"I think that one of the problems with jazz -- and there's a lot of reasons it's developed this way -- is that it became remote and audiences have felt removed from it," says pianist Judy Carmichael.
"All you have to do is say a little bit to the people, I find. The other night I launched into a story of how I'd learned 'Love Is Just Around the Corner' watching a Popeye cartoon. Popeye was walking around the corner to Olive Oyl's house and this fabulous orchestra version came on and he started whistling the tune. It was hilarious and I remember running to the piano and playing it. I told that story and it gave the audience something to hook in on."
Carmichael's prowess at her instrument renders dubious the time-honored contention that there is a feminine or masculine touch to the keyboard. For she has chosen as her idiom the strenuous musical attack known as "stride," so called because of the left hand's "striding" execution of a single bass note on the first and third beats of the bar and a bass chord on the second and fourth, often in combination with great leaps and bounds across the ivories.
The great masters of stride in the style's heyday in the 1920s and '30s were James P. Johnson, his disciple Fats Waller, Willie (The Lion) Smith and other New York-based pianists. Out of stride came Ellington, Hines, Basie and Tatum, among others. Of late the ranks of stride players have diminished to a mere handful of second- and third-generation keepers of the flame, most notably Dick Wellstood, Ralph Sutton and Dick Hyman.
Then, in the late 1970s, unidentified cassettes of Carmichael's work began circulating among some of the jazz cognoscenti, who unfailingly judged the artist to be a man, at least until they were informed of the mystery pianist's name. Then they routinely observed, "Well, she plays just like a man."
Listeners can judge for themselves this week when Carmichael will be performing solo nightly at the Maryland Inn, Annapolis, from tomorrow through Sunday.
Now a resident of New York, Carmichael performs regularly at Hanratty's and other piano clubs. Within the past year she has made five concert and festival visits to Europe where she has a large following. But she was raised in Los Angeles, and the circumstances that fashioned her into a stride pianist are the stuff of fiction.
While her mother played the older standards on the family piano and the daughter dutifully took piano lessons from age 8 to 10, there was no record player in the home, her parents tuned the radio to easy-listening stations and Carmichael discontinued her musical training out of boredom.
"Jazz was completely foreign to my upbringing," says the 32-year-old pianist. "I never went to concerts or anything. But what I did like were old movies and I didn't realize until years later that that music was what was turning me on." Then one day she heard her mother struggling through the sheet music of "Maple Leaf Rag."
"It sounded so good," Carmichael recalls. "So between the age of 10 and 19 I learned it and a few more ragtime pieces." With five of these committed to memory, Carmichael landed the first of a string of jobs playing ragtime in restaurants. It wasn't long before she had "got turned on to Fats Waller and really went crazy. Ragtime was a lot of fun, but I was passionate about stride."
A chance encounter with former Basie drummer Harold Jones put Carmichael into touch with the Los Angeles jazz network and she soon was playing golf with Jones and guitarist Freddie Green and had become friends with Sarah Vaughan and other musicians a generation or two older.
"It was musical support that I find lacking in a lot of younger musicians," says Carmichael of the new-found companionship.
"What the older guys had was that they did hang out at clubs, did get this musical support. There's all the negative things of the old dives, but the guys would hang out forever and compare notes, literally, and spur each other on, things like that.
"I didn't have that. I had contemporaries who thought I was weird -- I didn't play rock music. So I was very unnerved by other musicians. It wasn't until I met some of these older musicians, who said, 'Hey, you play great!' and 'Stick with it!' that I finally started getting more confidence and feeling support from other musicians."