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Laughing about life and music: A conversation with Judy Carmichael, host of Jazz Inspired

Judy Carmichael
c/o the artist
Judy Carmichael

Judy Carmichael is one of the leading interpreters of classic swing and stride piano and the popular host of Jazz Inspired radio show on NPR. The Grammy-nominated pianist has captured all of the fun and excitement of both careers in a new book, Great Inspirations: 22 Years of Jazz Inspired on NPR. Carmichael not only includes the transcripts of her favorite interviews, but also gives the reader the background stories that led to conversations with the likes of Tony Bennett, Willie Nelson, Marian McPartland, Jon Batiste, Billy Joel, Glenn Close, Robert Redford, Neil deGrasse Tyson, E.L. Doctorow and many others. Carmichael recently shared some laughs and stories with WBGO News Director Doug Doyle.

Watch their conversation here:

Laughing about life and music: A conversation with Judy Carmichael, host of Jazz Inspired

Interview transcript:

Doug Doyle: Joining us on the WBGO Journal is one of the leading interpreters of classic swing and stride piano. Grammy nominated pianist, host of Jazz Inspired and author of the new book, Great Inspirations: 22 years of Jazz Inspired on NPR, the wonderful Judy Carmichael. What an honor it is to speak with you today.

Judy Carmichael: Thank you for having me. I'm glad to be here.

See, that smile is what it's all about. I love to laugh, Judy. One of the testimonials in your book comes from WBGO’s editorial content producer and the former editor and publisher of JazzTimes, Lee Mergner, who wrote that the only thing missing from Great Inspirations is Judy’s laugh. He says you'll have to imagine it for yourself. I think laughter is one of the big keys when it comes to doing a great interview. And you obviously enjoy these wonderful chats that you've had with stars from all walks of life.

It's fantastic. I don't understand why people don't laugh. I feel bad for people without a sense of humor, We’re talking about creativity and inspiration on my show, and people get very emotional, both ways—laughing and tearing up. I hurt for people who can't access that.

I have a sports podcast and you have a music-oriented one, but they're not really about music, they're not really about sports. They're about life, and that's where you get the emotion from everybody. I love your work and it inspires me as well. Playing ragtime piano at Disneyland's Coke Corner really taught you about how people react to music from all different ages. Can you just tell us a little bit about your early experience at Disneyland?

I played usually five days a week, seven hours a day. That's a lot of solo piano. It's a lot of time to not only develop your music, but to look inward. Hank Jones and I used to laugh about this, that you have worked out everything because you're sitting there, you're playing, and after a while you even can't stand your own playing. You've just done everything you can do. One of the great things that I did at Disneyland and I wrote about it in Great Inspirations was I saw so many people and that kept me interested not only interacting with these people, but just observing them. People would come by and they always had their kids with them. Some would really get into the joy of the music and the atmosphere. Others would just say, “See, if you practice, you could be like her.” I was just like, “Oh my God, there's another kid who's going to hate taking piano lessons.” I would get to see so many people and I learned a lot. I met lots of musicians. It was a great experience for me. I was so fortunate to have that job for five years.

It reminded me of piano man Billy Joel, who's in your book as one of your interviewees. “What are you doing here?” You know, “Hey man, put bread in my jar.”

People have the same reaction. “Why aren't you in New York City?” People say the most amazing things. I grew up in Los Angeles, and it was one of the things that really drew me to New York because meeting all these people at Disneyland, New Yorkers invariably liked me and hated Disneyland. I'm sitting there in a turn-of-the-century costume playing ragtime, and they'd say, “You're great. What are you doing here? You should be in New York.” There was this directness that I loved. I love Los Angeles, but there's a lot of that showbiz, even in the culture of everybody's nice. I always say that you go to a restaurant and everybody's, “Hi, my name's Judy. I'm your server.” Whereas the first time I was in a deli in New York and I was in my twenties, the guy looked at me and I'm very thin. I ordered. I didn't know what a deli would give you. There’s a huge sandwich, all this food. And he looked at me and he goes, “Why'd you order that? You can't eat all that food!” I thought, “I love New York.” So honest.

You created Jazz Inspired in 1998, without the support of a radio station, without the support of a network, before podcasts were the ultimate craze. That had to be difficult. Tell us about that journey.

It was very difficult. It was kind of crazy. Leonard Maltin told me that he introduced me to someone and he said Judy had a podcast before podcasts existed. Believe it or not, the first person who told me I should have my own show was Marian McPartland's producer. I did Marian's show [Piano Jazz] early in my career and when we finished, she walked out of the booth and said to me, “You should have your own show, you're a natural.” That thought just sort of stayed with me over the years. So many people will come up after a concert and they'll say, “I love jazz.” Or “I hate jazz, but I love you.” Jazz is very broad. A lot of people hear one thing and they don't like it. So they're done with jazz. I knew a lot of my fans were from other areas of the arts. I thought if I could get them talking, like with Billy Joel, about why they love jazz, then hopefully somebody would hear that and think, “Billy Joel likes jazz, maybe I should give it a chance.”

But in terms of actually getting it going, it was crazy. I had this idea and I started with 13 famous people that I knew, who liked my music, and I asked them if they'd do this. They did and I recorded these things and went to the public radio conference. I'd never been to a conference. I'd never done anything like that. I taught myself how to do it. I listened to a feature that NPR’s Morning Edition had done on me. I listened to it over and over and taught myself how they edited in the music. I thought, “That's interesting, they do it this way.” I mortgaged my house and got the money. Back then you had to pay for satellite uplink and that was $10,000 a year. I got a discount because I was an independent. I pressed and mailed CDs to stations. It was sort of like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. “I've got a show! Are you interested?” I'm making light of it, but it was very difficult. I had to raise all the money because then it was a substantial amount of money. I did hire someone in the beginning who had worked at NPR so I could sit in the studio and actually watch what he did. Then over the years I produced it in my own way, because as you say, I was more interested in the human condition and jazz is my excuse to get into the conversation. I'm sure you're familiar with Krista Tippett, and her show On Being. I always say my show is On Being, but with a jazz element. We're really talking about humanity.

It sounds like you almost had to go back to Disneyland to perform in order to make enough money to produce the podcast.

Exactly. I created a not-for-profit. I raised the money and I still do that. That's still how I finance it.

Great Inspirations has interviews with a number of people, but I want to talk about Marian McPartland first because obviously not only did you know her because of your ties with NPR and the show, but you were interviewing somebody who made a name for herself in a male-dominated music scene. That had to be of major interest.

It was interesting. I will tell you that Marian looked at me with great admiration for how I had done it, but said that she had it much easier than I did, because Marian was married to someone [trumpeter Jimmy McPartland] and she said Jimmy gave her a lot of protection. And she also came up when jazz was popular. I remember my first review said that I was the first significant stride player in 30 years. That means a lot, but at the same time, it shows how insane it was to come out and try to do something. Marian was sort of a charge-ahead kind of woman, and we talked about it a bit. I did ask her about that and she said there were actually more women around when she was coming up. You think about Hazel Scott and others. There were many of them because it was the popular music. There were not as many as the men of course. She was a great person. I so admired her range, which is another reason I didn't want to play on the show. I do every now and then record on stage, and then I will perform with another performer that I'll interview live. But Marian did that so beautifully. She could just play anything. I told her that I thought the fact that she could go all the way from playing a stride duet with me and knowing that repertoire to Chick Corea. There aren't a lot of people that can do that. So the fact that she just kept doing it, I really admired that.

Willie Nelson on Judy Carmichael's Jazz Inspired!

We’ll talk about a few more people that you've interviewed in this book, because the list is incredible. From musicians like Tony Bennett, Willie Nelson, Billy Joel, McPartland and Jon Batiste to actors like Glenn Close, Robert Redford, Jeff Goldblum and Blythe Danner. If you could inject yourself into the Great Day in Harlem photo, would you have had a blast that day with Marian along with all the jazz greats on the steps in Harlem?

I would have. Just getting to know these people. One of the other great gifts of Disneyland for those of us who worked there during the time that I did was that there are quite a few great musicians that have gone on big careers that worked in different bands. None where I worked, because I had this solo spot. The big bands came in the summer, and so we would get to play our sets and then go hear Basie or Buddy Rich or people like that. Especially for a person like me being a woman, a lot of the clubs in LA were dangerous. They weren't in good areas. So I got to meet these people in this very safe setting and five nights a week I could go hear them.

I got to know Count Basie. That was like the top of the mountain, my hero, the one I first heard that made me want to do stride piano. One time when we were alone, I asked him, “What is the secret? What is the one thing you can tell me?” He said, “Listen.” I said, “Yes, and what else?” He said, “Just listen.” It was such a great thing, because it’s the number one thing to do in an interview.

So he's actually helped your career in two different ways, helped you as an interviewer and as a pianist.

Exactly and I loved it because it was so Basie, because he was known for that spare style and how every note counted and he didn't need a lot of notes. He was the piano player to me.

I'm going to get to more people in your book, but since we're on the subject of Count Basie, I wanted to ask you this. This is something that I put into my show all the time. You get to have a panel discussion on Jazz Inspired. But the guests can only be ones who are no longer with us and that you've never had a chance to be around or ask a question to. You get to choose three people on that panel for Jazz Inspired with Judy Carmichael. Who are the three people? They can be from any walk of life. Where would it be and why?

Who would they be? And where would it be? That sort of stumps me because where we interview isn't as important to me. Right away I thought of Nat Cole, who's my all-time favorite pianist. It would be Nat Cole and Earl Hines and… Gosh, I've been so lucky, because I've met so many. I was thinking of different eras, so maybe Scott Joplin would be interesting. I just thought of that because I knew Eubie Blake and he was a fascinating character. No, I take it back. No offense to Scott Joplin, but Jelly Roll Morton. There you go. And where would it be? It'd be interesting because they'd all want to dominate except for Nat.

Maybe a restaurant.

Maybe a restaurant. That's what I'm thinking. Billy Joel had suggested that for our conversation, so that's a good idea. So we could loosen it up. Probably Il Cantinori because they've been very good to me and important things have happened there. It's right around the corner from Knickerbocker where I worked for years. Then we could go over and maybe play piano. So Jelly Roll Morton, Earl Hines, and Nat Cole.

Judy Carmichael at Steinway Hall 11/19/19 Jazz Inspired Night!

That's a table to be at. We could all just kind of listen in. In this wonderful book, Great Inspirations: 22 Years of Jazz Inspired on NPR, the very first interview you include is from 1999 with the incredible actor F. Murray Abraham. You mentioned in the book that he enjoyed watching you play. We were always told, lead with your best. So you've led with F. Murray Abraham, who is a jazz fan. When you think about his wonderful career, why did you decide to choose him as the first interviewee to include in your book?

Murray is a very deep individual, very bright. I have a thing for stage actors too, because they're into character. They're not into being a movie star. There's a very different focus. Not that there aren't great movie stars, but he's so bright, so thoughtful, so generous of spirit. We did that interview on stage before he was going to perform and that's an epitome of Murray's attitude about everything. Even meeting him was hilarious because he was in the restaurant that I was playing at New York and I was walking in the back on my break, and he jumped up and he said, “Judy Carmichael, I love you.”

And he threw his arms around me and I pushed him back. I said, “Wait, you're F. Murray Abraham!” And he said, “Oh, you know me?” It was such a meet cute. He covered all that different ground and he's a great listener. Murray invited me to a play years ago, “A Month in the Country,” on Broadway. And he said, “I want you to see this play, not for me. I have a very small part, but I want you to meet an actress named Helen Mirren.” Back then nobody knew her in America. People didn't know who Helen Mirren was unless you saw Prime Suspect. I'd never heard of her. I said, “Oh, I'd love to meet her, that's great.” He goes, “Well, it's really about you seeing her on stage, but you have to come back and meet her.” You and I know plenty of narcissistic self-centered artists, and here's an actor who's saying it's not about me. He wanted me personally because of my creativity to be inspired by Helen Mirren. It's a really beautiful story when you think about it, so he's a very special person to me.

Have you ever interviewed Michael Shannon?

I haven't, but I want to.

He's a big fan of WBGO and obviously is a musician as well. We’ve had a chance to talk several times, and he's come on to WBGO with Gary Walker in the morning. I remember one time he came on and I said, “Is this the same guy that put an iron to the face of somebody in Boardwalk Empire?” He played some of the most mean spirited people in the world, but to me it's amazing how actors and musicians can turn it on in the moment. I remember I was interviewing Anthony Rapp. He was at NJPAC and we were talking about the Chicago Cubs on my SportsJam podcast. Much like you, we're talking about life with Anthony. He talks about being a Cubs fan and moments later, maybe less than an hour later, he's dancing on the tables at NJPAC. I’m like, “How do they do this?” You're a performer. You understand what it's like to perform. What is that mindset? Tell us a little bit about that transition from being a jazz host to a jazz performer.

That's a great question because I know when I'm done. The show on stage, it's very difficult. But I think I have the kind of brain for it. I have that same brain that can do stride piano and I have great hemisphere independence and all that. I can type and read and talk at the same time. So I've got kind of that ability to do it. But still I find playing, then talking to the person, then thinking I'm keeping the audience entertained because maybe the person I'm talking to…they're a great musician, but they're not as entertaining. Now I've got to jump up and go play. So they are different parts of your brain, which I talked to Steve Allen about because he was another person who could do so many different things.

And I think it's just a focus. I think that it is the ability to make that transition. But something that I'll say for our audience, which I think is important for maybe anybody who works in the business in terms of presenting or backstage, we can do this as performers, but we are highly sensitized, all our pores are open when we're doing it, and I know that every performer I know has had this happen. I had it happen recently. We're doing the soundcheck and loads of things went wrong. I stayed happy. I kept my musicians together. They were getting cranky. I'm playing, my hands are cold. All this is happening. But then the person who was supposed to bring the food didn't. And that was the thing that was like the deal breaker for me. Because I was juggling so many things and they hadn't taken care of this tiny little job that they had, which was deliver the food. Now I was looking at the musicians who were hungry. The great ones make it all look very easy, but underneath a lot is happening and I think that that support people around them have to realize, okay, they're working at a million miles an hour, we need to take care of our jobs too.

That's my little advocacy for that kind of understanding. But I think that it's what we do and we're good at separating those different things in our mind. It's interesting because I've had a lot of actors on the show. Very often actors are shy and they don't want to go on stage and do a cabaret show or something like that. Some do, but a lot of them aren't very good, because they think that this is something they can just do. But it's a very different thing to walk on stage and be in front of people and be yourself and do a show, as opposed to having a character that you are inhabiting. I've had a lot of actors talk about that. It's an interesting shift.

Blythe Danner and Judy Carmichael
c/o the artist
Blythe Danner and Judy Carmichael during a taping of Jazz Inspired

You may be surprised to know that what I found fascinating about your book, even more than the interviews themselves, was the way you get into the presentation of how it all came about, because I love history and knowing your connections with each of these individuals and what you were thinking before you went into the interview. Like Jeff Goldblum, “Is he going to be too off the wall? Is he going to focus on other things?” If you had interviewed Robin Williams at the time, you would never know where he's going to take an interview. It's a tough job that you do interviewing people like that. Who through the years, and it doesn't even have to be someone in the book, either surprised you the most or you went, “This was a mistake”?

Well, thank you, number one. I'm so pleased because I thought that was interesting and I thought it was different. You know, because you have your own interviews, that we don't have a huge staff writing out the questions for us, nor do we want that. We actually like to think that our conversations are unique because we're the ones asking the questions. So I appreciate that and the fact that because I didn't have a big network behind me, I had to go after all these people myself. E.L Doctorow, who also became a friend of mine, was one of my original 13. He said to me, “Have you noticed that you only have old white guys on the show?” Because I chose 13 old white guys. They were all famous, they were smart, they were interesting, articulate. I said, “Oh my God, all I know are old white guys.” Then I made the foolish decision to go after people who were young. That was my motivation. Had they done something interesting? Was their music good? There were a couple, they were just tremendously profoundly boring, not prepared, not interesting. I wound up not using the interviews. That was a lesson.

Also, I did a couple favors for people or publicists who were enthusiastic. And those weren't good. That's when I thought, “No, I have a good sense of the people I want.” I'm asking people who I suspect have a bigger view of life, that it's not just about promoting their product because I wanted the show to be different. I saw where it had gone in my career. I was lucky when I started, they were still doing shows about interesting people who had a unique story that stopped you. I know it's all about promoting something, but I thought, “No, I want to have people on who have an interesting life and will be excited about talking about the bigger picture and inspiration, what inspires them.”

One surprise was who you mentioned, Jeff Goldblum. I knew he'd be charming. I mean, he is professionally charming. This is one of the most charming people in life, but he was really prepared. He had researched me. He came in, he was extremely humble and very grateful. I've heard from him since. He thanked me for the interview, wanted to work together. But I’m not surprised by it as much anymore. The very famous people are what I call old school professionals. They are there to make the interview great. They're present, they're involved, they're engaged, and if they haven't heard of me, they've checked me out. They're not just completely self-involved. They start asking me questions and I've got to cut it out because the show is about them. I had somebody on, I don't want to name them because they're quite famous and I had to really work hard at making it work, which surprised me because I really liked their art. I've had some people in the early twenties that I fear are already burned out and I can see it. I remember that age when everything hit and I got all the big press. Entertainment Tonight did a piece on me. I got a lot of attention. I was nervous, but I was never burned out. These people seem like they're 45, rode hard and put away. And they're in their early twenties. That's been something that's been happening lately with a few people and that concerns me.

Cover of Great Inspirations
Cover of Great Inspirations by Judy Carmichael

I wanted to mention to you a couple things that happened to me. Frank Sinatra Jr. came into the radio station and I asked Gary Walker what should be my lead-off question for Frank, Jr.  Gary said, “Ask him about his dad's relationship with Sammy Cahn.” Thank goodness it was a taped interview, Judy, because the first question was “Your dad’s relationship with Sammy Cahn…” He said, “I'm not here to talk about Mr. Sinatra.” Right away I had to adjust and do a whole different interview. It was funny because he called back and said, “You know, that was a great interview.” Well, of course, because all we talked about was you. We weren't allowed to talk about Mr. Sinatra, your father.

Another one that Gary was also involved with. Gary said, “Doug, you should interview Monty Alexander about boxing.” This was a few years ago. I am an aficionado when it comes his style of music. And do I know enough about boxing to do this interview with Monty? And the first question was, “Monty, do you remember the first time you saw a boxing match?” He said, “I was in Kingston, Jamaica. And there he was. It was Sugar Ray Robinson and he was on the canvas. The lights were shining down and the mosquitoes were in the air. And there he was.” I was like, “This'll be the greatest interview I've ever done.” I don't even have to ask the question. He just painted the picture of being a kid and watching one of the greatest boxers of all time. I knew I was in good shape. 

I wanted to ask you a little bit about Billy Joel and then get to Jon Batiste real quickly. Another beautiful thing about this book is that it covers such a range of time, the past 22 years. You mentioned that you've become friends with Billy Joel. He has been able to last so long that young people still enjoy his music and when you listen to his show on the radio, he's so knowledgeable about all kinds of music, including jazz.

He truly is a really unique guy. I think his music has lasted because it's substantive. It was funny because I bumped into him not long ago out here [on Long Island] because we live near each other. I talked about playing the Garden so much and he sort of made some humble comment. I said, “Stop.” He goes, “Okay, it's a good gig,” I can't imagine anybody else who could play the Garden that often. His music has substance and so it does continue to appeal. It appeals to the people who came up with it. It appeals to young people. He's natural on stage. He is so bright and he really cares. He's somehow lived as this iconic figure who’s gone through loads of ups and downs. He still cares about the music. He loves the music. That sounds obvious, it comes back to Basie and listening. A lot of people aren't listening to their music anymore. It's easy to be excited when you're young, but Billy's still excited about it and still always asks what I'm doing.

How about one minute on Jon Batiste. Everybody knew his talent. But he went from just being a side guy on a TV show, and then he exploded on the scene. He's one of your interviews in this book. What do you want to say about Jon Batiste?

Same thing. He's younger of course, but he's so excited. He is just what he seems. That was a surprise, I have to say. I mean, I knew he'd be great. I knew he'd be engaged, all of that, but he charged into the room and was just right on time. Another thing, the famous people were always on time. He just oozed all this excitement and musicality. I played him a few bars. I said, “So and so said I need to play a few bars.” And he went insane. He ran over. He was so excited. And then I said, “We have to do the interview.” I had to calm him down. Then he jumped up and ran over to the piano again and wanted to show me all the things. He's enthusiastic about the music. He has a great background. It isn't just somebody who got famous and had nothing to back it up. He has so much armature. The psychological, musical and emotional armature of somebody like a Billy Joel or a Jon Batiste is extremely strong because it has been built bit by bit by bit, even though it seems like they went right up. They have a solid base that keeps them going. That really counts. I love him.

What about Robert Redford? Talk about being intimidated by anybody that you've interviewed. I think if I interviewed Glenn Close, I might be a little bit intimidated. I certainly wouldn't want to have dinner with her with a pot on the stove with any rabbits around. Is there anybody that you found yourself starstruck with or intimidated by?

It was Robert Redford because he's been a big figure my entire life. My brother looks a lot like Robert Redford. Even before I knew who Robert Redford was, people would say, “Oh, your brother looks like Robert Redford.” It wasn't like I was attracted to him like so many people of my generation. I was into Redford because of his films always having a point of view to make the world a better place. He was always an environmentalist. He cares about the same things I care about. When he was 40, when he could have just made lots more movies as a handsome leading man, he directed Ordinary People. He bought Sundance. People don't even remember anymore what he did for independent film.

When I got there, he hired me to play as part of the Sundance Festival and I had a moment of a little freak out. It was at the actual Sundance nor Park City, and it was so beautiful, a Shangri La. I actually called a friend of mine and said, “I'm having a little bit of freak out.” She said, “Why?” I said, “He's just done so much and he's put out so much good into the world…I don't feel I've done enough.” And she said, “He's older than you, you have time.” It made me laugh and it brought me back to earth. Then we really hit it off and it wound up that all the things that I thought we had in common, we did.

We became friends. He's hired me for a number of other things and he is just a stellar human being. I'm so admiring of people who put good into the world and somebody like a Robert Redford, who is so beautiful looking and is surrounded by the Hollywood infrastructure that says, be self-centered, be narcissistic, don't care about anybody but you. He somehow managed to still care about everybody else and put out so much good. He is just a very high level of human being and that's one of my very favorites in the whole time of doing the show.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Doug Doyle has been News Director at WBGO since 1998 and has taken his department to new heights in coverage and recognition. Doug and his staff have received more than 250 awards from organizations like PRNDI (now PMJA), AP, New York Association of Black Journalists, Garden State Association of Black Journalists and the New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists.