the most restless klezmer/rock/jazz/avant-garde/funk guitarist in Baltimore

By Geoffrey Himes

Baltimore City Paper

Last Updated: Dec 14, 2011


As both a leader and a sideman,

guitarist Michael Raitzyk has played with many Baltimore bands in many genres: with his own jazz and organ trios, with rock band Jenny and the Drivers, with his own Charm City Klezmer Band, with the Baltimore Jazz Orchestra, with his early ’90s reggae/funk band Pachamama, and with pop vocalist Karla Chisholm and folk singer Anne Louise White. Because he stayed in Baltimore to raise a family and never went to New York, he’s been at it for 30 years and knows a high percentage of Maryland’s working musicians.

Among the many things he has learned along the way is that musicians’ complaints don’t vary much from genre to genre. Jazz or rock, folk or funk, they all complain about the same things: money, working conditions, no health insurance, nobody listening at the gigs, the press, club owners, and other musicians.

“I complain about the same things,” Raitzyk admits with a wry shrug over the table at a Charles Village Chinese restaurant. “But I’ve learned that the solution is to create the gigs you want to play, because no one else is going to create them for you. You book the place that will create the right vibe with the right audience. You hire the musicians you want to play with for that one night. You make sure all the right web sites know about it. You have to work really hard to make it happen, but on the night itself, it all comes back to you.”

As an example, he cites the album-release party at the Creative Alliance in June for his latest CD,

Michael Raitzyk's Organic Trio

, featuring organist Greg Hatza and drummer Mike Kuhl. Because Hatza (longtime co-leader of Moon August) stays so busy with his own band, the trio rarely gets to play together, but on this special night there were about 100 people in the seats when the show began. Raitzyk sent Kuhl out alone to open the show with a long, unaccompanied drum solo, and that unusual start set the tone for a high-energy show. This Saturday, Raitzyk returns to the Creative Alliance for another special occasion, a rare show by the Charm City Klezmer Band, a group he co-leads with his wife Judith Geller.

The following morning, the guitarist will wake up in time to do his weekly jazz-duo gig during Sunday brunch at the Woodberry Kitchen. On Friday nights, he performs with Chisholm at Meli American Bistro in Fells Point. On the first Thursday of every month, the Michael Raitzyk Trio (different from the Organic Trio) performs at Café Hon. Earlier this month, the Geller/Raitzyk Family Band, featuring the parents and their two fiddling children, played a folk concert at the Waldorf School. One reason Raitzyk juggles all these gigs is to keep working so he can pay the bills. But there’s another reason as well: He gets restless if he sticks to one genre for too long.

“It keeps things interesting,” the 48-year-old musician explains. His shaggy, salt-and-pepper hair spills out of his black, sloping cap and above his silver-rim glasses. “If I’m playing Klezmer music too much, I’m going to get restless and I’ll start messing with it ‘til it’s not recognizable as Klezmer anymore. And if it’s just jazz all the time, I get restless the same way. I’m curious about many things in many kinds of music. Maybe it’s the way I grew up.”

He grew up in the same Charles Village neighborhood he now lives in. In the early ’70s, he was one of those skateboard kids who recklessly wove their way through traffic (he recommends the downhill run from 30th and Abell to 32nd and Abell). At the same time he was a young guitar fanatic who played along with the old folkies at his father Jerry’s leftist political gatherings at the Bread and Roses Coffeehouse.

In 1974, when he was 11, the young Raitzyk heard the Gary Burton Quartet, featuring a young Pat Metheny, play for the Left Bank Jazz Society at the Famous Ballroom (the current site of the Charles Theatre). Metheny’s rhythmic and harmonic improvisations were so mind-boggling and yet lyrical that Raitzyk was instantly converted, as only an 11-year-old can be, to jazz guitar.

“I went directly from folk to jazz,” he points out, “and you can hear that in my playing. I don’t play Van Halen licks. I don’t shred. That’s why I’ve always played hollow-body electric guitars. The older I’ve gotten, the more conscious I’ve gotten about sound, because that’s what defines a musician’s personality—even before the musical ideas begin. I like the wide swath of sound you get from a hollow body. That’s what sounds the most like me. It just happens to be the traditional jazz box, but that’s not why I chose it.”

A few years later, while attending the Baltimore Experimental High School, Raitzyk bonded with an older classmate and longtime friend, keyboardist Graham Connah. Connah introduced his younger friend to three key artists: Frank Zappa, John Coltrane, and Sun Ra—and Raitzyk would never be limited to Joe Pass’ polite improvisations again. Sonny Sharrock, who recorded with Miles Davis and Pharoah Sanders, proved to Raitzyk that you could play the wildest free-jazz on a hollow-body guitar.

“I saw Sonny at Max’s on Broadway in 1994, just a month before he died,” Raitzyk recounts. “He cut through all the supposed limitations of the hollow-body guitar and went way out there. He had two drummers with him. It was fantastic. Of course, there were only seven people in the audience—a night after he had sold out a show in D.C. He asked me what was going on, and I said, ‘Welcome to Baltimore.’”

The Raitzyk family left Baltimore in 1977 for the West Coast, but they were back by 1982 and have been here ever since. He spent much of the ’80s playing as a sideman in local jazz bands, including those led by Abdul Rasheed Yah-Ya, Carl Grubbs, Thomas Hurley, Chico Johnson, Gene Walker, Hank Levy, Ed Goldstein, and Mack Rucks. In the early ’90s, Raitzyk led two of his own groups: the Latin-funk dance band Pachamama and the 16-piece Michael Raitzyk Jazz Orchestra.

Though he is ethnically Jewish, he had never been religious in any sense until he married Randallstown’s Judith Geller in 1995. She pulled him into the Jewish culture he had long ignored, and he was fascinated by his father-in-law Max Geller’s experience with playing Klezmer, the Yiddish folk music of Eastern Europe that took on jazzy flavors when it migrated to America. When the Klezmatics, a young Klezmer band that added avant-garde jazz flavors to the tradition, played the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1996, Raitzyk had a conversion experience equal to the one he had hearing Metheny in 1974.

“It was an amazing experience,” he recalls. “It had the Jewish component, but it was also jazz with really great players. I went, ‘Holy shit, that’s it. I’m putting a band together.’”

That band released its eponymous (and, so far, only) album,

Charm City Klezmer

, in 1999. No one had been clamoring to hire a progressive Klezmer band, but the guitarist had learned the knack of creating gigs that hadn’t previously existed. He created opportunities at synagogues, folk festivals, and roots-music dances. He convinced hotels and restaurants to give his jazz trio or his jazz duo weekly shows. Now he’s exploring the world of house concerts.

“All these different projects,” he says today, “come back to me trying to answer the same question: Who is Michael Raitzyk and what’s he doing on the guitar? Each time I return to a different project—whether it’s the Klezmer band or the organ trio or something else—I have more depth because I have more experience, not just from my different musical experiences but also from my different life experiences.”

Originally Published: Jul 10, 2014 at 11:21 pm