Besides her great stride piano playing, there’s one thing that’s been a constant in Judy Carmichael’s long career: she’s funny.
“I had an editor tell me years ago, if I could be as funny in print as I am onstage, she would publish me,” says Carmichael. And now Carmichael’s come through with a funny book, a memoir of her life as a jazz musician, called Swinger! A Jazz Girl’s Adventures from Hollywood to Harlem, the book is full of wild anecdotes and witticisms, many of them revolving around Carmichael’s somewhat unlikely career and the ups and downs of making a living as a jazz musician.
“When you’re a jazz musician and the phone rings, you’re more likely to lose money than to make money,” jokes Carmichael, speaking over Skype from London, and echoing one of the laugh lines from her book. This is the kind of gallows humor often heard among musicians, but it’s somewhat surprising to hear it from Carmichael—not because the Sag Harbor resident is secretly awash in jazz money (there is no such thing), but because she tends to be a positive and forward-looking woman and not one to dwell on the downsides.
And, for the most part, Carmichael doesn’t dwell on the downsides in Swinger! “If there’s a theme to the book, it’s that I refuse to suffer,” she says. So, while we might suspect that a life in jazz, especially in a traditional style of jazz like stride piano, would be a hard road for anyone, and maybe especially hard for a woman (jazz remains a stubbornly male art form), the book spends a lot more time talking about the many wonderful friendships Carmichael has made throughout her career, and the breaks she’s gotten along the way.
For example, early on she meets Count Basie and his band when they play at Disneyland (at the time, Carmichael is working as a pianist there), and Basie’s drummer, Harold Jones, becomes a friend and an early mentor. Carmichael also writes about becoming close with the legendary singer Sarah Vaughn—herself a great stride player. She then recounts coming to New York in the late ’70s and quickly finding a community of musicians and music lovers who embrace her playing.
Carmichael says that her relatively positive outlook might trace back, in part, to the sheer improbability of her success. “When I started, jazz hadn’t been popular in a long time. I felt like it didn’t matter what I did,” she says. This clear-headed realization not only freed her from trying to please anybody but herself, but also freed her from imagining that some deus ex machina was on its way to make her jazz existence easier. Instead, she has focused on adapting. “You can’t be afraid to move forward,” she says.
In keeping with this philosophy, Carmichael’s newest venture is producing a series of shows at the Patchogue Theatre, which will feature exciting guest stars joining her onstage for music and discussion. Some of these shows will be taped for Carmichael’s NPR show, Jazz Inspired.
“It gives me the opportunity to do the interviews onstage, and gives me a chance to play with some great musicians,” says Carmichael. The series kicks off on Sunday, March 18, with a solo performance and discussion of jazz in film. Then, on March 24, Carmichael will appear with her own quartet and on April 4, with Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks.
May 18 brings a special treat—famed magician Penn Jillette, who is also an accomplished jazz bass player. Expect a mixture of magic and jazz—see if you can tell the difference! Finally, on July 1, famed Brazilian pianist Sergio Mendes will join Carmichael for a night of bossa nova.
In the meantime, grab a copy of Swinger! by joining Carmichael at the American Hotel in Sag Harbor on April 22 for a celebratory book party. “Come have a glass of Champagne. It’ll be great to see everybody,” says Carmichael. For reservations, call the American Hotel at 631-725-3535.