One of the current practitioners of stride and occasionally ragtime piano in New York is the-energetic Judy Carmichael. She can be seen not only on the concert stage, but in schools, on the demonstration-lecture circuit, in clubs and on national television and radio. Here she talks about her fast rise from a park pianist at Disneyland to the jazz circles of New York. Always ready with anecdotes and those all-too-familiar tales of a musician’s life, Judy Carmichael is just as quick to play a tough tune at a moment’s notice. This interview was originally broadcast on my weekly radio program, “The Ragtime Machine” on KUSF, San Francisco, Calif. – David Reffkin
When you come to San Francisco, you don’t just play a concert, you give lectures and play in the schools. Is this to sustain the music, or would you do it anyway just for the enjoyment?
I enjoy teaching, the setting is right, if the presenting organization sends the materials to the schools ahead of time, and if they have a good working relationship with the schools and a real commitment to outreach programs. It is really fun for me when I’m working with people like that, and where there’s a good piano. For example, I went to the School Of the Arts in San Francisco and taught an orchestra class with a few piano students. I was so impressed by the enthusiasm of these kids. I walked in and a bunch of them walked over and shook my hand, and said, “We’re so happy you’re here. We’re really looking forward to this.” I asked for questions at one point, and a girl in the back said, “Will you play another tune?” That was her question. I asked them who they were listening to. One of the singers told me that her three favorite singers were Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Fats Waller. I don’t think I’ve ever had a female singer tell me that one of her favorite singers is Fats Waller. One of the drummers told me that his favorite drummers were Philly Joe Jones and Max Roach. So, they were listening to interesting people.
It’s sad that in some schools, some of the teachers are so overwhelmed with what they have to do. That’s giving them the benefit of the doubt. And there are the ones who just don’t want to give anything else. I’ve gotten a couple of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, which is what started me in this. I would call schools and say that they don’t have to pay me anything, but I want to come in and do this. I’d get schools that were very enthusiastic, and other ones that wouldn’t do anything.
DR: What is it that you actually do for the class?
JC: I can tell you what I don’t do, right up front. I don’t spend a lot of time with ‘This is what a measure is. This is an augmented chord.’ They can get that somewhere else. In my short time with these kids, I want to give them something that’s unique and inspirational. That is really how I look at it. I talk to them about whom they’re listening to, what their influences are. I play for them, I talk to them about what ragtime and stride are, what my specialties are, how jazz piano developed. Then I have a reel of film, and I show different things from that, depending on the setting and the age group. I always show Fats Waller, everybody loves him. He’s so animated and wonderful on film. With an adult class, I might show Fred Astaire playing stride piano. A lot of people don’t know that he did that. But the basic thing is that I show some historic film clips, with my thought being if a lot of these people have never seen these jazz musicians in person – which, of course, they haven’t because they’re too young – seeing the film will mean more to them. It will engage them more, which was my original premise, even when I first went to the NEA – it was less removed, somehow, than a record. This generation, growing up on television, has a shorter attention span, and me being there playing in person shows them I’m not 100 years old and I can play this stuff. I talk about it and make it accessible, and it’s in juxtaposition with some of these historic figures. To have a Fats Waller in a 1941 film who looks like Fats Waller, and then me, who’s from Southern California and weighs 115 pounds and is blonde, playing this music, they’re thinking, “Oh, jazz does keep reinventing itself, and it is something you can draw from the past and the present.”
DR: What was your first contact with ragtime?
JC: “Maple Leaf Rag” was the first ragtime tune I ever heard. My grandfather wanted me to learn it. He had said, in a moment of craziness, that he would give any of the grand kids $50 if they’d learn it. I laugh about this, because he lived in Illinois and I lived in California, and none of my cousins was very good I was eight years old and coming along. I went to my piano teacher to get me the sheet music to Maple Leaf Rag so I could learn it and make $50. She actually said that I wasn’t good enough to learn it, so I told her to help me learn it. I learned it, got my $50 and quit taking lessons. Everybody always says how tough it is to make a living as a musician, and asks me how I got into this music, and I can truly say I went into it for the money! I know people who are still doing gigs for $50, it’s sad to say. My grandfather was quite chagrined when I actually did this. He had offered $100 for “Cannonball Rag.” I couldn’t find the music for “Cannonball”. Anyway, this started me into this love of ragtime, so I got everything I could get. I got some Max Morath records, which I love because I am a big Max fan. Since then, I’ve become friends with Max. He’s one of my closest friends in the music business. I wanted to be an actress for a while, and I went the beauty contest route, which is what every budding actress in her teen years or early twenties wants to do. “Maple Leaf Rag” was the tune I always played, so that was my big show-off tune. Then, a friend in college said, “I bet you could get a job playing piano.”
DR: Another bet!
JC: Yes, I’m starting to see a pattern as well. These things come out in interviews. You think about it. Now I was actually betting against myself. I didn’t think I could. But I went in and played “Maple Leaf” again. I only had five tunes memorized. I didn’t even have a big repertoire, but I got the job. The guy didn’t know I didn’t know anything else. Then I got into stride and you fast forward to now. I haven’t played “Maple Leaf Rag” in years, and I’m now about to do my first orchestra dates, because I’m having some orchestrations done. My orchestrator said that we should really do a ragtime tune…
DR: You should have said, “How much you want to bet I can’t do “Maple Leaf?”
JC: Right. Well, I probably haven’t performed it in ten years, because I really don’t perform lots of ragtime, and that isn’t what I’m doing now. But I thought, You know, this tune has been so good to me, so I’ll do it. So, we did this really wonderful arrangement. I love ragtime, and I’ve actually been getting more interested in going back and doing some things with orchestrated ragtime with a group. I think of all those years at Disneyland, five years, seven hours a day and I played “The Entertainer” at least ten times a day, and I just had to get away from it, because I wasn’t enjoying it. It’s true of any music. I will have pieces that I’ve played a lot that will just not play for a while. You just say that needs to rest, so that you come back and they’re fresh. I never stopped loving ragtime.
DR: I’m surprised that you were able to play without a certain amount of rags, which many pianists use to fill in and round out the repertoire on gigs.
JC: Well, it’s interesting. For each change, creatively, for my music I’ve always gone for what was from the heart, the really best music for me, that kept me creative and engaged.
DR: I remember you once told me that you progressed chronologically through the years, learning music.
JC: Right and it was not on purpose, although I do think it is good way to go. Because you’re really studying the history of jazz and you know why it did what it did, and you understand it from the inside out. This why I think some of these older musicians – like George Shearing and Hank Jones among the modern players – grew up as jazz was growing up. When they were younger, they were playing stride, then they were playing bebop. That’s why there’s so much depth to their music. I was just naturally drawn to it that way. When I stopped playing so much ragtime, I was actually afraid that I’d lose a lot of my fans, because I was known as a ragtime player. But I got new fans who were interested in the stride that I was doing, and every now and then I would throw in a ragtime piece. For a while, I played a lot of novelty tunes, like “Kitten on the Keys.” I really went through a Zez Confrey craze. A friend of mine wrote a tune for me called “Zez Who?” which has every cliché of those kind of tunes. And then I got into the stride repertoire, “Carolina Shout” and things like that, which sort of replaced those ragtime pieces. And I got more interested in improvising. Now, it’s just a matter of time. There are things that I would love to be working on, and what do I want to work on that would be good for my development, but also that I can perform. As projects with different groups come up, I’m thinking of that, too, and arranging some things. I think this is a good thing, in terms of your progress. In the beginning, there are huge leaps that you’re making, because you’re learning how to play. The better you get, the progress is so nebulous, it’s hard to tell. You’re working and thinking “Am I getting any better?” So, it’s nice to have a goal. Like I have a tour with a quintet that’s coming up, about 35 dates. We’re going to do swing music, and it’s all the small groups from the big bands, like Ellington, Goodman, Basie. So, that’s a repertoire that I really haven’t done, and I’m very excited about it.
DR: So, when you come back here in a few years, you’ll be doing rhythm and blues – Judy’s Rock Tour. I wanted to ask you about this funny cover to one of your new CDs, Chops, which shows you standing next to a huge stack of logs.
JC: I was out on tour and jogging in the morning and saw the logs. I thought that would make a great CD cover – now there’s a girl with big chops. That was actually a recording that I did with a player piano company, PianoDisc. I was so pleased with the way the recording turned out, I think, because I didn’t approach the session as something that was going to be a CD. I was much looser, in a way. Because of this digital technology, they can edit out anything.
DR: Was it like playing a piano piano?
JC: Yes, I was playing a Steinway grand, and it didn’t feel any different. They did such a good job with putting this system in. PianoDisc is a really good system. I was very fortunate that the people who worked on this were fabulous. I say that they ‘massaged’ the performance, because they made sure that the pedaling is just right, and the length of the notes and the dynamics. They listen to an audio recording of you, and make sure that what they’ve gathered digitally is playing exactly what you played in terms of what the expression is. What was interesting was that I thought if I hit a wrong note, they can edit it. When I do my audio recordings, I don’t edit. It is one or two takes, and that’s it. But in this, I didn’t hit a bunch of wrong notes, I was so loose. So, I did all first takes. We did about an hour of music, maybe 20 tunes, in about an hour and 20 minutes. The result was so spontaneous that it was just like a live recording.
DR: I want to pick up the story from your early years of lessons. Did you go on to music school or advanced lessons?
JC: No, and I’ve talked to so many people who have had terrible experiences with piano teachers. My teacher was so unhelpful and unsupportive that the thought to me of going to another piano teacher was just something I didn’t want to do. She also convinced me, I think, that I didn’t have a lot of ability. So, I learned these ragtime pieces, and everybody in elementary school and high school said that I played great, and I read fairly well But I didn’t improvise and I didn’t play by ear. To me, that’s what I thought meant you were really talented. So, by definition, I wasn’t talented. I didn’t realize that I had a real gift for it. So, I didn’t have any training, and I went on to college as a German major. I had two career plans. I was either going to go into acting, because I liked being on stage, and I did a lot of plays in school. Or I was going to pursue languages, and I thought I’d go into the Foreign Service.
DR: What sparked the language route?
JC: I was good at it, and I was really interested in languages. I have a good ear for languages. And I was interested in travel, which I’ve ended up doing with my music, because I’ve done a lot of things for the State Department and the Foreign Service. But with music it’s a lot more fun than if I’d been with the Foreign Service or something.
DR: You might have made a great spy.
JC: Yeah, well, I thought about that. I had an aunt who was in the CIA, actually.
DR: (whispered) You’re not supposed to admit that.
JC: Well, she’s gone now.
DR: That’s what they’re telling you. She’s actually on assignment.
JC: I’m learning so much today, David! One time I was stopped outside of Casablanca because they thought I was a spy. I had done a concert tour all over India, Czechoslovakia and Lisbon and now I was coming into Rabat. They stopped me and looked at my passport. This was in 1988. They didn’t believe it when I said I was a jazz pianist, and they started laughing. They said, “Sure, jazz is really big in Rabat.” I was accompanying some people in my language classes in college. I had a viola player whom I worked with for awhile, who wanted me to read through some things for practice.
DR: Viola? Now that’s unbelievable, I’m sure that never happened.
JC: I seldom read any music any more, because I’m doing all my things by ear. But I think I must have read pretty well because I was playing classical music.
DR: When was the split when you decided it was music, and not languages?
JC: Well, I did the job for the summer that I told you about. And at the time, I couldn’t afford to go to Europe. For anybody who’s studying languages, you just have to go there and stay for awhile. So, I started seeing if I could get some music jobs, and I did. The real turning point, when I was still playing ragtime, was that someone came in and played for me some Count Basie, from the early years playing with Bennie Motens band, playing “Prince of Wails,” I still remember, and he was striding much more like Fats Waller then. It was in a very full style, not the spare style he wound up with. And I went crazy. It was just a musical breakthrough for me. I thought that this is what I want to do, if I do nothing else in my life. That’s when I started trying to teach myself to play by ear. I really listened to records, and I didn’t even know what key I was in. I had been playing professionally for a couple of years, just memorizing things from music. But every time a musician would come in, I’d say, “What key am I in?” So, I started figuring it out, and seeing the patterns with the chords, and learning more tunes. I got a lot of work. This was in Newport Beach, Southern California. The timing was very good, because there was the ragtime craze, which had really hit. There was a shopping center in Torrance that was built like Disneyland, all turn of the century. They hired ragtime piano and banjo players, and I worked there five days a week, and I worked at Shakey’s three nights a week. And then I worked in a place in Newport Beach, three nights a week. Then I decided I wasn’t enjoying it as much, and I needed to find what I was going to do with my music. Improvising was what it was. I wanted something that fed me more than just continuing with ragtime. I started working at Disneyland, and spending more time practicing.
DR: Did you find yourself being surrounded by people who were doing what you wanted to be doing?
JC: I did with ragtime. There were a lot of people playing it. And certainly when I was doing barrelhouse and honky-tonk, the more commercial ragtime, Rod Miller was a big influence on me. I listened to his music a lot, which I think, frankly, is one of the reasons they hired me at Disneyland, because he was there and I came along and was doing the same things. In terms of stride, there weren’t people playing anything, so I just kept listening to records and making up my own versions. Which was good, because I didn’t sound like anybody else. I was coming up with MY way of doing it. A couple of the older people were still alive, playing stride on the East Coast, and I never heard them. One of the things that initially made it difficult for me to get going eventually became an advantage. Working at Disneyland, I met Count Basie, Harold Jones, the great drummer, and Sarah Vaughan, and they really encouraged me to go to New York. I remember that Basie said, “You’ve got to get out in the jazz world.” And I said, “I hate jazz” because I had heard so little jazz, I’d heard a lot of the really modern…
DR: You said that to Basie, “I hate jazz”?
JC: Don’t you love it?
DR: What exactly did he say?
JC: He started laughing, and he said that I’m a jazz pianist and how can I hate it. And I was very naive, as a lot of people are. I didn’t know that was jazz. I thought jazz was a lot of the people that I didn’t like. I remember when I was 19, someone took me to a jazz club, and I hated the music. It was unstructured, self-indulgent, with a tone that was very abrasive and it gave me a headache and I left. The jazz club was very smoky and depressing, dark. I didn’t find it uplifting. I was thinking of Count Basie things, which I had heard which were joyous and thrilling, and the ragtime, which was very uplifting. Years later, when I was doing a lot of clubs, which I don’t do primarily now, the people who worked in these clubs told me that the week that I worked there, people would be in a great mood. Couples would come in, have dinner with a nice bottle of wine, very polite, big tippers. Then the next week, they’d have one of these people playing this very depressing, hard-to-follow kind of music, and the people would sit there over a beer all night, depressed, never tip them and be surly.
When I was younger, I didn’t know the broad range that jazz has to offer. And I thought I hated bebop until I heard Charlie Parker and I heard the guys who knew what they were doing with it. I had heard a lot of bad bebop players. it was the same thing with acting. When I thought I wanted to act, what I really wanted to do was improvisational theater, and that’s what I was really good at. That is what I do in my concerts I usually stand up and tell some stories and some anecdotes from the road, so I’m getting to do more of my improvisational acting, if you call it that. So, anyway, Basie said I’ve got to get to New York and hear what people are doing, people who will understand what I’m doing. That was a real eye and ear opener for me. I met Roy Eldridge and the great piano players, Dick Wellstood, who was playing stride, Dick Hyman, Ralph Sutton, Jay McShann and the more modern players. And I went crazy.
DR: Where did you start playing?
JC: Hanratty’s was the big place. I had a great time when I first went to New York. It was a dream come true in so many ways, because it really was like one of those Hollywood movies, A Star Is Born. Here I had been in LA, where in general I was pretty much ignored. I got a lot of work, but in places where the audience wasn’t really paying attention. I’m not complaining about getting work, but I didn’t get a lot of real feedback from interested listeners.
So, I went to meet John Hammond. I had done my first record, and it had all these Basie guys on it. Harold Jones, who was my drummer on the date, said I’ve got to meet Hammond. So, I sent John the recording before it was out as a record and he said he loved it and we’ve got to meet. It was a thrill just to meet him. When I walked in, he was very awkward, didn’t know what to say, shuffled papers around. He didn’t say he was interested in the recording, so I left and I was very upset – this didn’t work out very well. I called Freddie Green, who had been Basie’s guitar player for years. He said, “Oh, no, he thought you were black.”
Hammond had been a big promoter of primarily black musicians, and he didn’t know what to do with me. He thought I was an older black woman from my playing, but I was a very young white woman. But the interesting thing is that it was very motivating for me because he said that of everybody he ‘d talked to, nobody knew who I was. So I marched off, and that night I went to Eddie Condon’s which was next to Jimmy Ryan’s at the time, where Roy Eldridge was playing. Roy came over to Eddie Condon’s on his break. I was a big fan of his, and I went up and introduced myself and said, “I play stride piano.” He started laughing, because he looked at me and thought, “There’s no way this girl plays stride piano.” But the difference was, he said “Prove it.” So, he called the guys off the bandstand, and told me to get up there and play “Handful of Keys,” the killer Fats Waller tune. So, I did. The band was a bunch of these old, beat-up New York musicians. They were so angry with Roy – they couldn’t believe he was going to have this girl play piano. So, they were sitting at the bar staring at me. I played, and the audience went crazy. Call this my “Gidget goes to Harlem” period. I was really tan, wearing a red sundress with little spaghetti straps and big hibiscus all over. I looked like I was right from Hawaii. But I played it, and Roy and I became fast friends. He said he wanted me to go to Hanratty’s, play “Handful of Keys” for Dick Wellstood, and tell him that Roy sent me. Then he wanted me to go to Bradley’s, which was the big downtown place, where Bill Evans played, and Tommy Flanagan and all of that ilk. He was basically having me take care of uptown and downtown. So, the next night I went to Hanratty’s and Dick Wellstood. And he said, “Fine, play.” The same thing happened. They couldn’t believe it, and they immediately offered me a job, because the owner was there. I was actually overwhelmed by that. I put that off a little while. The next night I went to Bradley’s. Roy had called Tommy Flanagan and described me, so Tommy came over, and then he introduced me. It was packed, and this was intimidating, because it was a much different style. Musically. I’ll never forget that, because after I played, Tommy said he wanted me to meet another piano player, and he introduced me to Bill Evans.
DR: What was your frame of mind during all this? That it was a dream that would end, or this was the beginning of the rest of your life?
JC: That’s a really good question. I certainly didn’t think that I had it made. That didn’t occur to me at all. I was much too humble, too scared, overwhelmed. One of the things that is very consistent in my musical upbringing with these older musicians is that they give you the opportunity, but it’s a frightening opportunity. They really throw you out into 20-foot waves, and say “Swim.” A lot of people, frankly, would not do it. One of the great things about New York is that there is a real opportunity. It’s harsh in that they eat you up and spit you out, but you get the opportunity. If you’re willing and able, you can, in some ways, shoot to the top. It doesn’t mean you’re going to make lots of money, but your opportunity is there. I was mainly concentrating on getting through all of this. I had tried to sit in at some clubs in LA but I was viewed really as a cute blonde chick, who had a gimmick, playing piano.
DR: Getting back to repertoire, do you play all of the Jelly Roll Morton tunes?
JC: You know, I don’t and I should. It’s another one of those things that’s just a time factor. I’ve been thinking lately that I want to pursue some solo things and do some of the Morton. But I’m going into this quintet mode. I play “Grandpa’s Spells” and “The Pearls.”
DR: What are your new projects?
JC: I’m doing something for QRS. They still sell 100,000 piano rolls a year. I was staggered by that. We’re in the middle of a long project. They want me to record every Fats Waller tune that Fats didn’t do on piano roll. Lawrence Cook, who did so many of those rolls, said to Fats one day that he could sound just like Fats. Fats agreed and told Cook to record them and put Fats’ name on them. So, the next project is going to be both a disc for QRS and an audio CD with sax and guitar. The digital disc you put in the piano, for a digital player piano performance, with sax and guitar through the speakers. Then I’m planning to record swing music with the quintet.
DR: Have you encountered in New York a San Francisco musician by the name of Peter Mintun?
JC: Yes, in fact, we went in to hear him at the Carlisle, and it was one of the greatest evenings. A dear friend of mine, Steve Ross, a cabaret performer who does a lot of Noel Coward and Cole Porter and that kind of thing, had said that I had to hear Peter. I went in and we were requesting one thing after another. Everybody else in the room was much older, so he zeroed in on us. So, we hung out and talked. Peter really seems like he’s stepped out of the era. But it’s not like a museum piece. It’s very fresh in that old context.
DR: How about some of the other people you know in New York, like Terry Waldo?
JC: I love Terry. What a nut that man is! We’ve come very close to doing two-piano dates. As The New Yorker says “Musicians lead complicated lives.” I love that, at the top of their calendar section, meaning that schedules often change. Another show, by the way, that I would love to bring to San Francisco, is with Steve Ross called “Cole Porter meets Fats Waller” It is hilarious, because it is the same era but two different directions. We did this at the Tavern on the Green, which has a very nice music room. We brought in two Steinway grands. We opened with “Maple Leaf Rag” in duet. Terry came to see the show. He’s another one who is keeping alive a very specific part of the music. He really has his niche, between ragtime and early jazz.
DR: How about Vince Giordano?
JC: He’s a very close pal. Another actor friend of mine, Todd Robbins, who went to ACT in San Francisco, brought Vince to hear me at Hanratty’s. Then he took me to hear Vince and the Nighthawks. I was saying how sick I was of playing solo, I want a group. Vince said I didn’t know how lucky I was to play solo. I haven’t gone through what leaders go through with different musicians and trying to put bands together. Now I know of this, as a leader for quite a few years myself. But Vince and I became very good friends. He was probably the first musician in New York that I really became friends with. He was really helpful.
DR: He and I both understand, as few people do, about putting together an ensemble for this kind of music – in his case, an era slightly later than the ragtime era I work in.
JC: I hire people who are stylistically compatible with me, and I say, “This is how we’re going to do the tune, and in this part you do your thing.” And I feature my other musicians a lot, to give them their moment. I’ve seen occasions where some musicians will make a radical left stylistically, which is not contextual. And jazz musicians taking too much time is one of those jokes. I remember the first time I did a festival, a stride night for Dick Hyman. He told me he wanted my section to be about 20 minutes. I said that it would be 20 minutes. He and the tech people all started laughing, because jazz concerts are notorious for going on and on. And I think my set was 19 and a half minutes. Dick’s never let me forget it – he was so impressed with that. He said I was the only musician in 40 years of professional playing who did that.
DR: Did you know Eubie?
JC: Yes. I met him at the Maple Leaf Club in LA, and he was probably about 90. I might have been around 17. I played “Maple Leaf” and “Kitten on the Keys.” I wasn’t a hit, and I played pretty fast, sort of a Disneyland version. People applauded but they were very serious, and I certainly didn’t wow them. I walked off stage really unhappy. Eubie shook my hand, and I remember those gigantic hands, and he said, “Little lady, you were wonderful.” I said, “Thank you, but they didn’t like me very much.”
“Naah, they’re all stuffy out there,” he said. “They think they know how this was played. I know how it was played. Everybody played it the way they wanted. You did your thing with it. That’s what counts. Don’t listen to any of them.”
I can look back on certain turning points when I was discouraged. Years would go in between, but it’s that one moment when somebody says the right thing, and then I think I can keep going a few more years. Because of his personality and his passion, he made people listen, people who weren’t fans. He wasn’t just a funny old guy playing piano. It was that this music speaks. Thank goodness there were people like Johnny Carson and Mike Douglas who had him on their shows.
DR: Can you imagine him showing up on Oprah and talking about his early loves?
JC: You read my mind. Rosie O’Donnell would have had him on. She would have done a tune with him, because she’s really hearkening back to that variety show mentality. And she’s talented. It’s not just her approach and sensibility. This is a woman who does something and is not just a talk show host. This was also the case with Mike Douglas and Johnny Carson – that you knew they were fans, and they really respected these people.
DR: Tell me about doing the Marian McPartland show.
JC: It was about 1990 when I did it. I don’t consider her a naturally relaxed performer. Like you and I are having a conversation and it’s very relaxed. Marian’s a little more nervous in putting things together, but it doesn’t come across at all. So, she’s got to leap over that. And she’s a consummate musician. She plays with all these different people, figures out a way to make it work. But again, she has a huge history of music, was married to Jimmy McPartland, and knows the older styles at least subliminally, if not literally. She’s certainly not a stride player, or something like that. You walk in and she says, “What do you want to play?”
I told her, and she said, “Good. I was thinking I might do this and this.”
At the time I didn’t know this tune, but I said, “Do you know ‘Memories of You’?”
And she could do what she does with those juicy chords, because she’s so lyrical and her harmonies. She said, “I love ‘Memories of You’.” Then she said, “Okay, let’s just do it.”
Of course, she’s done her homework, so she says a few things about me, and introduces a tune, which I had planned to do. We pretty much recreate the conversation that we’ve had. But she purposely, and I think intelligently, doesn’t prepare a lot. It’s like you and me. This is much more spontaneous, because you didn’t sit down and talk to me about anything ahead of time She makes sure it’s a pretty spontaneous situation. And no second takes, although it’s taped, so if there were a huge blooper or something she would redo it. She tapes the programs in New York and Los Angeles.
DR: Have you ever written anything?
JC: I think when I got that urge to write things, it wasn’t to write ragtime but to improvise. Again, that’s spontaneous writing, rather than writing it down. It would be interesting – because I’m doing more arranging now for the group – to see if I’ll start feeling like writing music. That’s one of the fun things about this kind of career – you don’t know where you’re going to go.
DR: Have there been certain things in the media that you’ve done that have interested you!
JC: I’m working on a project now for American Movie Classics. I really have a lot of lot of fun with television.
DR: That’s something right there I don’t often hear from musicians.
JC: Well, I don’t mean watching a lot of television, although I do think there is some intelligent TV. But I’ve talked about a number of projects with them, in terms of piano players talking about music on film, musicals and things like that. I would be one of their hosts, and doing a series for them. It would be sort of doing a Marian McPartland on film, where I play.
I’ve had a number of people talk to me about doing my own show, whether radio or television. But I’ve never had a concept that I was really happy with; that I thought would really be fun. I’ve done Garrison Keillor’s show a couple of times, which I really enjoyed. I not only got to play, but I got to do some of his skits with him, which hearken back to my acting days. I did one show in New York, and I did a television version on the Disney channel. I also did the first incarnation in Minnesota. I wish that shows like “The Carol Burnett Show” still existed, because that’s the kind of stuff I would like doing.
DR: I’m surprised you were in LA that long without getting caught up in film work.
JC: It’s funny you say this, because I actually got an agent to do some sideline work. They have to hire musicians to play musicians, and I went out on a lot of calls. Every time they said I didn’t look like a musician. They couldn’t use me.
DR: You looked like a spy – Maybe you should have done Bond films.
JC: Vince Giordano got me on the film that he did, The Cotton Club. He put my name in. Vince said, “I got you the gig!” The guy calls Vince and says before he sends the contract; there’s just one thing he needs to know…
DR: “Is she black?”
JC: No, because it was a white band. He says, “What does she look like?” Vince says, “Oh, you’re going to love her, blonde hair, beautiful.”
The guy says, ‘Well, we can’t use her. We don’t want to take away from the singer who will be with the band. We don’t want anyone looking at the piano player.” So, I kept trying to get parts as a musician, and that didn’t work. If I could wave a magic wand, I would like to do what Hoagy Carmichael did in films, and not because of the name. I would want to be myself in a bunch of films. He got to be a funny personality, who played piano and said a few lines.
I’m really excited about doing orchestra dates. I did the first one with Skitch Henderson, speaking of an old timer, who just turned 79. We did it with the Stamford Symphony. We’re going to do something with the New York Pops at Carnegie Hall. It was a real thrill having all these musicians and the sound coming up. I met Skitch when I first came to New York, and he’s been a big supporter, too. He’s sort of launching my pops” career. It’s always been a dream to play the Hollywood Bowl, because I grew up going there.
DR: Just be glad you’re not 85 and all this is happening too late.
JC: I’m sure this has happened to other people, but just when I think I can’t keep going, a Skitch Henderson comes along, or Columbia Artists calls and asks if I want to tour with the quintet. There are people that you don’t see a lot in this kind of life, like a certain stage hand in a certain hall, or an interview with someone like yourself, who are like a family, and it does keep a certain kind of connection as you go from city to city. It’s what keeps you going. It keeps you thinking, “Okay, I can last another year.” There is a book that I read years ago about art, and the two different kinds of approaches. There’s the Madonna approach – the rock star approach – the bigger the audience, the better, the more adulation, the better, that whole thing. Then there’s the type, more like us, where the whole focus is different. You can play for 2,000 people, but it’s the one person who comes backstage and gets it – that’s what it is. I talked to someone just this morning, a friend of mine who had come to the concert and talked about it on a very personal level, about me as a person, how I approached the music. And I got all choked up, and she did, too, telling me this. That’s what made me think that it’s all worth it, that is what it is about. And I don’t mean this in an overly spiritual kind of way. It’s about the music, it’s about communicating and the personal satisfaction we get from that, that very special thing that we know we’re blessed to be able to do. Unfortunately, the struggle of making your living as a musician really makes it hard to remember that.
People on the outside often say, ‘You’re so gifted. Oh, it doesn’t matter that you can’t pay your rent, because you’re so lucky.” They’re so envious, because in some way they sense that we get to enjoy this other thing. But it really is hard to enjoy that other thing when you can’t pay the rent. You do get support in other cultures, because they look at it much differently. They don’t look at this as a luxury. They don’t even put it in the same category as “popular rock music” or commercialized. They know that this is something different and that people who dedicate their life to an artistic pursuit are really making a lot of sacrifices, and they’re grateful for that. They look at you as someone who is not special in a way that makes you better than they are, but as special in a way that makes you unique, taking a real risk. You get that kind of support and you get financial support.
DR: We come back full circle to where you started, in that you’re so actively bringing the music into the schools and trying to revitalize this.
JC: They’re the ones who are going to be coming to the concerts. Along that line, I had a 14-year-old ask me if I was related to Hoagy Carmichael. I get this question all the time, but not from 14-year-olds. So, I said, “No, I’m not but I’m very impressed you know who that is.”