As a child, Mike Ritter was drawn to the sound of classic big bands. Now at the age of 83, the Oscar-winning filmmaker leads The Not So Modern Jazz Quartet, a band dedicated to preserving the big-band music he first fell in love with.
Ritter first achieved fame when he placed second in the 1957 National All-Army talent competition. Ritter’s act for the initial round was a one-band act to show off his command of different instruments.
“What I did was, I played piano, then called a friend to take over on piano. Then I played bass and called a friend out to play bass, then played horn and asked a friend to play the horn,” Ritter said.
Since the Army lacked a category for Ritter’s multifaceted show, for the last round of the national competition Ritter performed a clarinet piece by Benny Goodman.
“That got me out of armor and got me in a bus and truck show playing all around the U.S. Second Army area playing for officers’ clubs” said Ritter.
Ritter currently performs in five bands and is the leader of two, the Not So Modern Jazz Quartet and the Arcadians.
“The role that he has is something that a lot of people don’t want to do. He’s the one who gets yelled at when things go wrong. The pressure’s on him to book gigs, find substitutes if people can’t come and keep everything organized,” said Not So Modern Jazz Quartet drummer Steve Wilson.
Along with his achievements as a musician, Ritter has earned acclaim for his work as a filmmaker. When he left the Army, Ritter got a job making scenery for a Baltimore TV station, which led to his becoming a cameraman and later creating newsreels and documentaries.
Ritter still creates documentary films, although he has traded his analog camera and scissors for a digital camera and computer software.
“When digital came along, it destroyed many people. Friends of mine who had big companies couldn’t survive,” said Ritter. “We got one of the very first Avid Systems. It could barely hold anything at all, but it was the beginning of it.”
Ritter worked with legendary filmmaker Charles Guggenheim. According to the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, Guggenheim was nominated for 12 Oscar awards, winning four, and is considered a master of the documentary form. Ritter and Guggenheim worked together on a light-andsound reenactment of the Lincoln assassination to honor the reopening of Ford’s Theatre.
Ritter worked with Guggenheim on pieces about Marion Barry, George McGovern, Israel, and most notably Robert Kennedy.
Ritter, Guggenheim, and four other filmmakers made the documentary, “Robert Kennedy Remembered,” immediately after Kennedy’s assassination. The film was shown at the 1968 Democratic Convention. The 30-minute short won the 1969 Oscar for short subject live-action film.