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Mark Gatz, accomplished local musician and teacher, dies at 51

08/05/2015 1:00 PM |

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Mark Gatz was a gentle teacher, a devout lover of jazz, an unyielding worker and — as one fellow musician put it — “the best saxophonist on Long Island.”

“His tone and his playing were unbelievable,” said Bathiki Kumalo, a bass player who lived in Setauket for years. “He was like a teacher to me because every time we hung out, I learned so much about music from him.”

Mr. Gatz, who had been teaching woodwinds at East End Arts for nearly 20 years, died Friday of a sudden heart attack at the age of 51.

He is survived by his girlfriend of 20 years, Gail, his brother Bruce and his sister Michelle Danowski. He is also survived by a nephew, David Danowski, and a niece, Danielle Espling.

A 1981 graduate of Riverhead High School, Mr. Gatz was “always on the go” playing and teaching music, his brother said.

“This man worked like an animal,” Bruce said. “I’ve never seen him taking breaks, even to sit down and have a glass of water.”

Pat Snyder, executive director for East End Arts, said Mr. Gatz was a teacher who connected with his pupils on a personal level.

“Mark was really interested in the student as an individual,” she said. “Music and teaching music was important, but he felt very engaged with his students as people.”

In addition to teaching, Mr. Gatz was a storied musician who played with a variety of bands over the years, sometimes as a permanent member and sometimes as a guest performer.

His main instrument was the tenor saxophone, but he also played alto saxophone, flute and clarinet regularly.

“Mark was a fixture on the East End scene for many years,” said Clutch Reilly, who played bass in various performances with Mr. Gatz over the past two decades. “It wasn’t unusual to see Mark in the company of very famous people as part of a horn section or just sitting in at a local jam playing strictly for the enjoyment of it.”

Mr. Gatz was a part of the King Charles Band along with fellow East End Arts teacher Stanley Wright for about 10 years in the 1980s and 1990s — though he was never satisfied playing only one style of music or with only one group, Mr. Wright said.

“He loved to play,” Mr. Wright said. “He was the type of guy who would finish a gig at 2 a.m., and if another band was playing across the street until 3 a.m., he would shoot in and play with them.”

Mr. Gatz was also a world traveler for his music. In 2012, Mr. Kumalo traveled to his native South Africa for a jazz festival, and he invited Mr. Gatz to accompany him.

“I wanted to bring the best musicians to South Africa, and Mark was one of the best musicians,” Mr. Kumalo said.

The two shared a special bond, and Mr. Kumalo fondly recalled his friend’s sense of humor. They jokingly called one another “Kuma Kuma” and “Marko Marko.”

Mr. Gatz idolized jazz legend Miles Davis, his brother said, and he was once lucky enough to meet him.

“He told me, ‘Man, I was so nervous, I was like a little kid meeting Santa Claus!’” Bruce said.

He also helped his brother, whose favorite musician is Grover Washington Jr., achieve a similar goal: Mark took Bruce into New York City to sit in the front row at one of Mr. Washington’s shows, and the three even shared a brief conversation.

“He was always helpful to me,” Bruce said. “He was a great guy and always thinking of others.”

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Photo Caption: Musician and teacher Mark Gatz (left) performed with guitarist Ahmad Ali of Islip aduring last year’s JumpstART event. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch, file)

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled the surname of Mr. Gatz’s sister. It is Danowski, not Donowski. We regret the error.

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