Judy Carmichael Reflects on her Swinging Career

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Judy Carmichael on stage.

Though Judy Carmichael travels the globe performing for audiences of all ages and sizes, when she takes the stage at Sag Harbor’s Bay Street Theater on October 4, it will be like coming home.

That’s because for Carmichael, a Grammy-nominated pianist and vocalist known for her distinctive stride and swing playing, Sag Harbor is home — and has been for decades.

“This concert is an annual event and tends to be in the fall,” Carmichael explained in a recent interview at the Express News Group offices. “I feel like Bay Street is my personal jazz club. I love the raked seats and every view is fantastic.”

Carmichael also appreciates the homey feel of Sag Harbor itself — a place where, even if she doesn’t know the names, recognizes the faces of those she encounters on village streets.

“It’s a wonderful hometown vibe,” she said. “Someone I don’t really know will say, ‘How was Germany?’ They’ve heard that I took a tour. It’s loving — not intrusive. I feel support and it’s lovely.”

Judy Carmichael

Also lovely is the success of Carmichael’s many off-stage ventures — including her book “Swinger! A Jazz Girl’s Adventures from Hollywood to Harlem.” Published in late 2017, the book is a memoir and in it, Carmichael looks back at her life as a jazz musician. Hers has admittedly been an unlikely path, given that she began her career as a 20-something blonde California girl with an unusual gift for stride — the unique piano style made famous by primarily male performers like Count Basie and Fats Waller.

But all these years later, Carmichael has truly arrived. Today, she is one of the world’s premiere masters of the form, and her memoir details her long road to success through a series of stories and anecdotes.

“Being a jazz musician has been an Everest climb,” Carmichael admitted. “Nothing has come easily, nothing has been in a flash.”

She notes that though many people who read her book suspected she had kept meticulous journals over the years to recall the events in such detail, that wasn’t the case — in fact, she says, it was pure memory.

“One of my coping mechanisms has been to make funny stories out of what happened,” she explained. “Humor is much better than being depressed.”

From trudging through a rain forest in Hawaii with Sarah Vaughan and getting a kiss from Paul Newman, to revealing moments of pain and vulnerability, the book takes readers through the travelogue of Carmichael’s life. But for the author, perhaps the biggest revelation with the book is just how much she enjoyed the process of writing it.

“That was a big surprise,” she confessed. “If I had the money, I’d just go off and be a writer in a cabin in the woods.”

A writer’s life may be in her future, but right now, Carmichael has too much on her plate to do that just yet — especially with her weekly radio show and podcast, “Jazz Inspired.” The show, which Carmichael initially financed and produced herself, is approaching its 20th year. In it, she engages celebrity guests in discussions about the creative process and the way in which jazz has served as inspiration in their respective fields. Her diverse roster of guests have included everyone from musician Billy Joel and actor Robert Redford to astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson and comedian Paula Poundstone.

Her most recent exciting “get” as she calls it, was Seth McFarland, creator of the TV series “Family Guy.”

“Because I’m an independent producer, I don’t have a big organization bringing me these people. I always do the interviews in-person, the big story is the ‘get’ and I’ll do introductions about these adventures.”

While many of her guests do, indeed, have big names, for Carmichael, the focus of “Jazz Inspired” has nothing to do with the trappings of wealth and fame. Instead, it’s all about the sharing of ideas.

“I like to think people are dealing with ideas and inspiration— things separate from money or how pretty you are … there’s so little that is authentic now.”

Which is why Carmichael strives to deliver a different kind of message with “Jazz Inspired.”

“The core of any of these interviews, what’s most important is not the anecdotes about who the person hung out with, but the things that have bigger meaning and relevance for everyone — things that inspired them to be more creative or courageous,” she said. “These people have taken loads of risks, faced their fears and really challenged themselves. Those are the moments that are going to be distilled down in the show.”

“At the end that’s the real meat of it,” she added. “I started the show because everyone should be creative, especially now … It’s connecting. That’s also what I hope the book does.”

But ultimately, most of Carmichael’s life as a musician has been about performing live for audiences and she has been in the music business long enough to witness changes in who she plays for. While she’s always had a selection of young people who follow her thanks to the podcast, at the other end of the spectrum, she notes it used to be the parents of Baby Boomers who largely filled the seats.

“Like my parents, they knew the Great American Songbook, so people expected you to play that,” she said. “And they didn’t want to hear a lot of original music.”

Now, all that’s changed.

“I’m writing music and lyrics now, still in the standard form, and young people will come up afterward and say ‘my favorite one was your tune,’” Carmichael recalled. “I thought, ‘What is this about?’ They said, ‘because it was you— your story.’ Then it started happening with people in their 50s and I realized they didn’t know the standards.”

That’s because she was now playing for the next generation — those Baby Boomers who didn’t have a connection to the standards and instead, embraced the personal storytelling aspects of music from the 1960s.

“It’s freeing. Now I don’t have to worry about playing something people have heard of,” she said. “No one says ‘I didn’t recognize anything.’ Instead they, say ‘thanks for introducing me to that.’”

Now that’s what you call jazz inspired.

Judy Carmichael performs “Let’s Swing” at Sag Harbor’s Bay Street Theater on Friday, October 4, at 8 p.m. Longtime collaborators, guitarist Chris Flory, clarinetist/saxophonist, Dan Block and bassist George DeLancey, will perform with her. Tickets are $35 to $55 at baystreet.org or 631-725-9500.

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