A Pianist’s Story: Taking Life in Stride

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Most memoirs and almost all autobiographies hew to chronology. Not so Judy Carmichael’s engaging account of her professional and personal life as a Grammy-nominated Steinway artist doing swing and stride, and as the independent producer of the radio show “Jazz Inspired,” now in its 18th year.

Another anomaly: neither the title of her book “Swinger,” nor the subtitle – “A Jazz Girl’s Adventures from Hollywood to Harlem” — quite describes her experiences as a “girl” playing jazz piano, or hint at later challenges when she began to reassess her relationship with her parents, and, in midlife and midcareer — a former beauty queen, competitive tennis player, actress . . . and unique female jazz pianist. She was diagnosed with cervical cancer and had to undergo long, hard and expensive treatments. “A friend once said` so many musicians succumb to suicidal despair, career anxiety, serious illness’ and suddenly, I had them all,” writes Carmichael.

The upbeat title and effervescent cover photo therefore hardly suggest the wider and deeper truths revealed in the second half of the book. Even though “cancer” appears in the book’s opening line, the subject is put aside for a lively trip down memory lane to hometown Pico Rivera in downtown Los Angeles. The disconnect gives this often funny, sometimes hilarious, memoir, which she started thinking about 25 years ago, an unexpected sobering cast.

No surprise, Carmichael’s ear is near perfect, as she delivers the goods (and the bad) often in the form of dialogue with and interior monologue, crafting scenes designed to produce desired effects, which include some “ugly” truths about the world of jazz. One of the three epigraphs in the book is hers: “As a jazz musician, if your phone rings, you’re more likely to spend money than to make it.”

She’s recently back from a gig in Del Ray, Florida and feels sure enough to pursue only what she wants and avoid the lure of big-money, especially if comes with a music presenter’s egomaniacal and insulting terms. “Many classical [traditional] presenters [CEOs of major festivals] are frustrated musicians and want to perform with you. I love to play tennis, but would I say to Roger Federer, ‘Hey, let’s talk about the game and maybe play together?’ They say things like, ‘You’re so lucky to be playing on our piano, which [name the star] played on,’ instead of saying, `We’re  happy to have you.’ You sign up for, say, five performances, and you wind up doing twenty.” Too many presenters have no appreciation of professionalism. She invited herself to perform in Del Ray at a small space dedicated to folk and rock called The Arts Garage because she heard it was respectful of artists and honest. “It was both,” says Carmichael.

Judith Lea Hohenstein, who named herself after Hoagy Carmichael, has indeed come a long way, as the first half of the memoir shows. She was the first female instrumentalist hired by Disneyland and at a time no one was much interested in stride piano or jazz. Count Basie called her Stride, and she travelled and played with many famous artists, including Sarah Vaughan. Billy Joel was a good buddy and Antonio Carlos Jobim an admirer.  She’s toured all over the world filling halls and clubs, performing on cruise ships and was the first jazz musician sponsored by the U.S. government to tour China. Quite an accomplishment for a “surfer girl” from California, as Carmichael playfully refers to herself.

Stride piano, popularized by Fats Waller in the 1930s, was an unusual choice. She was entering the realm of the big guys, strong, mainly black, men, but her debut album “Two-Handed Stride” in 1980 became a “watershed moment” for her, says Carmichael. “A bit of an outlier in the jazz world,” she never had big label support, but she always had “the encouragement of a handful of people who mattered.” She mastered “Handful of Keys,” the Fats Waller tune that any stride player had to learn and got raves from major music critics that led to her becoming a main attraction at various jazz clubs, including Hanratty’s on the Upper East Side at the Knickerbocker Bar and Grill in the Village.

At the height of her celebrity, however, and with assistance from a therapist, she had to face some difficult facts: her beautiful, talented mother was an unrepentant narcissist, her acquiescent father an alcoholic who eventually shot himself in the head. Learning about cancer, of course, was rough, though the exchanges with doctors and friends recreated in the memoir would suggest that she put on an antic disposition when she could. Though the removal of lymph nodes caused recurring lymphedema and susceptibility to staph infection, she feels she’s lucky — maybe it’s a gift? — because somehow she got her hands which wouldn’t coordinate with one another to work together with her brain, and that got her swinging and striding again.

The future? For Judy, the super-enthusiast, the future has already arrived.  She’s writing, singing and working on a new book, a kind of travel guide (oh, the places she’s been). She’s also composing a jazz musical, which “I’d been thinking about for a long time, as a friend would say, ‘When in doubt, announce,’ so I’m doing it.”

For East End fans, however, there’s something immediate in the works. She’s curating a “Jazz Inspired” series called “Swing Time” for the historic, beautifully restored Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts. “The series will allow me to show off my acting, producing and interviewing skills, including some ‘face off’ comedy riffing with the audience,” says Charmichael. She’s “a theatre person” after all, and she’ll have more than one theatre to work with at Patchogue: a 1200-seat main hall, the largest in Suffolk County, and a 100-seat small space for “accelerated intimacy” called The Loading Dock” that will resemble a jazz club. “I want jazz lovers and those who don’t yet love jazz to come and have fun.”

Now 60 and enjoying her longtime home in Sag Harbor, she wants to perform more in the states, rather than abroad. “Musicians spend most of their time not making music but hustling gigs, travelling, practicing.” She’s also still producing “Jazz Inspired,” choosing guests from all the arts, doing the interviews and the editing and hoping that listeners will be encouraged to bring creativity into their own lives.

As for “Swinger!,” she was a bit  nervous about how the memoir would be received, but she’s delighted to say that she’s had emails from readers who write that they were glad to see they were “ not alone.” “I don’t like people who exploit tragedy as promotion by making it central in their work. The idea is to show that you not only survive but prevail.” Does she ever.

On Sunday, April 22 Judy will host a champagne and hors d’oeuvres book release party for “Swinger!” at The American Hotel on Main Street in Sag Harbor. Call (631) 725-3535 to reserve a spot.

 

Swinger! A Jazz Girl’s Adventures from Hollywood to Harlem. By Judy Carmichael. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 258 pp., $18.95.

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