By Bob Jacobson
In 1993, when the JCC of Greater Baltimore’s board decided to sponsor a band, then-cultural coordinator Claudine Davison reached out to Michael Raitzyk.
Though not quite 30 years old at the time, Raitzyk had been performing on guitar since his teens. He had led small jazz groups, played in a jazz big band and knew a vast network of musicians from which to recruit for the new venture. Within a year, Raitzyk directed a 16-piece jazz big band’s debut at the Weinberg Park Heights JCC. Then, in March of 1995, with the varnish barely dry on the floorboards, the Michael Raitzyk Jazz Orchestra initiated the new Gordon Center auditorium. The band then performed at a wide variety of functions — swing dances from Towson to Bowie, street festivals, weekly gigs at a bar in Mt. Vernon and a concert outside the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Raitzyk had expected the big band to be a one-year project, but that one year turned into four.
Now 58 and living in the Tuscany-Canterbury neighborhood of Baltimore, Raitzyk is a musician with some dream projects — a duo with internationally known vibraphonist Warren Wolf Jr. and a band with saxophonist Craig Alston playing music from The Police’s album, “Synchronicity.” Meanwhile, he has a jazz trio that plays weekly at two restaurants in Mt. Vernon.
Klezmer has also been a part of Raitzyk’s work for decades.
His interest in Jewish music was sparked by a concert by The Klezmatics, playing music from their first album, “Jews With Horns,” at the Baltimore Museum of Art. The Klezmatics put modern spins on traditional klezmer tunes, weaving in jazz, blues and funk influences, and added their original tunes to the klezmer repertoire.
“I had never heard anything like that,” Raitzyk said.
Before long, Raitzyk formed the band Charm City Klezmer, with his then-wife Judith Geller on keyboard and vocals and her father, Max Geller, on clarinet. For the elder Geller, klezmer was the music of his youth in the Bronx. Over the next 20 years, the band became very popular in the Baltimore/Washington area.
Sheila Meyers, an Oberlin Conservatory graduate and klezmer dancer, hired Charm City Klezmer to play at Broadmead retirement community every Chanukah for years.
“They were fabulous. Every year I so looked forward to them coming,” Meyers said.
Charm City Klezmer released their own album in 1999 and appeared on John Zorn’s album “Live at the Winery,” on the Tzadik label.
Klezmer became so rooted in Raitzyk’s repertoire that two of the seven tracks on his jazz trio’s 2006 album “Live at Café Hon” were klezmer — “Tantz Tantz Yidelekh” and “Galitzyaner Tantz.” At the time, Raitzyk belonged to Baltimore’s East Bank Chavurah and attended National Chavurah Institute’s summer retreats, where he was inspired further by music workshops such as Yidrhythmics.
Raitzyk also played monthly Shabbat ruach services for nine years at the Reconstructionist synagogue, Congregation Beit Tikvah.
“That was a really cool gig with loose parameters,” Raitzyk recalled. “Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton had vision.”
In the 2010s, Raitzyk’s involvement in Jewish music decreased. He played festivals with the Ursula Ricks Blues Band; toured the country with the family band led by his son Jakob, playing for contra dancers; led his own jazz trio at several restaurants, notably the now defunct Café Hon in Hampden; released the CD Michael Raitzyk’s Organic Trio, with organ and drums; and accompanied vocalist Karla Chisholm for 10 years. In addition to teaching private lessons, Raitzyk has taught at Howard Community College since 2010.
Earlier this month, he appeared at HONfest in the duo Seeds of Joy, with his daughter Rebekah Geller, a junior at Park School, on violin and vocals, playing jazz, Celtic and klezmer. In July, he’ll play a jazz and klezmer concert in Aberdeen with clarinet, saxophone and flute player Seth Kibel.
Of his colleague, Kibel said, “I’ve had the pleasure of working with Michael in a broad range of musical situations — klezmer music, jazz and swing, even some blues and rock gigs. Michael manages to achieve the almost impossible — he plays each and every genre with an astonishing degree of authenticity while still managing to sound uniquely like himself.”
Bob Jacobson is a freelance writer.