer effort. It’s non-commercial, it’s not subsidized by the government and we don’t solicit. Dr. Katz’s theory has been that by volunteering his support he encourages others to volunteer. Dr. Katz writes the checks for the expenses, as they are—basically, he has invested in the orchestra over the years, for instance with a music library. And we pool resources—my office is in a building that also houses an office for the orchestra, and we do our auditions there. With respect to various orchestra rehearsal locations, because Dr. Katz does so much for youth, there are other groups that see what we do and join forces with us. We are now rehearsing at a private school called the Center for Early Education. It’s a wonderful marriage because they value having a resident orchestra for the students and families to partake in and listen to as part of the education process.

CC: What’s your view of music training in our schools?

GG: Music is important for all areas of human life. People think, “Well, if you cut music out of the schools, so what? Maybe you have a few less musicians.” But it’s much broader than that. Music at its roots teaches discipline, and that gives students a foundation for all other education, for being responsible people. Studying an instrument requires practice and discipline; there’s no other way about it—it’s responsibility. And belonging to an orchestra means learning to work with other people.

I can give you an example of how successful it is. In the year 2000 we put together a Millennium Orchestra. I reached out to the schools all over Southern California. Many schools do not have music programs, and of those that do, most have bands rather than orchestras, so I reached out to the schools that had bands. We tried to involve kids from all economic, cultural, ethnic and social backgrounds, and the group we put together consisted of kids from both affluent areas and poor areas. We brought together close to 2000 musicians for one single rehearsal before a concert at the Shrine Auditorium, where we were to play John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.” In one hour of rehearsal time, we had to make this thing work.

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Now just imagine bringing together even 20 or 30 average middle school and high school kids—you know they’re going to talk, they’re going to make noise, there are going to be all kinds of issues, so how are you going to get them to perform with one hour’s rehearsal? Well, we brought these 2000 young people into the auditorium, and you could hear a pin drop because they were all paying attention. I believe it’s because they all had something in common, which was music. And music means discipline. Because of the training that they’d had, they were able in one hour to put this program together and make it perfect for the performance that night. That kind of capability is what music really teaches.

CC: Do you ever hear from the orchestra’s many alumni?

GG: Last night I was at the Hollywood Bowl and had a chance to speak to one of our former members, who had played in the orchestra approximately 50 years ago. In fact, he was conducting at the Hollywood Bowl—he is Leonard Shlatkin, the conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington DC.

A few years ago, we invited another of our alumni members to perform with us. Approximately 25 years ago he played trumpet in the Jr. Philharmonic. He is still a musician, but he no longer plays trumpet. Today he goes by another name today—Flea—and he plays with the rock group Red Hot Chili Peppers. So our alumni cross the spectrum musically, from classical to popular.

CC: What are some of the most memorable concert experiences?

GG: A little over 30 years ago, we were invited to play a benefit concert for a children’s hospital in Santa Monica. We were going to perform at the Getty Ranch in Malibu—the main property of oil magnate J. Paul Getty Sr. before the current Getty Museum was built in the Pacific Palisades. We were invited by J. Paul Getty and Teddy Getty (his wife at the time, now Teddy Getty Gaston), who had lost their son and wanted to do a benefit concert. Well, we got down to the ranch, looked at the site and couldn’t figure out where we were going to put the orchestra. Mr. Getty suggested, “Why don’t we play the concert right here on the lawn?” And I said, “Well, you can’t put an orchestra on a lawn outdoors without a stage or a shell.” So he replied, “Okay then, it’s simple— we’ll just build you a stage and a shell.” And he did! He built it out of wood so it had a nice sound, and we played on a grass knoll below the house. It was a fascinating afternoon concert, well-attended and very successful. Then after the program they took all the lumber they used for creating this stage and used it to frame the Getty Museum, which was built shortly thereafter.

Clockwise from L: Connie Stevens, Gene Barry, Weird Al Yankovic, Flea, Jimmy Durante, Eddie Albert and George Hamilton
Clockwise from L: Connie Stevens, Gene Barry, Weird Al Yankovic, Flea, Jimmy Durante, Eddie Albert and George Hamilton

Another story goes back to the early 1960s. The City of Los Angeles at that time wanted to expand trade and set up what was called the Sister City program. One of the Sister Cities was Nagoya, Japan, and the Los Angeles mayor at that time, Sam Yorty, invited Dr. Katz to play in this exchange. An all-city high school band from Nagoya was sent to Los Angeles, and our orchestra housed the members of the band and performed in concert with them. When they arrived, we found that none of them spoke English, and no one in our orchestra at the time spoke Japanese. But we mixed the two groups together for a joint rehearsal with Dr. Katz and their band conductor, and without communicating by language, when the baton came down it was amazing—we played perfectly together. Music is that international language—no matter what language people speak, they can communicate through music.

CC: Do you have any favorite memories from the anniversary Concert Spectaculars?

GG: One year we invited Michael York to narrate for us in our performance at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, and we selected Camelot, which he had never narrated before. It just so happened that in the audience that night was the producer for the next national tour of Camelot, and based on Michael York’s performance with us that night he was selected to take the role of King Arthur.

CC: When did the Celebrity Battle of Batons become part of the Concert Spectacular?

GG: That tradition goes back almost to the founding of the orchestra. Dr. Katz thought, how does one really focus attention on young people in music? He wanted to create something positive to get the press out instead of the negative things that usually end up on the front page of the newspaper. So he began inviting famous people— most of whom were not musicians—to our concerts and asking them to come up impromptu and conduct the orchestra. And that has become the trademark of our anniversary concert for almost 70 years now.

It’s almost a Who’s Who of Hollywood that participates in each year’s Concert Spectacular. For the past 10 years the Battle of Batons has been hosted by Army Archerd, columnist for the Daily Variety. Each year five celebrities compete in conducting the orchestra, the audience votes for their favorite and the winner gets the Golden Baton.

CC: What performances stand out in your mind?

There have been some interesting antics. For instance, the comedian Avery Shriver years ago came dressed as a train conductor to conduct the orchestra.

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Also, I will always remember our concert in June 1968, the night after the California presidential primary—when Robert Kennedy was shot. The day of the concert Kennedy was still alive but in critical condition. Jimmy Durante was scheduled to come for the Battle of Batons, but he called in the morning and told us his heart wasn’t in it because he was a godfather to one of the Kennedy children. But that night, unexpectedly, there in the wings just before he was supposed to go on was Jimmy Durante, dressed in the way we always picture him with that hat, and he said, “The show must go on.” You couldn’t get it from anyone more venerable than that— and the show did go on.

Then in the early 70s we invited Henry Fonda to be master of ceremonies and participate in the Battle of Batons. He had never conducted an orchestra, as many have not, and when he got up there he actually froze—he didn’t know what to do until someone gave him the downbeat and got him going. The interesting thing was, he learned all about our orchestra and orchestral music, and he did narration with us—which was very beautiful—and then shortly thereafter he was called upon by the New York Philharmonic to narrate Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait,” and that came out of his experience with us.

We had Flea conduct the orchestra when we brought him back as a celebrity, and he did something most unusual— he stood on his hands and conducted with his feet.

CC: Sounds like it was quite a feat.

GG: (laughs) It certainly was. The audience thought it was tremendous, and he won the Golden Baton that year. Some years earlier we had Weird Al Yankovic come, and he decided to wrap his foot around his head and conduct that way. He was quite dexterous, and he also won the Golden Baton. So we’ve had many interesting things happen. We’ve had a strap or two come off a dress, and we’ve had some really funny people up there.

One night we had Chevy Chase, and—obviously, you knew he was going to do it sometime—he tripped over the podium and really got the audience laughing. We also invited Buddy Ebsen. He was rather serious, but he was the sentimental favorite and won the Golden Baton. He was just so excited about it that he asked the orchestra to perform and celebrate with him his 80th birthday. He invited us out to Palm Desert and we performed at what was at that time the brand-new McCallum Theatre at the Bob Hope Cultural Center, in a fundraiser for Desert Hospital.

CC: What’s on the upcoming agenda for the Jr. Phil?

GG: Well, for one thing, our 70th anniversary concert will be held at Los Angeles’ Walt Disney Concert Hall. It’s very exciting for the orchestra members to get the chance to play in what is considered one of the finest concert halls in the world.

CC: Best of luck, and we’ll be sure to see you there!

foreword by Sandra Herald

Clockwise from L: Stephanie Powers, Pat Boone, Tommy Smothers, Mickey Rooney, Rip Taylor, Bernie Kopell and Gary Owens
Clockwise from L: Stephanie Powers, Pat Boone, Tommy Smothers, Mickey Rooney, Rip Taylor, Bernie Kopell and Gary Owens

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