[Photo courtesy of David Stuck]
On March 18, 2022, the Baltimore jazz scene lost one of its most distinctive voices. Mitch Mirkin died of a heart attack while bicycling near his home in Pikesville. Mitch’s role in the local scene was unique. He was mainly known as a composer, releasing two albums of his own compositions since 2019. Mirkin was a very good saxophonist and pianist who underrated his skills and never performed in public.
Professionally, Mitch was acting director of communications for the Office of Research and Development of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Four years ago, the BJA was fortunate enough to have Mitch volunteer to write for our newsletter. Soon after, he joined our editorial committee, which makes decisions about articles for the newsletter and web site. Mitch wrote nine articles over that time, mostly profiles of musicians and board members, one CD review, a documentary film review, and a memorial article on his friend, mentor, and collaborator, guitarist Yawn Jones, who passed away in February of 2021.
Mirkin began composing in his teens, but was away from it for over thirty years. When he came back, he came back with gusto, composing over 40 tunes, mostly jazz. Initially reluctant to present his creations publicly, Mirkin gradually gained confidence from three sources: first, some of his tunes were played by Theljon Allen’s jam session house band, which specialized in playing Baltimore composers’ originals; George Spicka’s combo played one of his tunes at an An die Musik concert; and he was tutored in composition and spurred on by his teacher at Music Workshop, guitarist/producer Yawn Jones. In 2019 Mirkin released Dance of the DNA, and the following year, The Madison Avenue Shul. A third album had been completed and was being mixed at the time of Mirkin’s death.
The bands on each album were named The Common Roots Jazz Ensemble, a multi-racial group comprised of Black, White, and Asian musicians; Mirkin was an Orthodox Jew of East European ancestry. As Mirkin said in a 2021 article in the Baltimore Jewish Times, “I wanted to get at something that expressed the diversity of the group and the music itself. As always, music brings people together. Jazz especially is a beautiful force for equality.”
Justin Taylor, the pianist who played on all three of Mitch’s albums, says, “Mitch was interesting, a little different, with his own unique style of doing things. He was energetic
and funny at times.” Brian Kooken, the guitarist who played on Mitch’s third album, describes Mirkin as “always kind.” About the recording process, Kooken adds, “It was all mapped out, but he gave us freedom.” “He was always open to our suggestions,” says Ron Pender, saxophonist on all three projects.
Ron Pender comments on Mirkin as a composer: “He was fully developed. I wish I had some of the ideas he had.” Taylor says, “The tunes were cool. Some had a different harmonic approach.” “Each tune is different and the form wasn’t always a straight form,” adds Kooken. Matt Belzer, in his review for the BJA of Dance of the DNA, describes Mirkin’s music as having ‘interesting structures and textures’ and “deviation from expected formulae”.
Pender, a mainstay of the Baltimore jazz scene for many decades, came to record Mirkin’s compositions after a struggle with cancer. He says, “I needed a project like you need air. I’m so glad now that I put as much into it as I did. It turned out to be a legacy. I want to dedicate that last one (album) to Mitch. It’s all about him now.”
At this time plans for Mirkin’s third album are unclear, but there is interest among the musicians to perform a concert of Mirkin’s music. His first two albums are available on Spotify and Amazon, and there is an excellent YouTube video of the recording of the tune “The Madison Avenue Shul.”
Mirkin will be much missed, not only by his family, but by his friends at the Baltimore Jazz Alliance and by the Baltimore music community.
Bob Jacobson, former Vice President of the BJA, plays saxophone and clarinet and leads combos “Sounds Good” and “Swing ‘n’ Samba.” He has written numerous articles for the BJA newsletter.