By Annette Hinkle
Judy Carmichael is a woman on a mission. The jazz pianist travels the world bringing the distinctly American music to audiences who don’t often get to hear it. Among the places she’s been or will be this year are Brazil, Australia, Switzerland and England.
But this weekend, she’s just happy to be back home in Sag Harbor where she’ll offer a concert at the Old Whalers’ Church. Carmichael finds that playing here is like no where else in the world.
“I’m going to sing more than usual, including a bunch of new tunes. It will be all jazz standards,” says Carmichael who has an album coming out in the fall. “I’ve got my ‘A’ team – Harry Allen on sax, Chris Flory on guitar.”
Carmichael loves playing the Old Whalers’ Church. In fact, she notes that she was the first performer to see the church as a musical venue back in 1992 when she played for a Chamber of Commerce event.
“People thought it was just weird, but I liked it because it was big — a very cool place and bright,” recalls Carmichael. “I’ve played in lots of churches. They’ve got a good vibe, though I feel odd saying that.”
Since then, there have been many concerts at Old Whalers’ and Carmichael notes every time she performs there, she can count on something unusual occurring.
“Because I live here, when I play in Sag Harbor crazy things happen,” says Carmichael. “It’s casual and I’m excited to be home because I’m gone so much. Last year my friend who plays accordion and produces for Sting and Esperanza Spalding was in the audience. He’s this famous guy in the pop world and I told him to bring his accordion and he did. It was hilarious.”
“I would never do that anywhere else. When I’m here, I talk to the audience in a different way. My guys look forward to coming here, they never know what’s going to happen,” she adds. “It really does feel like a family thing. I feel embraced here.”
Saturday’s performance is a benefit for the Community House Fund at Old Whalers’ and Carmichael stresses she is making this concert an annual event because she feels it’s vital that the community support the church as a center for culture and history. It’s just one of the many causes important to her. Another is sharing her love for jazz and making connections with audiences — especially young people.
Education has always been an important facet of Carmichael’s work and it’s paying off. Through her non-profit organization “Jazz: Listening for Life,” Carmichael is bringing music directly to young people in schools and other institutions.
“My motto is discovering the joy of listening, which I think is also true in conversation. It’s music as metaphor teaching people to listen more,” she says.
“It’s also a vehicle for people to see and get excited by jazz,” adds Carmichael who, each August, travels to South America to take part in the “I Love Jazz Festival of Brazil.” She is the artistic advisor of the festival which is organized by Marcelo Teixeira Da Costa, a young Brazilian jazz musician.
“I’ve insisted on going into the schools while I’m there, he’s insisted on making these open concerts that we do for free,” says Carmichael. “When I’m there, I’ll have 10,000 people listening and he’s presenting all of this to a younger generation.”
“When people say the jazz audience is getting older, I assertively reach out for a younger audience,” adds Carmichael who is excited by the interest the next generation is now showing in jazz, particularly in places outside the United States.
“I’ve found that young people in England will take a risk more than young people will here,” she says. “They’ll have a big night out and spend $40 dollars each to hear jazz. That’s one of the things I’m working on that jazz hasn’t done well — which is bridging that disconnect. When people hear it they love it, but its getting it out there. It’s up to the musicians to figure out how to be entrepreneurial.”
The reception she received from young people on a recent trip to England has led her to ask why they are so open to it and how she can get more young people here interested in the music as well. One way she’s bridging that gap is through her radio show “Jazz Inspired,” in which Carmichael interviews both celebrities and professional musicians about their connection to jazz. She now finds that many younger listeners are discovering jazz, not in the clubs, but through iTunes.
“A lot of 25 year olds come up and say, ‘You’re my first jazz experience. How can I hear more?’ So they download stuff,” says Carmichael. “I get 3,000 downloads a week on iTunes which for someone like me with not a big ad budget is a lot.”
She finds that much of what is being downloaded by the under 35 crowd is not celebrity interviews, but those Carmichael has done with up and coming jazz musicians.
Carmichael will make another connection with audiences on Saturday, September 3, when she travels to the Tanglewood Jazz Festival in Massachusetts to record a special installment of “Jazz Inspired.” Her special guest will be actress Blythe Danner and the show will be recorded in front of a live audience in Seiji Ozawa Hall.
“It’s very exciting – Blythe had a jazz band at Bard and Chevy Chase was the drummer,” says Carmichael. “The significant thing was she was friends with Bill Evans – he’s an iconic person in my world and one of the most famous. I met him one month before he died. In college she used to go hear him play.”
Carmichael will also give Danner an opportunity to do something in public she hasn’t done in years— sing jazz. Carmichael recalls that Danner once told her about a planned appearance on The Tonight Show. Danner, who is considered an actress, not a singer, said she would do the show only if she was permitted to sing Dave Frishberg’s “Peel Me A Grape” with Frishberg accompanying her. Producers said she wouldn’t be allowed to do that on the show — so she never did.
But at Tanglewood, Carmichael is finally giving Danner an opportunity to perform the song, as well as another tune with Mike Renzi, Peggy Lee’s accompanist, playing with her.
“I think of these shows as a fun way to have people do things they don’t normally do – and bring in surprising people in you don’t normally think of with jazz,” says Carmichael. “It’s at the end of the summer — open and relaxed. It’s how we are out here, people will do things they don’t normally do and I think that’s when the most interesting things happen creatively.”
Judy Carmichael kicks of the Old Whalers Summer Concert Series at 7 p.m. on Saturday, June 18. Tickets are $25 ($20 for students and seniors). A $60 ticket includes pre-concert cocktail party and premium seating. To purchase, call 725-0894 or visit www.oldwhalerschurch.org.