Abraham "Al" Baitch, a musician recalled as one of Baltimore's finest saxophone players, died March 24 at Northwest Hospital after suffering a fall. The Pikesville resident was 89.
During his 70 years in the local entertainment scene, Mr. Baitch was a fixture at nightclubs, where his onstage antics earned him the nickname "Madman." He headed the house band for WJZ-TV's "The Buddy Deane Show" in the 1950s and 1960s.
"We played everywhere, from The Block to the French Embassy in Washington," said John Baxter, a piano player who worked alongside Mr. Baitch for 42 years. "He had friends everywhere, but in front of an audience, he was Baltimore's version of Don Rickles."
Born Abraham Baitch in Baltimore, he was the son of Russian immigrant Philip and Bessie Baitch. He grew up above his parents' grocery store at 114 N. Pine St. He received a saxophone as a bar mitzvah present. In a 2005 Baltimore Sun column, he recalled hearing musician Vido Musso playing saxophone on Benny Goodman's big number, "Sing, Sing, Sing."
Mr. Baitch said, "I want to do that."
Family members said his brother-in-law, Mack Kravetz, a professional musician, taught him to play the sax.
"Al was an all-time great. He held his own with anybody," said Danny Sapanero of Bishopville, who accompanied him on drums.
Mr. Baitch graduated from Forest Park High School in 1942. At that time, he was playing local clubs, including the old Silver Dollar on Fremont Avenue. During World War II, he served in the merchant marine. He recalled sailing on a Liberty ship delivering supplies to the Soviet Union. He twice sailed to the port of Murmansk, a destination imperiled by bad winter weather and the threat of German submarine attack.
After returning to Baltimore, Mr. Baitch played at Chick's Bar, at Baltimore and Greene streets. There he began earning the nickname "Madman."
"It fit. The way I used to walk the bar playing the saxophone, and lying on my back. I was a showman. You had to be. So I became 'Madman,' " he said in the 2005 Sun column.
In the era when Baltimore had numerous competing nightspots, Mr. Baitch established his reputation. He accompanied singers Sarah Vaughan and Bill Haley and played alongside George Shearing on visits to Baltimore. He also played on "moonlight cruises" during the summer months on Chesapeake Bay excursion boats.
"He was a terrific showman. He was able to work his crowd. He was spontaneous with his humor. He had remarkable timing in his music," said Eve Schroeder Kay, a friend whose husband was Mr. Baitch's drummer. "He could take a trio and make it sound like a magnificent orchestra."
"I was age 16; I watched him at my dad's nightclub," said Mrs. Kay, who lives in Lake Worth, Fla. "He played 'Harlem Nocturne.' He thought he was best. He gave his all when he was on the stage. And he gave it in his friendships."
He became a fixture at the old Surf Club, at Fayette Street near Highland Avenue, where he staged jam session-saxophone showdowns on Sunday afternoons with fellow player Earl Bostic.
"Al was one of the best saxophone players in Baltimore. He was extremely versatile. He could play jazz, standards and rock 'n' roll," said Richard Parr, a Hampden resident and a former drummer in The Adjectives. "On the stage, he could be a wild man. Musically, you had to love him. When he was at the microphone, if someone was harassing him, he could eat you alive."
Mr. Baitch also played at Eddie Leonard's Spa and the Club Charles. He also formed a trio, the Bell Boys, playing his sax alongside Claude Grant on organ and Joey Preston on drums.
"During the 1960s, Al hung out during the day at the Jewish Community Center on Park Heights Avenue," said attorney Stuart Snyder of Baltimore. "For a late-night person in the music field, he was always up during the day and was a great handball player. For a big guy, he could really move around the court.
"Al was a true Baltimore original. He always had a story to tell you," Mr. Snyder said. "The memory I'd like to have of Al is of him playing at somebody's wedding. He'd have a big smile on his face."
Mr. Baitch also played in the wedding scene of Barry Levinson's "Diner" and performed background music for the 1982 film. He also appeared in the 1979 film "And Justice for All." When they played on "The Buddy Deane Show," he and his band were billed as Al Baitch and the 'JZ Houserockers.
"We played everywhere," said Artie Kay, his drummer for 20 years, who lives in Lake Worth. "He was tough on us. What he wanted was what he wanted. He was a demanding musician."
According to author Joe Vaccarino's 2012 book "Baltimore Sounds," Mr. Baitch worked regularly at neighborhood clubs. He played at Sweeney's and Judge's in Waverly, the Wishing Well near Perring Parkway, the Chanticleer in Mount Vernon, Club Ambassador on East Fayette Street and Cy Bloom's Place in the Alley in downtown Baltimore.
Mr. Baitch played into his 80s. Most recently, he performed at oyster and bull roasts and at the Parkville American Legion Hall.
Graveside services were held March 26 at Beth Jacob Cemetery in Finksburg.
Survivors include two nieces, Marsha Sober and Sallie Kravetz, both of Baltimore.