RIP Baltimore Guitarist James Podgurski

Over Memorial Day weekend (May 30th), the Baltimore jazz community lost one of its best, most versatile musicians, guitarist and vocalist Jim Podgurski. He died at age seventy six. Podgurski had come full circle. He grew up in Dundalk and had bought a home there just over one year ago. He had lived in many other places between the 1960s and 2020s, notably Fell’s Point.

Podgurski’s father bought him a beginner’s guitar at age nine or ten, upgrading to a Gretsch when he noted his teenage son’s persistent interest in the instrument. Podgurski attended Dundalk High School, dropped out, received his GED and later attended Essex Community College. He served as a Navy shore patrolman in Vietnam. Later, Podgurski toured with two of pop music’s most beloved and successful stars – pianist Roger Williams, who had twenty two hit singles, and vocalist Jack Jones, who received two Grammy awards. He spent the rest of his life in Baltimore.

Trombonist, educator and band leader Charles Funn says of Podgurski, “That guy could play anything.” Bassist Larry Kinling — who played Sunday brunch gigs with Podgurski for sixteen years at Kelsey’s Restaurant in Ellicott City, one year at Birds of a Feather in Fells Point, and one year at Café de Paris in Columbia – agrees with Funn, adding, “Jim was really well-rounded musically.  He could read well and knew a lot of different styles – country, blues, rockabilly, jazz, and he definitely had his pop thing together.” When asked about Podgurski’s singing, Kinling replied, “He was a very melodic singer who sang in a very pleasing range. I remember him singing “I’ll Be Around,” “The Night Life,” and “Autumn Leaves” at Kelsey’s. I loved it when Jim sang.”

While Podgurski played mostly in jazz duos and trios, he was also a member of big bands led by Gene Walker, Bing Miller and Warren Kellerhouse. “Jim said that Warren liked him because he was selective in what he played,” says drummer Kevin Hayes, who became a close friend of Podgurski’s after meeting him at a jazz brunch in Timonium in 1985. Hayes, an alumnus of the Jazzmobile big band in New York City, adds, “I thought he was a great guitarist. I loved playing with him.” Guitarist Dave Leoni met Podgurski when they were both teachers at Music City in Essex in 1974. “Jim was a great musician, knew his theory and was very dedicated to his music,” says Leoni. Podgurski later taught and was a sales clerk at Dundalk Music, which Leoni owned for 35 years.

Podgurski was not only an accomplished musician but was skilled in carpentry, roofing and general home improvement. “I remember him hanging doors at (saxophonist) Whit Williams’s house in the ‘90s and coming in tired and worn to a Sunday brunch gig the day after working on a roof,” says Kinling, who also cites Podgurski’s skills in auto repair, guitar repair and even building guitars.

And now for some personal remembrances. I just came across set lists from 2007 to 2011, when I led a trio with Larry Kinling and Jim Podgurski at Donna’s Café, in Columbia. The tunes really “cover the waterfront” – swing, ballads, blues, calypso, bossa nova, samba, waltzes and other styles. Podgurski was very open to performing the whole gamut, from tunes that he and Larry had played together for years at Kelsey’s, to tunes that were totally new to him, such as “Chim Chim Cheree,” the Academy Award winner from the movie Mary Poppins. I also remember a night when my uncle, a retired music professor and band leader, sat in with us on clarinet. He had a great time, leaving me with this advice — “Make sure you hang on to these guys.”

In the last few years before the pandemic lockdown, Jim was part of a group of retired and semi-retired musicians who got together frequently at a Nepalese restaurant on Belair Road near the Beltway, sometimes trading songs or jamming after lunch. I remember him choosing the theme from the movie Black Orpheus, “Manha de Carnaval,” playing beautiful chords on an acoustic guitar and, with his head tilted back and eyes closed, singing with great depth of feeling. I have no doubt that many local jazz players and fans will remember similar experiences with Jim Podgurski.

Bob Jacobson plays saxophone and clarinet and leads combos “Sounds Good” and “Swing ‘n’ Samba.” He has written numerous articles for the BJA newsletter. He is a mostly-retired social worker who still dabbles in counseling, freelance writing, teaching, and writing about music.  He was vice president of BJA for 12 years.

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