Judy Carmichael Looks Back on Two Decades of ‘Jazz Inspired’

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Blythe Danner and Judy Carmichael recording an episode of "Jazz Inspired."

It isn’t unusual for Judy Carmichael to travel, at minimum, 200 days a year.

So when the Grammy-nominated pianist and vocalist — known for her distinctive stride and swing playing — realized she would be hunkering down at home in Sag Harbor for the foreseeable future, due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, she decided to get comfortable.

“I really had to set a list of positive things that I could do with a year at home,” she said. “I haven’t been home this long in, probably, 20 years — can you imagine? Talk about a radical change in your life. It’s really weird.”

To make the most of her unexpected residency, she committed to practicing a bunch of new tunes, moving them off the back burner. She finished writing a book. She even picked up platform tennis, breaking out her ski jacket to play on particularly chilly days.

And, after a season of revisiting her favorite episodes in 2020, she breathed new life into her longtime radio show, “Jazz Inspired,” now airing on Sundays at 7 p.m. on Long Island’s only National Public Radio station, WLIW-FM 88.3 — an endeavor that has never ceased to energize and motivate Carmichael over its 21-year run, and counting.

“When I’ve been in my darkest days of no gigs — ‘How can I keep going?’ or ’I’m uninspired’ — to have these spectacular people tell me how wonderful and important jazz is, really, is empowering,” she said. “To be sitting there with Chevy Chase and have him wax rhapsodically on how beautiful and important jazz is really makes me feel like, ‘Okay, I can keep going.’

“I didn’t even think about that when I started the show,” she continued. “I just thought I wanted to put a good message out into the world and it wound up being this great thing, personally, for me.”

The idea behind “Jazz Inspired” was rather simple, Carmichael explained. She found herself drawn to interesting and accomplished individuals who brought truth and beauty into the world, and gave back to society for a reason other than their own narcissism, she said.

And, as a unifying hook, she wanted to know how jazz music inspired them.

“So, I started recording. I started with 13 famous people — because I knew they’d get it off the ground — that were fans of mine, so I knew they’d say yes. They were friends,” she said. “And I did those 13 shows, and believe it or not, I pressed the CDs and I mailed them to radio stations, that’s how I got started.”

In the decades since, Carmichael has not once billed “Jazz Inspired” as a “jazz show.” Instead, it’s a show about inspiration and creativity — what inspires the inspiring and how creative people create, she said. To date, over 500 guests have discussed how their passion for jazz informs their work, while sharing their favorite recordings and insight into their own lives and art.

That talent has ranged from Seth MacFarlane, Blythe Danner and Billy Joel to Jeff Goldblum, Tony Bennett and Robert Redford, setting the stage for creatives of all kinds — not just musicians — to enter the “Jazz Inspired” fold.

“It’s like getting to choose who you want to spend an hour with, out of the brightest, most talented, interesting, inspiring people,” Carmichael said. “So I get to do that and that has reinforced my own creativity, it’s inspired my own creativity. Many of these people I’ve become friends with. We’ve stayed in touch and I know, because I insisted on doing it in person, we made a different kind of connection than if we never met.”

In years past, Carmichael would coordinate many of her “Jazz Inspired” interviews with tours in hubs like New York, Los Angeles and London, scheduling interviews in between concerts. But with travel grounded during the coronavirus pandemic, the host got creative, turning to SquadCast as a video and audio recording tool and conducting all of her interviews remotely — a strategy she will likely continue, she said, as it’s opened doors she never imagined.

Case in point, at the end of the month, Carmichael will record an interview with one of country music’s most important artists, Willie Nelson, who is 87 years old and on the cusp of releasing “That’s Life,” a new tribute to Frank Sinatra, on February 26.

“Because he’s Willie Nelson, it would be impossible right now for us to meet in person,” she said. “I could be the girl who killed Willie Nelson! I wouldn’t want to be in a room with somebody who’s in their 80s! But it’s great because they reached out and we’ll be able to do it, which I’m really excited about.”

The new season will also feature familiar names like musician Ani DiFranco, actor Lettie Lutz, comedian Alonzo Bodden and Jon Batiste, bandleader and music director of “The Late Show” with Stephen Colbert — even though his 2019 episode aired at the beginning of last year, too, as part of the 20th anniversary celebration of “Jazz Inspired.”

“I love him,” Carmichael said of Batiste. “When he came in, he’s smack on time, he was sort of singing. I said, “Hey, Judy Carmichael!” And he put his arm around me and we started dancing together, to no music, but we were hearing the same music in our heads.”

Before hitting “record,” Carmichael sat down at the piano and played a couple measures — “I knew that, then, he’d know I’m a real musician,” she said — only to have Batiste insist on a jam session at the end of their interview.

“He ran to the piano and started playing — the style that I play is called stride piano, which is ’30s and ’40s jazz — so he started playing some stuff from that era and then I played something, he played something,” she said. “I swear, we would still be there if I hadn’t had an appointment. I had to throw him out, essentially. I just thought he was the best, he was wonderful.”

Some of Carmichael’s guests come by way of chance, like actor Chevy Chase, whom she spotted one night at The American Hotel in Sag Harbor. Another, she met during a weekly softball game she once hosted at Mashashimuet Park — though she didn’t immediately recognize him as one of her personal heroes.

“We wound up walking back to the parking lot together, we were having a nice chat,” she said. “I never ask anybody what they do for a living — I think it shows a lack of imagination — but I’m looking at this guy with a Hawaiian shirt who wasn’t a very good baseball player, and I’m thinking, ‘Hmm, who is this man?’”

Unable to help herself, she asked the dreaded question and learned that he was an astrophysicist.

“I said, ‘I’m an astrophysicist groupie! I love astrophysics!’” she recalled. “He starts laughing and I said, ‘I have a radio show, please tell me you’re a jazz fan. I have a radio show where I interview creative people about jazz.’ And he said, ‘I’m really into blues.’ And I said, ‘Good enough!’”

When Carmichael got home, to her horror and unbridled delight, she realized she had been talking to Neil deGrasse Tyson, arguably regarded as the most influential, acclaimed scientist on the planet — and he agreed to appear on “Jazz Inspired.”

“We did this interview and it took him two years to listen to it, because he’s so busy,” Carmichael said. “Two years later, he sent me an email saying, ‘This is one of the best interviews I have ever done and I think it’s because of our great energy. Thank you for having me on the show.’ And he periodically sends me an email.”

Looking ahead, not only does Carmichael want to bring more scientists on to the show, but overall, she said she hopes to reach a broader audience that will come away with a deeper understanding of jazz — which, admittedly, can be intimidating.

“Jazz is a fringe music. Most people think they don’t like jazz, it’s just the truth,” she said. “That was another reason I made the show — because I thought if I get all these interesting, creative, smart people, somebody like Billy Joel saying that he’s a passionate jazz fan, maybe some other people will give jazz a chance, too.”

For more information about Judy Carmichael’s “Jazz Inspired,” visit wliw.org/radio/programs/jazz-inspired.

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