Wednesday, November 23, 2005 – The Independent, by Joan Baym
Count Basie is said to have called her “Stride” for her command of this incredibly difficult technique of fast left-hand syncopated jumps that beat out rhythms against right-hand melodies.
Although the term “stride piano” goes back to the fabled James P. Johnson (who may have called it “shout”), “Fats” Waller and Willie “The Lion” Smith, Judy Carmichael gave this distinctive way of playing jazz piano her own signature touch when she was barely out of her teens, and, to judge from appearances, that was only yesterday.
Vivacious and full of bubbly enthusiasm, especially for “Jazz Inspired,” her weekly show on public radio, Carmichael surely must still turn heads when she enters concert halls and schools to perform and talk about stride piano, jazz history, music, and creativity. A slim woman with an infectious smile and a cascade of shoulder-length blonde ringlets that bob slightly as she — what else — strides down Main Street in Sag Harbor, Carmichael is at the top of her form as a pianist and entertainer, but she is particularly proud of being told she’s also a good ambassador for art and an inspiring teacher.
She particularly loves talking not just about jazz but about the joys of being creative, a theme she pursues wherever she performs. In schools she suits programs to grade and focuses on making connections: “know your audience, involve them.” Feeling her way with each class, she may begin with a reference to a teen music video or tell stories about her early experiences — taking lessons from a piano teacher who actually discouraged her; priming to be an actress by way of entering beauty contests in her native California; doing professional gigs at Disneyland “five years, seven hours a day” for little money; majoring in German in college and thinking of a career in the Foreign Service; trying to make it in L.A. clubs where she was seen as a “cute blonde chick, who had a gimmick, playing piano”; making the move from ragtime to stride, and from memorized pieces to joyous improvisation.
She also likes to note her good fortune in meeting big names who cheered her on — Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan. And no, she will say when she’s occasionally asked, she is not related to Hoagy.
Heard her recently? Maybe yes, maybe no, since Jazz Inspired on The East End runs on Sundays at 10 p.m. — “drive-back-to-the-city time in the summer,” she laughs — but she hopes that folks who miss the show will tune in to her website, which has streaming audio. She’s the show’s sole producer: “The bad news is that I have to do everything, the good news is that no one can tell me what to do.”
She’s no sideman. Rare among musicians with their own programs (itself a rarity) Carmichael’s impassioned determination is to present jazz in a “broad” sense, to have guest artists discuss how jazz has inspired them and how jazz can make for a “better life” and sense of community.
A recent guest, Renee Fleming, talked about her first musical love, which was not opera but jazz, when she sang in a group in college (a recent CD features her doing jazz, pop, and arias). Another guest, the award-winning 75-year old architect Frank Gehry, whom Carmichael says she has always thought of as a “jazz architect,” wound up riffing on the need for architects to have “vision” and to orchestrate, in a sense, those who work in their architectural offices.
Ironically, Carmichael’s most receptive audience these days turns out to be the under 30s set, young people who wander into her concerts, knowing little about jazz, even disliking it, who then come up to her at the end and say they love what she does. That first-step conversion means a lot because jazz, she points out, has had bad press, some of it generated by the performers themselves — Miles Davis, for example, bop-straining to be difficult, turning his back on his audience, refusing to comment on what he does. Drug associations also haven’t helped. But most of all, Carmichael suggests, there has been that off-putting mystique, according to which only the so-called precious, discerning get it.
Carmichael is out to “demythologize” such insular impressions and, not incidentally, help open up opportunities for jazz musicians, 99.9% of whom, she says, have a hard time getting decently paying gigs or hearing their music on commercial radio. Meanwhile, the important point to note is that Carmichael’s back in town and getting ready for a spectacular fundraiser for Jazz Inspired at Steinway Hall on January 23, 2005. For information write to info@judycarmichael.