The basement in the Katz’s East Meadow home is silent. On any given day for more than five decades, the sound of students working to master the bassoon and other woodwind instruments consumed the room, as William Katz taught lesson after lesson intent on sharing his passion for music.
Katz, an exemplary educator and musician, died Dec. 23, 2022, of coronavirus-related illnesses. He was 93. He leaves behind his wife Gloria, two sons, Alan and Jonathan, his grandson, Benjamin Chapoteau-Katz, along with many who respected, loved and admired the man often lovingly referred to as “a walking musical encyclopedia.”
“Dad gave so many lessons that Jonathan and I (still) experience phantom bassoon duets emanating from his basement studio,” said his son, musician and music educator Alan Katz. “During the summers he taught at camps and summer schools. And he was always guest-conducting in other areas all over the country. We always knew we were sons of an important person, but it was people who told us, not Dad.”
Katz was selfless, so committed to teaching young aspiring musicians that when he was chairman of the music department at East Meadow High School, he turned down an offer to be the district’s chairman because, Alan said, his father wanted to keep teaching, which he wouldn’t be able to do with more responsibility.
And many of his students went on to be successful, like Alan Goodman, who became the principal bassoonist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Bill Sherman, the musical director of “Sesame Street,” who produced the “Hamilton” original cast album.
Katz was honored upon his retirement from East Meadow High School in 1994 by the New York State School of Music Association with a Distinguished Service Award. He had been director of bands, music department chairman and taught at the district for 40 years. But Katz didn’t stop teaching, continuing to do so in his home and even on Zoom during the pandemic until two years ago.
Katz was born in Far Rockaway where he attended area public schools, but it wasn’t music that initially interested him. He was an athlete, excelling at basketball and tennis in high school, which he played until he was 86 years old. And he was also a lifeguard at the beach for many years.
His love affair with music began when he was 15 after bringing home a copy of Esquire Jazz Magazine that he purchased at a candy store. The magazine, which was filled with photographs of the musical greats of the day — Louie Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Coleman Hawkins — also included a jazz recording. Katz loved it and went on to buy other jazz records.
Attending a live symphony at Brooklyn Technical High School shortly after his high school graduation in 1948 led him closer to his destiny. His former music teacher, who brought him there, had Katz sit near the bassoon player. From then on, Katz decided he would master the bassoon and then he went on to learn to play all the other woodwind instruments.
Katz graduated from University of Mississippi with a bachelor’s in music education and earned a master’s degree from SUNY Potsdam. He began his teaching career at a school in Lyon Mountain in 1953 for a year. Katz wanted to return home to Long Island.
East Meadow educator and romance
After receiving job offers from two school districts — Patchogue and East Meadow — he decided on East Meadow so he could be closer to Far Rockaway.
Katz was influential in shaping the district’s budding music department and brought it much success.
“Bill Katz was an institution in East Meadow,” said Scott Eckers, an East Meadow School Board trustee. “When you think of music, he is the first person that comes to mind even if you never had him in school or took private lessons with him. East Meadow School District’s music department is renowned, the result of Bill Katz’s influence.”
Katz met the woman that he always referred to as the love of his life, Gloria Rader, on a blind date in 1960, asking her to attend an all-county concert at Uniondale High School. She still laughs when she retells the story, recalling that she had no idea where they were going and “dressed to the nines.”
Gloria, who lived in Brooklyn, had worked as an associate television producer for quiz shows such as “Concentration” and “21,” and later, in public relations, before meeting Bill.
“I was a city girl and he offered me a new world,” she said. “I loved what Bill was, the work, the music, his students. I was very proud of him and went to every concert in our 60 years together.”
They married a year after they met.
Shortly after he arrived at EMHS, Katz formed a jazz band, which wasn’t common at the time. And beginning in 1964 all the musical groups at the high school would cut a record at a recording studio at Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan, as part of an educational music record created by Belwin Mills, a music publishing company.
In 1968 one of those records somehow got into the hands of a Venezuelan official who invited the EMHS band to play at a two-week festival in Barquisimeto, Venezuela where they performed in several parades. The all-expense paid trip was an adventure of a lifetime for the 65-member band and Katz.
Katz enrolled the EMHS band to perform in the Columbus Day Parade in Manhattan in 1992. They placed first and have gone on to win repeatedly for more than a decade.
Percussionist Steve Blutman met Katz when he attended EMHS. Katz had just retired but returned to help the music teachers on a part-time basis. Then Blutman worked with Katz at Nassau Suffolk Performing Arts, a non-profit founded in 1994 that provides performance opportunities to student musicians across Long Island.
“Bill mentored me at the start of my career and gave me great advice,” said Blutman, who is now the director of percussion studies at Long Island University Post. “We used to meet at the Apollo Diner and talk business. Bill knew all things music in New York.”
Katz also edited the jazz section of the New York State School Music Association manual and spearheaded the creation of an all-county jazz performing ensemble. He was honored by the Long Island Music Hall of Fame as its 2012 Music Educator of Note.
Abby Behr, former band director and former director of music and art for the East Meadow School District, said she remains pleased that Katz received the honor.
“I don’t know anyone who had more of an impact on the teachers and students across Long Island than Bill,” said Behr, who retired in 2015. “He was so knowledgeable about so many things. He’d know a piece that a particular group did during a particular year. He was a walking musical encyclopedia. He was so involved on a county and state level through NYSSMA.”
Joel Levy met Katz in 1985 when he hired him as band director at Woodland Middle School. Levy went on to become chairperson of East Meadow High School’s music department before retiring in 2017.
“Who could be better to work with than Bill. He knew about every chamber music, concert and jazz music and he could play all five (woodwind) instruments,” Levy said. “He set the standard in music education in East Meadow and for the state to live up to. Bill established music at East Meadow High School. My job was to keep it going.”