Q&A with jazz singer-pianist Judy Carmichael

The Post and Courier
Adam Parker Feb. 21, 2015

Judy Carmichael is a jazz evangelist. She has met many of the greats, learning from them and sharing a contagious enthusiasm for American music with audiences all over the world.

She has earned a reputation as a master of stride piano and fine vocalist. She has taken her skills and passions to the radio airwaves where she hosts a broadcast on SiriusXM NPR NOW Channel 122 called “Judy Carmichael’s Jazz Inspired,” which features special musical guests.

Carmichael will stride into the Lowcountry for three performances March 2-4, and local jazz fans are invited. She will be on Kiawah Island to tape her radio show at 3:30 p.m. March 2 and 3 at the Rivers Course Clubhouse.

On March 4, she will present a 7:30 p.m. concert in the same location. All three events are free, but tickets are required; they can be obtained online at www.kiawah island.org/specialevents.

In anticipation of her visit, The Post and Courier asked Carmichael about her music career.

Q: You are recording your show for NPR, as well as offering a free concert while you are on Kiawah. Tell me about your radio show: how it got started, the sort of music and musicians you highlight and the response you get from listeners.

A: The show is called “Judy Carmichael’s Jazz Inspired.” I’m the producer/host and talk with celebrated creative people who love jazz about their creative process, favorite jazz recordings and how jazz inspires their life and work. The show is carried on SiriusXM, and Public Radio Stations across the country and gets 3,000-4,000 downloads a week on iTunes Podcasts. I created the show wanting to talk to creative people in a way that would inspire others to be creative and as a new way for the listener to think about jazz. I do the interviews in person so the interaction is a conversation between two creative artists about process and ideas not about promoting the guests’ latest project. Guests have ranged from Robert Redford and Billy Joel to Seth MacFarlane and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Q: You’re a California girl known for playing East Coast jazz. How did that happen, and how did you come to focus on the stride piano style?

A: I was a German major and pursuing an acting career when I got a job playing ragtime piano, something I did as a hobby. Someone played me a recording of Count Basie when he was still Bill Basie playing with the Benny Moten band. I loved it and wanted to learn to play like that and taught myself to do so listening to it and then other records in that style.

Q: Tell me a little about your career trajectory. You started playing clubs as a student, right? And that led to ...

A: I had a few club jobs, then played ragtime and early jazz at Disneyland for five years, and with the encouragement of Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan and a few other musicians of that generation whom I met through my work at Disneyland, I recorded and interest in my work grew. I moved to New York and started playing jazz festivals, producing my own concerts and went from there.

Q: You spend a lot of time on the road (and in the air). What have you learned about American jazz and popular music from your experiences abroad?

A: Other countries in general have a stronger focus on cultural matters — music, fine art — than America, acknowledging its essential importance as part of a quality life. Most Americans do not think art is essential.

Q: Share a favorite on-stage experience, a particularly memorable collaboration or an exciting encounter perhaps.

A: I’m writing lyrics with my saxophonist Harry Allen’s music and that’s the most exciting collaboration I’ve ever had. It’s a new undertaking and Harry’s a magnificent musician so I’m thrilled to be writing to his beautiful melodies and harmonies. Inspiring on all levels.

Q: I think I read somewhere you once met Freddie Green. He spent years in Charleston, trained with the Jenkins Orphanage Band and went on to play with Basie and others. Did you talk with him about Charleston?

A: Freddie Green was a mentor of mine and a great friend. He was on my first recording and we always played golf together whenever he was in Los Angeles, although we got together a number of times in New York. He once stopped playing in the middle of the tune “Gee Baby” when he was with the Basie band at the Blue Note in New York City to lean over the stage to me, sitting in the front row, and say: “This would be a good tune for you Judy!” I loved Freddie.

Q: Surely you have derived inspiration from Fats Waller and Jelly Roll Morton and other great piano players of yesteryear. What about their music has so captured your imagination?

A: The joy and energy of it.

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902.