By Don Heckman
Judy Carmichael is a jazz rarity — a lively, contemporary pianist who has been specializing in classic jazz piano styles, especially stride piano, since the early ’80s. Count Basie nicknamed her “Stride,” and her early career was also aided by the likes of Sarah Vaughan, Benny Carter, Freddie Green and Roy Eldridge, among others. Performing in all parts of the world, often with the support of the U.S. Information Agency, she has a fan base reaching from China and India to Brazil, Europe and beyond.
She is now celebrating her 15th year producing and hosting her Public Radio Show Judy Carmichael’s Jazz Inspired, broadcast on over 170 stations throughout North America and abroad and on NPR NOW Channel 134 on Sirius/XM Satellite Radio. Her recordings and music books are available at www.judycarmichael.com, or by mail order through C&D Productions, P.O. Box 360 Sag Harbor, New York, 11963.
Judy Carmichael makes a rare appearance in her Los Angeles home town on Thursday night at Vitello’s in Studio City. She’ll be backed by the sturdy support of guitarist Larry Koonse and saxophonist Harry Allen. Vitello’s. (818) 769-0905.
I spoke with Judy last week about her remarkable jazz journey.
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DH: Okay, Judy, let’s start with an absolute basic. When and how did music first come into your life?
JC: I can’t remember exactly. I played ukulele when I was 3 and think I started piano shortly after or the same time. I took lessons for a couple years, quit, and started again. I probably only took for a total of three or four years. It was the John Thompson books. I think I made it to Book Four. My teacher scared me and didn’t teach me theory and I wanted to understand what was going on beyond playing the notes. So I quit and never thought I’d pursue a career as a musician. I got my first job STILL not knowing what key I was in!
DH: But you did indeed wind up pursuing a career as a musician. How did it get started?
JC: I was a German major with a French minor in college, and one of my classmates said there was a job I should audition for playing the off night for a pianist in Newport Beach on the Pavilion Queen, an old ferry boat that was made into a floating cocktail party. I got the gig by playing one tune, “Maple Leaf Rag.”
DH: That was the beginning, but it took a while to get up to speed, didn’t it?
JC: Yes. I didn’t think about a career in music until my mid-twenties, when I got serious encouragement from Harold Jones, Freddie Green, Count Basie and Sarah Vaughan, all great supporters of mine in my early years. Benny Carter and Roy Eldridge encouraged me as well, and were both instrumental in spreading the word and getting people to take me seriously. I wouldn’t be a professional musician today, if those people hadn’t basically told me I had to do it.
DH: Stride and classic jazz piano styles have been at the heart of your music for years. Can you remember the first time you heard someone playing stride or classic jazz, and who it was?
JC: Sure, that’s easy. Count Basie on “Prince of Wales” with Benny Moten. Changed my life, and at that moment I wanted to learn to play like that, even though I had no context for the music. It also never occurred to me at that point that I would learn this music and play it for a career. I didn’t know who Basie was. I was twenty two and known as a ragtime player, exclusively.
DH: And hearing that Basie recording shifted your career direction?
JC: I was never enthusiastic about playing piano as a career, but when I heard Basie I knew I wanted to play like that, with or without a career. I always thought I’d be a comedic actress or have my own variety show or be a language scholar and run around the world speaking lots of languages and do whatever I could to support that life. I never wanted to play tunes I don’t love and have never been good at it. My heart isn’t in it. To this day I’ve never played “Happy Birthday.” People find that hard to believe, but it’s true. I’ve always been hired to play exactly what I play, which has limited me and helped, probably in equal measure. God bless the men who have hired me as a sideman (side person), because I’m the last person I’d hire in that regard.
DH: What was it that, specifically, drew you to stride piano as your musical focus?
JC: I’m a huge fan of other kinds of jazz, but I’m drawn to rhythmically swinging music and will always play that. I’m a high-energy person and am naturally drawn to hard-driving music.
DH: In music and beyond, who were your models, if you had any, and why did you choose them?
JC: [The artist] Ray Eames, whom I was fortunate to know the last few years of her life. Loved her passion for art and for only pursuing work that had a bigger purpose. Carol Phillips, who started Clinique and whom Time magazine mentioned as one of two women in a sea of men in their issue of the most influential business people of the 20th Century (the other was Estee Lauder). Carol made the initial gift to my not-for-profit which allowed me to get my radio show Jazz Inspired off the ground. And Basie, Freddie Green and Benny Carter, for their class and understated way of presenting their music and moving through life.
DH: In the beginning of your career, you were, and in many respects still are, an unusual sight as a stride pianist. Did you meet with resistance, with questions doubting your authenticity, as a young, white female playing stride? If so, how did (do) you handle them?
JC: Constantly, with musicians, until they heard me play and then they supported me. Same with audiences. I wore jackets, never dresses, until I got older and had a reputation as a player. I always played down the female aspect so people would focus on my music rather than my surfer-girl appearance. I’m older now so I wear whatever I want, which is a relief. Although, hilariously, people still sometimes imply I’m getting by on my looks, which is a riot to me, since I’m far from my twenties. I always got more support from black musicians from the bop school, interestingly. The more traditional players never supported me, which is fascinating, when you figure Jobim and Tommy Flanagan dug me more than guys playing more in my direction.
DH: You’ve added vocals to your performances fairly recently. How did that come about, and how has it affected your performances?
JC:I love singing and it’s only a few years old. I had two vocal cord surgeries when I was in my late teens and never tried to sing consequently, even in the shower. My being able to sing is a shock to everyone, especially me. Now that I’m singing, I want to sing ballads. Singing is bringing out a much different side stylistically and rhythmically.
DH: You do a great deal of traveling and perform all over the world. Do you find that stride and classic jazz piano trigger different audience responses in different places?
JC: Everyone likes stride and swing music. It’s upbeat, rhythmically engaging, harmonically accessible. When asked how he’d like to die, Dave Brubeck said: “Playing stride piano.” That says it all.
DH: Judy, your NPR show, “Jazz Inspired,” has been on the air for more than a decade. What inspired you to do it?
JC: I wanted to feature people who would never get an hour on NPR, but should. I also wanted highly celebrated people who don’t have to promote anything to get an opportunity to talk about their creative process. Jazz also gave me a unique way to start a conversation with professionally creative people and hopefully inspire the listener and also educate and inspire them.
DH: Given the title of your show, does inspiration, as a concept, intrigue you, in music and beyond? And who are some of the guests you’ve had on?
JC: Inspiration and creativity are everything to me. I think everyone should develop these aspects of their lives. Some highlights: Robert Redford, Seth MacFarlane, John Lithgow, Neal deGrasse Tyson, Blythe Danner, Billy Joel. Tony Bennett will be on in a couple weeks.
DH: In your busy career, you’ve also written several stride piano instruction books. That obviously seems to indicate that you believe stride can be studied from a book. But I’m assuming that’s not how you learned stride and classic jazz.
JC: I wrote these books (which are now compiled in a new edition from Alfred Publishing) exactly for the person I was in my early years, when I wished I’d had a book like this. This is much easier than learning as I did from the records. To my amazement this book has been spectacularly successful and spawned other books on stride. This success has been the biggest surprise of my career, other than that my vocal cords have healed enough for me to sing.
DH: Judy, you’ve been performing for more than three decades, with all sorts of honors and acknowledgments. Is it still as satisfying as ever? Are there areas of “inspiration” that you would still like to explore? How do you see it all unfolding in the next few years?
JC: I’m having more fun now than ever. I want to sing more, play with larger ensembles, write lyrics, and have my own TV show, which is close to happening, I’m happy to say. I also want to improve my tennis game and break 80 on the golf course.
DH: Thanks, Judy. Looking forward to seeing and hearing you at Vitello’s.
Photos courtesy of Judy Carmichael.