An indication of Katie Cavera’s popularity can easily be found by checking her calendar of upcoming engagements, which shows consistent bookings into January 2018. She usually works three days a week with the Ellis Island Boys at Disneyland. For the past 16 years, she’s had a Wednesday night sing-along gig with sousaphonist C.J. Sam’s at Curley’s Cafe in Long Beach. She works with a cabaret performance group called Vaud and the Villains, freelances with various groups at festivals, performs for swing dancers, and occasionally teaches at a jazz camp.
Her most notable qualities are her musicality, her versatility and her likeability. She’s a rhythm guitar specialist in the style of Freddie Green and Al Casey, plays a hot 1920s plectrum and tenor banjo as well as a New Orleans-style string bass, and sings in the ’20s pop style of Helen Kane and Ruth Etting. The late jazz critic Jim Leigh and bandleader/multi-instrumentalist Clint Baker dubbed her the “California Sunshine Girl” because of her ever-present sunny stage presence.
Growing up in Evansville, Indiana, Katie got a five-string banjo from her Dad at age 3, briefly took piano lessons and had some exposure to bluegrass. She soon decided that the banjo was her instrument of choice, especially after hearing Clancy Hayes of the Lu Watters band.
It was off to Ball State University for two years before transferring to Indiana U. where she was a theater major and studied jazz performance and composition under Dr. David Baker, whom she credits for his guidance and encouragement. In addition to playing in a Dixieland band, she was a member of Baker’s jazz ensemble that performed a special presentation of Duke Ellington’s Masterworks at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
She soon realized that a career in music would enable her to earn a living while having fun. It was while attending IU that she met Woody Pittman, a comedic magician. The couple were married for 20 years before Woody succumbed to kidney cancer in 2014. Katie learned some magic from her husband and is a member of the Academy of Magical Arts and Magic Castle, an exclusive club for magicians.
Moving to California in 1994, she freelanced, became a member of the San Fernando Banjo Band and over the years, worked with Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band, Hal’s Angels, Rhythm Rascals and the Reynolds brothers and appeared with jazz icons like Jim Cullum, Bob Helm, Bobby Gordon and Leon Oakley. In 2003, she traveled to Japan with Clint Baker’s New Orleans Band that performed before an audience of 25,000 at the Jazz City Osaka Festival.
She considers George Probert, Clint Baker and Marc Caparone among her peers who became her mentors. Pianist Ray Skjelbred comments, “Katie loves what she does and makes everyone feel good about playing music with her. She’s a timekeeper with a heartbeat sound.” As drummer Hal Smith told her, “If a band can’t play to your time, it can’t play.”
For a period of five years (2006-2011), she was part of a production, “A la Recherche de Josephine” (Looking for Josephine), a review about New Orleans jazz, Hurricane Katrina and Josephine Baker, with a score arranged by pianist David Boeddinghaus. The show premiered at the Opera Comique in Paris and subsequently toured Germany, Austria, Spain and France (plus an American premier in Montclair, New Jersey). It was nominated for a Moliere Award, the national theater award bestowed by the Association Professionnelle et Artistique du Theatre.
Over the past dozen years, she along with several of her neighbors in the West Adams district of Los Angeles have been trapping feral cats and taking them to a local facility that will neuter them at no charge before releasing them where they no longer will be able to add to the overpopulation of these stray animals born in the wild.
Her parents, Jim and Ann (who will be celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary this year) wrote a book in 2013 entitled Closing in on God devoted to stories of faith, hope, love and laughter from the second half of life.
Katie feels fortunate to live in the L.A. area where there are a wide range of opportunities to perform. “I enjoy playing for new and different audiences and especially sharing what I do with others who cannot play an instrument. I just enjoy playing,” she said with a smile.