By Bob Jacobson
The annals of American jazz are filled with the names of Jewish players, composers, writers and business people. Yet, in the jazz world, an observant Jew like Baltimore composer Mitch Mirkin, 58, is rare. His emergence as a jazz composer has also been atypical, since it began only six years ago.
Growing up in Brooklyn, Mirkin’s interest lay more in his parents’ klezmer and cantorial records than in the Swing Era jazz of Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Glenn Miller, or the commercial jazz of Al Hirt. But one day at his public library, 13-year-old Mirkin was drawn to a cover photo on the album, “Cannonball and Eight Giants,” by jazz saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley.
“I was hooked,” Mirkin said. “I must have listened to the tune ‘A Little Taste’ about a hundred times.”
Mirkin took lessons on clarinet, saxophone, accordion and piano, played in bands through high school and college, but then got away from music. Eager to clean out her garage while Mirkin was overseas, his mother gave away his saxophone and jazz LPs. Mirkin spent nearly three years in Israel, got married and had kids. The family moved to Baltimore in 2000. He pursued a career as a writer and editor. Today, the Pikesville resident and Ner Tamid congregant is acting communications director for the Veterans Health Administration’s Office of Research and Development.
In his early fifties, Mirkin bought a saxophone and piano and started writing “a lot of music” — about 40 compositions. Some was for psalms or Jewish-themed songs, but it was mostly instrumental jazz. “I began to wonder how I could get these tunes out there,” Mirkin said.
His instructor, guitarist Yawn Jones, helped him create demo recordings. Mirkin brought two compositions to a jam session at the Motor House, where the band played local composers’ tunes. Another band, led by pianist/composer George Spicka, played one of Mirkin’s tunes at An die Musik.
He began getting good feedback and encouragement. “At first it was a growth experience,” Mirkin said. “Then I developed more confidence, calling myself a composer and not feeling pretentious. I wanted to share my music with people. I was not concerned with marketing and CD sales. It was more about expressing what I have inside me, which people will hopefully find meaningful and enriching.”
In 2019, Mirkin’s experiences as a composer culminated with his first album, “Dance of the DNA.” With Jones’ help, he assembled five of Baltimore’s best players into a band he named The Common Roots Jazz Ensemble.
“I wanted to get at something that expressed the diversity of the group and the music itself,” Mirkin said. “As always, music brings people together. Jazz especially is a beautiful force for equality.” Members of The Common Roots Jazz Ensemble are Black, white and Asian.
In 2020, Mirkin released his second album, “The Madison Avenue Shul.” Like the first album, all its tracks are Mirkin’s compositions. As he explained in the liner notes, as he was biking to work one day through Reservoir Hill, “One humble building caught my eye: an old shul, or synagogue, identifiable by the Ten Commandments embossed above the entrance. Like many old synagogues in the city, it had been converted into a church . . . The tune came into my head that was a metaphor for this house of worship: It opened with a Jewish klezmer feel – evoking the simple folk music that probably accompanied many ‘simchas’ (happy occasions) in this unpretentious structure in its early years. It then shifted to a cool, hard- swinging jazz vibe, reflecting the transition to a modern-day, predominantly African American faith community.”
Mirkin did not set out to write Jewish-themed jazz, he said, but since his Jewish identity is so significant, this aspect of his life emerges in some of his art. “Dance of the DNA” includes the tune “Waltz for South Fallsburg,” referring to the experience of many of New York City’s Jews in the Catskills. “The Madison Avenue Shul” includes “Ruby the Seltzerman,” a reference to his own father. One of Mirkin’s compositions for his next album is entitled “Kaddish.”
Bob Jacobson is a freelance writer.