December 22, 2012 by Daniel Koontz
Sag Harbor’s Judy Carmichael plays some mean “stride” piano. Stride is a piano style that comes from an early era in jazz, ’20s jazz that people partied and danced to. It’s a joyous, rollicking sound that evokes Kansas City, Chicago and the rich musical culture of the American South. It’s the kind of music you might expect to hear in a smoky juke joint in Memphis.
That’s why it’s somewhat surprising to find out that Carmichael grew up in suburban Los Angeles, in a generic housing development in the San Gabriel Valley. Not a juke joint in sight. Even as a child, Carmichael knew she was missing something; when she was 10, she complained to her parents that their hometown was “culturally bereft.” Her parents did provide her with piano lessons, but given her surroundings and the absence of artistic role models, Carmichael gave no thought to a career in music.
Carmichael’s improbable path to jazz stardom didn’t really begin until she was in college (she was a German major) and she took a job playing ragtime piano—according to Carmichael, she had learned about five Scott Joplin rags, which she played over and over. One day, an acquaintance gave her a recording by the great Count Basie, an early Basie stride-style piece called “Prince of Wails.” The record changed her life: from that moment on, Carmichael devoted herself to learning to play like the Count.
This was a huge challenge. “I had no background—I didn’t know chords, I listened and learned one note at a time. It was excruciating.” Because Carmichael’s hands weren’t as big as Basie’s, she also had to come up with adaptations through trial and error. “My advantage,” she observes now, “was that I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I developed a unique stride style because I didn’t know any other way.”
Carmichael clearly also had great, undeveloped musical talents; something in the unbridled joy of stride piano caused those talents to come out. Not many people could start playing jazz in college and ever wind up playing at the level of a professional musician. For Carmichael, it took just a few years. Of course, even after she developed her chops, Carmichael was still out-of-place as a woman playing in an old-fashioned style in a man’s world of smoky jazz clubs—a world that she found unfriendly and depressing.
Once again, Carmichael had to find a different path, adopting an entrepreneurial approach and making her own opportunities outside of the nightclub circuit. The extent to which she overcame the odds is astonishing; before he died, none other than Count Basie himself gave her the nickname “Stride” and explicitly named her his successor—an old jazz tradition. Now, she’s on the road 200 days a year, playing all over the world. In a time when audiences for most jazz are getting older, her audiences are getting younger. This coming February, the State Department is sending her to give concerts in U.S. Consulates throughout Australia as an ambassador of American music and culture. She also produces and hosts an NPR show Jazz Inspired, in which she talks with successful, creative people in different fields about how jazz has inspired them. Guests have included Robert Redford, Renée Fleming and Seth McFarlane.
Carmichael’s unlikely path has made her unusually mindful of the large gaps in musical understanding in American culture today—how today’s young people are even less likely than she was to listen to anything besides pop music, music that she feels is valid but is the musical equivalent of junk food.
“There’s nothing real in it. It’s like a quick fix—there’s no complexity. You can quote me on that!”
Rather than simply wringing her hands about this state of affairs, the Grammy nominee is adopting a characteristically pro-active and entrepreneurial stance, founding an educational program, “Jazz: Listening for Life,” that provides live jazz performances in schools.
“The Baby Boomers are the last generation to grow up with exposure to music with a complex harmonic structure, lyrics and melody—the ‘standards,’” she observes. “Also, many young people have music devices plugged into their ears at all times, for a ‘soundtrack of their life’ rather than as something they’re listening to in an engaged way. The skills for engaged listening are being lost and we want to address that.” Carmichael established a foundation to pay for “Jazz: Listening for Life,” and has received donations from as far away as Hungary.
“It’s important because, unlike pop songs that might speak to people on a surface level, songs like Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Skylark,’ songs by great lyricists and great composers, speak to the depths of emotions that we all experience.” Many times, young audience members have approached Carmichael after a concert to tell her how a particular song or lyric had touched them, often in a way that helped them understand their own complicated feelings.
It shouldn’t come as any surprise that Carmichael continues to develop her talents as determinedly now as when she first started out. She recently took up singing—after a lifetime of serious vocal challenges and several operations. In part, she just became frustrated that so many bad singers manage to have careers while so many phenomenal instrumentalists are starving.
“I’m reminded of David Tull’s song, ‘The Minutes Pass Like Hours When You Sing.’ That’s what it’s like being a sideman for a bad singer!” she says somewhat impoliticly.
Though she may have started singing to prove a point, her singing has opened up a whole new aspect of performing for Carmichael, allowing her to expand the emotional range of her music. She now sees herself gravitating toward writing lyrics as well, perhaps in collaboration with her saxophonist Harry Allen.
Carmichael loves the Hamptons, and especially Sag Harbor, where she now lives full-time. She loves the small-town feel, the quiet off-season, and also the way in which artists, writers and musicians mingle with the general public—something that she notes doesn’t happen in the city. Sag Harbor’s strong identity is something we might take for granted, as we might the routine access to great music performances and theatre that we have here, but when you think of the cultural deserts like the place Carmichael comes from, you remember how amazing this place is. If Carmichael’s efforts to educate young people can play any part in making other places more like Sag Harbor, we should be all for it!
Speaking of Sag Harbor, Carmichael will be giving a recital there at The American Hotel on March 23, 2013. Tickets are $100, which includes dinner. Call 631–725–3535 for reservations.