There’s a special kind of joy you get when watching the incredible, indefatigable Judy Carmichael perform live. Yes, this jazz chanteuse is a mighty and talented force to be reckoned with on the piano. Her calling card: the jumpin’, can’t-sit-still “stride” style made famous by the venerable Count Basie, who honed the Big Band style of swing in the 1930s and 1940s. But Carmichael? She brings it alive and into the present.
Her love for this rollicking, sophisticated, and out-and-out fun style of song is infectious. If the Grinch has a grab on your holiday spirits this year, do yourself a favor and nab a ticket to the Grammy-nominated performer’s December 17th concert at the Bay Street Theater for a jingly jumpin’ jive good time—trust us, it’s a gift you’ll never forget. We caught up with Carmichael ahead of her big night on Bay Street before she strides on off to gigs afar to talk inspiration, the soothing salve that is Sag Harbor and what Santa looks like in a bathing suit. Here’s what she had to say:
Southforker: What exactly is stride piano and what’s compelling about this style to you?
Judy Carmichael: The “stride” refers to the left hand alternating between low bass notes and midrange chords, making a striding motion over the bass end of the keys. This is how every pianist played piano in the early days of jazz, so all jazz grew out of this style.
SF: Who’s your favorite “American Song Book” artist?
JC: There are so many but if I only get to say one woman, it’s Peggy Lee, and one man, Frank Sinatra.
SF: Is there a song you could perform over and over from that era and never grow tired of it?
JC: “Honeysuckle Rose” by Fats Waller. It’s the first song I was playing when I first heard myself on the radio. It was in L.A. played by Steve Allen, who had a radio show there where he played his favorite recordings and he played this cut of mine.
SF: Did you grow up in a musical family?
JC: Both my parents were naturally talented musicians. My mother composed and played piano and my father was a wonderful singer in the Robert Preston, musical comedy direction. Neither were professionals but my father did Civil Light Opera.
SF: What was the first piece of music that you fell in love with, or that just really resonated with you?
JC: “Maple Leaf Rag” got me going and Count Basie’s “Prince of Wales,” and launched me into jazz and stride piano.
SF: Was piano always your instrument?
JC: First uke when I was three, and then piano.
SF: The Bay Street Theater has been a special place for you. You performed their very first show after the building was bought and transitioned from a nightclub to a proper theater in 1992. Why is this space special to you?
JC: I don’t know exactly how many shows I’ve done at Bay Street Theater but I adore the place because the space has fabulous sight-lines and many of the staff are like family to me at this point. I prefer playing in theaters because, unlike most concert halls, they approach a performance as theater with great lighting and an atmosphere that contributes to the concert in the best possible way. Bay Street does this in spades.
SF: What’s your history on eastern Long Island – how were you initially introduced to Sag Harbor and East End?
JC: A sweetheart brought me out here originally and, like everyone else, I was enticed by the beauty of the place. As a native Angeleno, I was also thrilled to have beaches surrounded by farmland in contrast to the Southern California beaches I grew up with that were bordered by buildings. Sag Harbor is the cozy Hampton to me and was a favorite from the start.
SF: Why is Sag Harbor a compelling place for you?
JC: I travel two thirds of the year so coming home to a small-town atmosphere, spectacular beauty and friendly locals relaxes and centers me. Most of my life is performing on some level and here I can just be a girl who wears jeans or tennis clothes. It’s a relief.
SF: Tell me about your new book that came out this summer—what’s it about and what inspired it?
JC: The book is called Great Inspirations, 22 Years of Jazz Inspired on NPR, which celebrates 22 years of my podcast/NPR show Jazz Inspired where I talk with celebrated artists who love jazz. It’s a collection of some of my favorite interviews from that period of time with some of my early guests, like Roy Scheider and Billy Joel, to more recent conversations with Jon Batiste, Glenn Close and others. We discuss how their love for jazz inspires their creativity.
SF: What’s your favorite holiday song?
JC: “The Christmas Waltz.” I played it the first time I appeared on TV when I was 17. The first time I sang on TV I sang, “Walking in a Winter Wonderland,” another favorite.
SF: Where are you and your piano off to next?
JC: Puerto Rico to join a little ship cruising the Caribbean for a holiday cruise. I’ll play one concert and the rest of time hang out at the beach with Santa and some reindeer. You haven’t lived until you see Santa in swim trunks. The reindeer look pretty cute in their bathing suits, too.