Oregon Music News: Oregon’s all-genre music magazine since 2009


Catherine Noll: From the Purple Onion to Pizzicato

By PAULA M. WALKER // To Oregon classical music enthusiasts, Catherine Noll was the second violinist in the Oregon Symphony for 25 years.  But in her 20s, she sang jazz in San Francisco and New York nightclubs, and later, in Portland. 


Greenwich Village.  1957.  At the newest nightclub in the Village, an attractive young woman dressed in black steps up to the microphone.  In a dark room, the overhead spotlight rivets the audience’s attention on the singer. 

Her repertoire is not the usual standards sung in smoky Village bars.  Yet it caught the attention of the Village Voice, which gushed about her singing and her beauty.

“Some very nice-looking people are having a ball listening to a very beautiful girl sing the sort of songs everyone wishes some beautiful girl would sing at parties.  Her name is Catherine Lawrence.  She is from Oregon.  She is 22.  She is lovely.” (The Village Voice Feb. 27, 1957)

Catherine Lawrence became Catherine Noll.  To Oregon classical music enthusiasts, she was the second violinist in the Oregon Symphony for 25 years.  But in her 20s, she sang jazz in San Francisco and New York nightclubs, and later, in Portland. 

Catherine distinguished herself by singing unusual, little-known songs.  As the Village Voice put it, “she has a large supply of songs that are never sung enough: “Inch Worm,” “Come by Sunday,” “Lilac Wine,” “Mountain Greenery,” “Smoking my Sad Cigarettes.”  Her voice is as mellow and warm as her smile or as cool and sad as her frown.”

Catherine respected the music.  She always wore black, so that her attire did not detract from the song.

“A lot of entertainers I knew would gussy themselves up, so that all you would notice when they came on stage was them, with their glitter,” she said. “I thought, ‘I don’t want to be that way.’  What I’m trying to do is bring some life to a song.  And I can do that better if I’m as unnoticeable as possible.”

Catherine was born in Baker City and moved to Portland when she was 11.  She left for San Francisco when she was 18 because “I wanted to live!” she exclaimed.  Committed to her classical musical education, she went to San Francisco to study with the concertmaster for the San Francisco symphony.

One of her fellow boarders was jazz pianist Forest Brothe.  He heard her singing. “I don’t know if it was in the shower or what,” she said. 

Brothe asked her to come sing with him.  “That’s where I gained some confidence,” said Catherine.  “I could carry a tune.  I could read music.  It never occurred to me to do anything with it until Forest.”

They got a gig at the Purple Onion, which she described as “kind of a fancy-schmancy place.”  Among her many adventures, she met Maya Angelou who worked at the Onion.

“She was a kick,” said Catherine. “Very tall and very slim everywhere except her bottom. She was so proud of her bottom, she would design dances to show it off. She sang mostly Caribbean-type music and was barefoot.” 

In 1956 she moved to New York “to save an unsave-able marriage.”

Her husband introduced her to the man who eventually became her second husband, George Karlson.  George was born in Manhattan and showed Catherine around New York.

She first worked at Upstairs at the Duplex on what’s been called the most iconic block in Greenwich Village. When the owner decided to close the Upstairs, Catherine and George offered to manage a nearby club, the Mezzanine at the Complex.  In those days nightclubs respected the artists and did not serve drinks when they were performing, only during the breaks.

When I came on to sing, no drinks were served. No talking was allowed.” Catherine said. “That was how everybody was in New York.  When you went to hear somebody, you heard them.  If somebody was making noise, the audience would cuss them out.”

Pianist Jack English was Catherine’s favorite accompanist.  As the Village Voice put it, “he plays in a very enlightened style that helps Cathy to get across the song in the way it was entitled to be sung.”

When English left, Catherine auditioned many other pianists, including Mose Allison.  She finally hired George Cory, whose later claim to fame was composing the music for  “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” 

“His playing was a little too florid for my taste,” Catherine said. “But I thought, ‘we can trim this down.’ ”

Noll also sang at the Le Ruban Bleu, owned by Cy Walters, the father of broadcast journalist Barbara Walters.  Catherine said it was a popular place frequented by gangsters.

“Everyone was just fine with it because it was money, money, money,” she said.  “Not much fun to sing for. One of their favorite songs was Love for Sale.”

On the 1950s New York jazz scene, it was not uncommon to rub elbows with the performers.  That’s how Catherine befriended Charlie Mingus. 

“He was friendly with everybody,” she said. “Most of the musicians were.  You’d go out and hear them and before you knew it, they’d be sitting at your table.”

What about Mingus’ reputation as an ill-tempered, intimidating musician?  Catherine said he wasn’t always nice to work with because he was demanding and fussy.

“But he was a very nice person. To me, at least,” she said smiling. 

Catherine left New York for Florida, then moved back to Portland in 1962 and spent the next several years raising her three daughters, accepting only occasional singing gigs. 

She focused on her classical music talents, creating a string quartet called Tapestry, which has performed many concerts throughout the years, including the opening of Portland’s Lan Su Chinese Garden. 

Before she landed the gig with the Oregon Symphony in 1974, Catherine began singing at the Hilton International Club in the early ‘70s and continued to work there after she joined the symphony as a violinist.

“I only ever wanted to play chamber music on violin,” she said. “Singing was a job for fun.”  

Her singing caught the ear of bandleader/musician Billy Starkel, who expanded her role at the Hilton.  “He really liked me, so he had me sing with the band, as well as stroll, and pretty soon, I was a big part of the whole endeavor,” Catherine said. 

When Starkel died, Catherine and her third husband Nic Noll took over the band.  Nic was a popular Portland musician.

“He was a gypsy,” Catherine said.  “He played great violin and fun tunes and taught me how to be more jazzy.”

The Cathy Noll Jazz Quintet performed at private parties, Wilf’s and other local venues.  Even when she joined the symphony, she was still singing.  Sometimes the string quartet would program a song and accompany her. 

Teaching was a major part of her life in Portland, although she was initially hesitant. 

“I wasn’t going to teach.  No, no.  I wasn’t a teacher at all,” she said.

When the mother of two sons wouldn’t take “No” for an answer, she reluctantly agreed.  Catherine learned that she liked it more than she thought she would. 

She taught hundreds of students over 60 years.

Her first two students were Bill and Christopher Schumann.  Although they began on violin, they went into opera.  Bill tutored Broadway star Nathan Lane.

Catherine was a fun-loving gal.  An experienced host, she once threw a party in San Francisco that lasted three days. 

“I hadn’t planned for that, but that’s what happened,” she said.  “You just drink and play music and dance until somebody’s tired, so they just fall asleep. People were sleeping on the floor everywhere.  Then they do the same thing a second night.”

Her favorite party was in Portland. She and George lived in a 14-room house in Lair Hill and invited everyone they knew. Her husband estimated that about 300 people attended the party.

“All of us were good cooks. I think we had two turkeys.  Every room was taken with people setting up a little space to eat,” said Catherine. “We did a Conga line all through the house.  People who didn’t even know they could dance danced.”

Sadly, Catherine passed away in December at the age of 90. She emphasized that despite her impressive musical career, her three daughters and her string quartet were the high point of her life. Her San Francisco and New York experiences are great memories, but she didn’t regret choosing classical over jazz.

“For the past 50 years my family and Tapestry have fed my passions,”   she said.

Paula M. Walker was a DJ at KMHD, the Portland jazz station for 20 years where she hosted Cinejazz, a program that featured jazz in film. She can be reached at cinejazz891@gmail.com 

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Stephen Hoklin

Thank you Ms Walker for an enlightening and entertaining bio of Catherine Noll! What a full life!

Helen Kerstiens-Marvin

What an interesting story that helps illustrate and illuminate part of Portland’s rich Jazz history. I have followed Paula Walker through both Cookin’ with Jazz and CineJazz on KMHD for many years, where not only did I get to hear great music, but also got a jazz education along the way. Who knew she was also a damn good writer! I will look forward to more from Paula in the future. And thanks for the cool website. I am bookmarking it now!

Noel Hoklin

Fascinating talent! I admire and congratulate Paula for compiling all of this rich history of Ms Noll! My only regret is not having had the opportunity to see her perform.

Bob Cravens

Cath was very a warm and intelligent woman who really showcased what a person who loved music and was very talented could achieve. She was a featured soloist for the Portland Junior Symphony for several years during the late 1940's and went on to accomplish many things in the music scene of Portland.
As my sister-in-law I felt very privileged to know and play cards with her and Nick, I am married to his sister, another member of the very talented Noll Family. They were all very musical and played most of the varied styles of Music, Wilma and Maureena (my wife of 55 years) were both Music Teachers in Public Schools and with private students.
Their Father directed a band at Weyerhaeuser Lumber company for the workers where he worked after coming to Oregon in the 1950's. They played dance music in the Communities of Eugene and Springfield into the late 1960's; Wilma taught in North Clackamus public schools, Maureena at Beaverton and later at Portland Community College in the 1970's.
Catherine later taught lots of young students who included my daughter and granddaughter. I was lucky enough to talk to many of the parents of the children she taught at their semi-annual recitals. They very grateful to have such a talented musician teach their children as I was.
Nick was the first person I knew that "Electrified his violin" in the 1970's and later met with Herb Albert to publicize his "Electric Violin" music. He used that sound at the International Club every night for years, He with Cath singing preformed lots of cool dance music there.
In the 1990's the Family started the "NOLL FAMILY SCHOLARSHIP" at the Mount Hood Community College to help young students follow their dream in music just like Catherine. I am making a donation to the Scholarship in Catherine's name and I hope that you might do the same.
We need young musicians to continue to produce the fine art of MUSIC...!

Vonda Purdy-myers

Such an interesting well written article! I took a History and appreciation of Jazz at Linfield College and hadn’t heard of her.

Paula Walker

Thank you, Bob, for enlightening us about Catherine’s life after her Jazz years. I felt privileged to interview her. She was one of the most interesting people I have profiled over the years.

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