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INTERVIEW: Judy Carmichael Talks About Her Life, Musical Experiences, "Let’s Swing" At Bay Street, And More

T.J. Clemente

Hometown favorite Judy Carmichael is back at Bay Street. (Courtesy Photo)

Judy Carmichael will once again be performing at the Bay Street Theater on Friday, October 4, at 8 p.m. Carmichael, who is known throughout the world for her skills on the piano, is really a Californian born Sag Harbor resident and was candid and informative during our chat.

"Everybody out here knows everybody," she said. "Even if we don't know each other's names, we know each other on sight."

About Bay Street Theater and her upcoming show, she said, "Every seat at Bay Street is good. I love that theater for that reason, every seat is great, and the sound is excellent. I was actually the first person to ever play music at Bay Street when it first opened. It was a Chamber of Commerce Concert. Now Bay Street does loads of music, but I am quite proud to have been the first!" She further elaborated on her latest visit explaining, "I am going to do some original, I am going to do The Great American Songbook, do some boogie-woogie, have my quartet, some of the old favorites but some new stuff. It is always one of my favorite concerts of the whole year. I see all my friends, I mean, I will be seeing my plumber and he will be wearing a suit, it's great I love it for that."

When I asked about the genesis of her talent manifesting itself, she thought a moment and replied, "People remember me from kindergarten going over to the piano and playing better than the teacher. I made a splash early, but I didn't realize I had a real gift until really later, I'd say in my twenties."

Judy Carmichael is from Southern California, specifically Los Angeles. About those early days she said, "We had a piano in the home and I took a couple of years of lessons but I am really self-taught. My dad was a good singer, my mom was a good amateur pianist - nothing like what I am doing, but there was music around the house. A lot of folks singing around the piano."

When I pressed about her first actual performance she recalled, "I was featured by a bunch of ragtime enthusiasts when I was 17 at the Maple Leaf Club that is in Los Angeles, people always had a reaction to when I played, but that was my first real organized time, there at the Maple Leaf Club."

When I asked Carmichael where her talent came from, she said she believes musical talent is "genetic and hereditary, but my brother is the one who says I got the gift of music because we both took lessons."

Where did Carmichael's love for ragtime stride piano music come from? "It came because I was obsessed with watching lots of old movies on Television when I was a little kid and I had this natural affinity for 1930's and 1940's music and became obsessed by constantly watching those old Fred Astaire movies on TV. At one point I actually wanted to be a Ginger Rogers."

Then her story blossoms. "I had a job playing ragtime while I was in college (Cal State Fullerton) and this guy brought this tape and said you are really going to like this. It was Count Basie, I didn't even know who Count Basie was. I listened to the tape over and over and taught myself to play like it. I was 22, which is late. There was no one I knew playing this music at the time, but I was passionate about it. Some artists have a process where they develop musically while others have an epiphany and that's what happened to me. I was very causal about the piano until I heard this Count Basie record. Suddenly I wanted to practice, suddenly I wanted to play."

Her best career moment? Carmichael said that would be hard to say, but finally answered, "There have been so many. It might just be my first jazz concert at the Concord Pavilion in California at the Concord Jazz Festival while I was in my early twenties and Carmen McRae (Jazz singer) heard me at the sound check, but didn't see me. She told someone to go get the guy playing the stride piano. They went to get me because she wanted to meet me. She was notorious cranky and when I came to her she thought I was a fan. I said you wanted to meet the piano player and she was stunned, but we became friends. That was a great moment. She actually said to me, who at the time looked like a 22-year-old surfer girl from California, 'Honey you sure don't look like you play!'"

Carmichael explained her best moments as a performer happen, "When everything comes together - the right musicians, the right audience, the right Steinway and I have had a number of those times that were just great."

Then she mentioned the huge thrill of playing in Carnegie Hall, but I enjoyed her recollection of a particular evening playing in Venice. "My most exotic concerts have been in Italy, and it was in Venice at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum, they brought a Steinway concert grand over on a barge on the Grand Canal and put it in the sculpture garden for me to play for 100 fancy Venetians. After that there was this reception on the balcony of her (the deceased Peggy Guggenheim) Palazzo with the sun setting."

Asked about her favorite dessert, she replied, "I love dark chocolate truffles with espresso, and Italian gelato, however right here there is something special and local, Arena at Page (in Sag Harbor), in the winter because it melts in the summers, has a fantastic coconut cake."

Judy Carmichael: Let's Swing on October 4th at Bay Street Theater will include longtime collaborators, guitarist Chris Flory, clarinetist/saxophonist, Dan Block and bassist George DeLancey, who will join Carmichael in this evening of juicy ballads, swinging standards and unadulterated joy. Come along for the ride!

Bay Street is located at 1 Bay Street in Sag Harbor. For more information, call 631-725-9500 or visit www.baystreet.org.

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