Pianist Judy Carmichael is in the Swing and Coming Back to Bay Street!

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Judy Carmichael taking a bow with her band in Brazil. Courtesy Judy Carmichael.
The Saturday after Thanksgiving happened to be Judy Carmichael’s birthday. Typically, it’s an occasion that calls for gathering with family and friends. But this year, Carmichael, a Grammy-nominated stride and swing pianist, wasn’t home in Sag Harbor. Instead, she was at sea as part of her latest gig, sailing aboard the luxury cruise ship Crystal Serenity where she had been performing all week.

And after a year and a half of canceled performances due to COVID-19 — some 200 of them — she’s totally fine with that.

“I’m on the end on one cruise and we go back to Miami and out again tomorrow,” explained Carmichael by phone while the ship was making a port-of-call in Key West, Florida. “I’ll stay on until St. Kitts, then I’ll leave the cruise and fly home.”

The reason for her mid-cruise departure is “Swing! I Go For That,” a concert that brings Carmichael and her trio back to Bay Street Theater on Saturday, December 4, at 8 p.m.

“I was the first to suggest the idea of performing music at Bay Street back when it was new,” Carmichael recalled. “They felt at the time it was extraordinary because they had just thought of presenting plays, not music. They said OK, and the chamber of commerce presented it. It’s the perfect place, all the sight lines are fantastic. It’s intimate, but has that wonderful theater seating, which I love better than a concert hall.”

The Bay Street stage is one she’s returned to time and time again in the years since, and it’s a venue that is both familiar and comfortable — like coming home for the holidays. Her last performance there was a little more than two years ago, in prepandemic 2019, and now she is more than ready to get back there again.

“I’m very excited because I’m bringing my bassist Pat O’Leary and guitarist Chris Flory,” she added. “I haven’t been able to see them because all our concerts were canceled. They’re my A team — and I feel this is my home club.”

That’s saying something, given the sheer number of venues Carmichael has graced over the years. As a world-class pianist (and singer as well), she’s in high demand and typically spends her time crisscrossing the globe to perform in fabled concert halls and intimate clubs. She finds that more often than not, she encounters audience members who have already seen her perform elsewhere, like aboard ships such as the Crystal Serenity (which incidentally, was christened in 2003 by East End resident Dame Julie Andrews, who is considered the ship’s godmother).

“People who travel like this are capable and desirous of far reaching travel,” Carmichael explained. “I’ve had people I met on ships fly around to hear me. I counted it up at one show — there were 30 couples who had met me in various places.”

While the cruise industry got a bad rap in the early days of COVID-19 because some ships seemed to be ground zero for infections, Carmichael is confident in the safety protocols that have that been put in place since the pandemic’s start.

“I felt bad because I had such affection for the cruise industry and I’m a rarefied part of it,” she said. “I know how careful they are. I feel safer here than anywhere. You have to be vaccinated, show a negative PCR test to fly, an antigen test to get on the ship and three days later, you take another antigen test. We’re in a bubble, and they take your temperature whenever you go into public spaces. I also have a tracer, so they know where I am on the ship and who I’m coming in contact with. It’s incredible.”

For Carmichael, the intimate confines of the high-end cruise ship has been an ideal way to get back into performing live after such a long hiatus.

“The bigger deal the concert, the further in advance you book it. Carnegie Hall books three years in advance, and I’m starting to book for fall ’22, spring ’23,” Carmichael explained. “One of the great things for me is cruises don’t book that far in advance. Maybe as little as two to three months. So I can fill in holes in my schedule.

“This is a unique culture and its own little city. I’m seeing people I haven’t seen in a couple years,” she added. “I’m unusual because for most entertainers who work ships, this is all they do. But I do mainly land gigs and some ships, so I can come and go.”

Carmichael also appreciates the pace and routine of life aboard the cruise ships on which she works.

“I call it my floating MacDowell Colony,” said Carmichael, referring to the famed artist’s residency program in New Hampshire. “I get up, exercise, someone has made breakfast for me, I come back and write. I wrote two books on ships. I get a couple of hours on the piano, then someone’s making me lunch.

“The joke here is, you either get in really good shape and write a book or you get fat and become an alcoholic.”

In many ways, the forced isolation brought on by the pandemic has been akin to being adrift at sea for all of humanity, and not in a good way. But while the social distancing and mandatory shutdowns of 2020 wreaked havoc on the psyche and careers of many, Carmichael did her best to stay busy, focused and productive.

Judy Carmichael performing in Brazil. Courtesy Judy Carmichael.

At the height of the pandemic Carmichael even performed a remote concert but ultimately decided it was not something she wanted to make a habit of.

“I couldn’t play from my living room every week. For me, that was a depressing thought,” Carmichael said. “To have worked so hard and only play from there. At times, I look at the piano and say, what’s the use? But I was really creative in other ways.”

Among her pandemic successes, Carmichael counts her writing projects (she took a short story class through the MFA program at SUNY’s Stony Brook Southampton) and the continuation of her long-running NPR show “Jazz Inspired,” which she produced for a 21st year using online resources to interview celebrity guests remotely.

“I figured out a way to keep ‘Jazz Inspired’ going and did a ton of interviews, which was great,” Carmichael said. “I also did some video editing because I had never done that before.

“When you travel like I do, it’s about mental, physical and emotional focus. Being able to be still and not constantly be on a plane allowed me to consider things like ‘Where do you want the rest of your career to go? What kind of music do you want to do?’” she said. “I feel lucky, because it’s been such a horribly tragic time for so many. I thought about how I was going to survive financially. Then I focused on using the time productively.

“It was the longest I’ve been home in 20 years and ultimately, I found it inspiring and positive,” she added. “I was also grateful I didn’t have a bunch of kids to home school.”

Now, the picture is looking brighter. Carmichael is happy to report bookings are up and no doubt her audiences are thrilled to be able to see her perform in person once again.

“I’m really busy now through March, then things drop off because they were postponed till 2023,” she said. “The good news is, people seem to appreciate it more than ever. My first show here was a couple days ago — it was like a rock concert.”

At Bay Street, the audience reception is likely to be a similar one, and longtime Carmichael fans can also expect to hear a couple tunes that were written during lockdown added to the mix. For her part, Carmichael is raring to go and ready to get back to work.

“At Bay Street, it’s really fun to see new people in the audience but also close friends and even my plumber,” she said. “It’s a thing that those of us who live in Sag Harbor feel. A sophisticated town that’s a small town in its own way.”

“I’m thrilled Bay Street is doing this.”

“Swing! I Go For That,” a live concert with Judy Carmichael, is happening Saturday, December 4, at 8 p.m. at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. Tickets start at $35 at baystreet.org or 631-725-9500. Masks and proof of vaccination are required for entry. Judy Carmichael’s weekly show “Jazz Inspired” airs locally on WLIW 88.3 FM on Sundays at 7 p.m.

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