Judy Carmichael Returns Home to Bay Street

Judy Carmichael
Judy Carmichael

Sag Harbor-based jazz pianist Judy Carmichael, dubbed “Stride” by the late Count Basie, travels all over the world, appearing at the top jazz venues and international jazz festivals.

She also hosts her own NPR show—Jazz Inspired—for which she interviews prominent people about the role of jazz in their lives. And now she’s taken on a few more roles, recently branching out into singing and, with her longtime saxophonist Harry Allen, even writing songs.

On Friday, October 10, at 8 p.m., Carmichael will be back in her beloved Sag Harbor performing at one of her favorite venues—Bay Street Theater. Carmichael has been associated with this intimate space from early in its history.

“I was the first music ever presented there back when they were just doing plays after they first opened,” she recalls. Back then, Carmichael was sticking to the stride piano that she’s most known for, the bouncy style of the ’20s and ’30s that brings to mind speakeasies and exuberant dances like the Charleston. You still get plenty of that with Carmichael these days—a guaranteed good time—but you get a lot more. Since she’s started singing in her shows, she’s been able to evoke a greatly expanded world of emotions.

“What I like is that singing has broadened my musical palette,” says Carmichael. “I can go farther harmonically and stylistically.” This can be heard on her latest CD, the gorgeous I Love Being Here With You, on which Carmichael brings sincerity and heartfelt emotions to songs like “Say It Isn’t So” and “If Dreams Come True,” timeless standards that have little to do with the “party music” sound of stride piano.

“I could have adapted the songs to the stride style, it’s been done before” notes Carmichael. “But then you’d miss the meaning of the lyrics.” Adding a bouncy stride bass tends to turn everything into a dance, which might not suit the mood of a song or its lyrics. Carmichael still likes to have a rollicking good time on stage—that party will never be over—but she’s not now, nor has she ever been, a stride purist.

“The truth is, I never saw myself as retro or a ‘stride player,’ a sort of costume act” she explains. “I just like good music.” And now, with her collaborator Harry Allen providing the music and Carmichael the lyrics, she’s actually getting into writing music—and she’s thrilled about it.

“I’ve always loved language, and I love clever, funny lyrics,” explains Carmichael. “I thought I could do that.” At Bay Street, she’ll play her song “My Manhattan,” a witty semi-autobiographical song about a West Coast girl moving to New York.

What has surprised Carmichael more is her relative comfort writing more romantic lyrics. “Harry’s melodies are so lush and beautiful, they don’t really lend themselves to humorous words,” says Carmichael. But her poetic lyrics for Allen’s melody in the song “I Can See Forever” prove that Carmichael can write serious songs as well as clever songs. It’s another milestone in a career that has seen many.

Carmichael has also recently reached a milestone in her radio career. Her radio show Jazz Inspired has been on the air for 15 years, and she’s celebrating by airing some of her favorite interviews. Listeners can look forward to revisiting shows Carmichael taped with Roy Scheider, E.L. Doctorow, Robert Redford, Christopher Guest and others, all talking about the importance of jazz to their own artistic lives.

Carmichael is excited about her upcoming Bay Street show. She will be joined by Chris Flory on guitar, Pat O’Leary on bass and Tom Melito on guitar. The October 10 show is part of Bay Street’s Columbus Day weekend “Three Nights of Divas” series. The series, produced by Gary Hygom, starts with Carmichael on Friday. On Saturday, October 11, comedian Judy Gold will appear, and on Sunday, October 12, it’s songstress Betty Buckley. All shows start at 8 p.m.

Columbus Day weekend is HUGE at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor—check out the “Three Nights of Divas” series. Judy Carmichael performs on Friday, October 10. She will be joined by Chris Flory on guitar, Pat O’Leary on bass, and Tom Melito on guitar. (Tickets $45–$75). Judy Gold will perform “25 Questions for a Jewish Mother” on Saturday, October 11. Call 631-725-9500 or visit JudyGold.com (Tickets $59–89). On Sunday, October 12, Betty Buckley sings. (Tickets $59—$99). All shows start at 8 p.m. baystreet.org

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