Judy Carmichael: Jazz and the C Word (That’s Cancer)

Pianist and radio host talks about writing her often funny and sometimes sad memoir Swinger!

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Judy Carmichael performing at Ronnie Scott's in London

With the publication of her memoir Swinger! A Jazz Girl’s Adventures from Hollywood to Harlem, Judy Carmichael has added one more title to her already over-full résumé. The pianist and host of the long-running radio show Judy Carmichael’s Jazz Inspired tells her life story in a breezy and often funny book that nonetheless contains plenty of family dysfunction, career challenges, and moments of absurdity.

No less than Count Basie called her “Stride,” a sobriquet that hasn’t necessarily stuck but certainly goes a long way in explaining her unique approach to jazz piano, strongly rooted in the stride style yet not limited to it. Carmichael also had a personal relationship with Sarah Vaughan, who, like Basie, accepted and even championed the young pianist. Stories about her formative experiences with each of those jazz giants enrich Swinger!, but the book is about much more than her brushes with greatness.

Later in life, Carmichael waged her own private battle with cancer. According to her doctors, she has been cured, but the emotional scars of that battle remain, along with numerous life lessons learned. As to other unseen scars from a childhood growing up in Southern California with an alcoholic father and an enabling mother, Carmichael explains how they helped to build her single-minded focus and drive.

In this edition of the Author Author column, Carmichael spoke with JazzTimes contributing editor Lee Mergner about her evolution as a writer, her creative process, and her decision to write candidly about both her family and her illness in her first book. The interview has been edited for clarity and space.

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Lee Mergner: What was the first writing that you did? Did you do any school newspaper stuff?

Judy Carmichael: You mean my first published writing? Well, I guess my first book would be in the fourth grade. I actually wrote a book of short stories and poetry. I was quite young. I started school when I was four, so I’d have to be…I guess I was eight years old? I did that, but I didn’t think about being a writer or something like that.

The thing that was really a fun part of writing for me was when Sheet Music Magazine hired me to write simplified stride arrangements. I did that, but what I started doing was writing a paragraph, then two paragraphs, about adventures on the road. That was more fun for me than writing simplified stride music. Then, funnily enough, the editor said, “I don’t really know why exactly, but your articles have become really popular. Would you be willing to do a page a month?” So I did. I loved it, I just loved the process. It paid me really well. I thought that was really something. He gave me a full page a month. But I still didn’t think that this was something I was going to do.

An editor at Algonquin Books, probably about over 20 years ago, saw a concert and said, “If you can be as funny in print as you are on stage, I will publish you.” That gave me the original inspiration for writing a book. All these years passed, and I would keep a journal periodically and then I would stop—I’ve never been an everyday journal writer. But particular things would be funny and I would keep track of them. Over the years I decided that I wanted to have something with more depth and then, when I really put my mind to it, I was 20 years older and I started looking at how the world that you and I came up with, how different it is; how different the music is, the music world, and the whole culture of it. I wanted to try to capture that. I also wanted to capture just that time, of growing up. The promise of a certain time—post WWII, baby-boomers, all of that.

How did you remember it all, since you didn’t keep a journal? There’s a lot of detail in the book from your past. Do you just have a strong memory or are some of these stories ones you’ve told many times to people, so you’ve retained them that way?

I think that’s what it is. I have an excellent memory, but in those early years, I told those stories a lot. I told my friends because they were all epiphanies. I mean, can you believe it? “I got to meet someone named Sarah Vaughan,” because none of my friends knew who Sarah Vaughan was. And then I would have to explain to them who Sarah Vaughan was, and say, “This is why this means something to me.” It really embedded in me in a different kind of way.

Those early stories, funnily enough, were the ones that in some ways I didn’t want to tell, that I knew were interesting to music fans but they weren’t that interesting for me to repeat because they’re extremely personal, in the same way that they are for other musicians. I’ve talked to other musicians because of Jazz Inspired, people that never do interviews that went ahead and did it with me, and we’ve talked about this. That, for us, a lot of people have this voyeuristic aspect—“What was it like to know Basie? What was it like to know Sarah?” Well, these are my stories. They weren’t just stories, they weren’t getting to meet Basie, they were what actually went on between Basie and me, how that formed me as a person, and how I was a different person for having known him. But I obviously got past that and did talk about it.

But then there are the family stories too, a lot of childhood stories that made me think: “Wow, how did she remember that?”

I have a very vivid memory about that, and I think from the fact that I talked about it all. It was difficult, so I was in therapy and so those stories came up. I had a lot of deep insight and perspective that I wouldn’t have had were I not in therapy. And that’s when you’re repeating these stories. Anyone who’s been in therapy knows therapy is all about repeating the same story over and over again until you finally see. You have the same insight over and over until you finally can move on from it or understand it in a deeper way. That’s certainly what I did with that.

Someone gave me a journal when I got cancer and said I should write down everything. I didn’t want to, but I respect this person because they’re a very important figure in my life. So I did. And then, I started writing the book and I couldn’t find the journal. I thought, “Well, I just want to see if I can remember it.” If I can just write it down and see what my perspective is now. Then when I finished the first draft of it, I found the journal. It was incredibly accurate—I remembered every single detail just like it was in the journal, except that I was in a lot more physical pain before I had my first surgery. That fascinated me—that I didn’t remember that when I went to the doctor for that first diagnosis I was actually already in physical pain. Which humbled me, because if you’re already in pain, you usually die.

Of course, our memory is like that, we do block things. Not consciously, though.

Everything else was almost verbatim, I found that fascinating. This was a long time ago. I do have a good memory. It’s just funny, it surprised me. I mean, I had thought, “Oh good, I found that, now I can edit.” And then I thought, “Oh, I don’t have to.”

Cover of Swinger! by Judy Carmichael
Cover of Swinger! by Judy Carmichael

When you talked to me a few years back about writing, we discussed you doing three books: a compilation of your interviews from Jazz Inspired, a lighter travel memoir, and a darker, more personal memoir. It seems you combined the last two for this book.

Yes, in a way. I want to thank you because you were very encouraging about my writing. You were one of the real cheerleaders who said, “You have the ability.” That meant a lot to me, and I found the notes that I had from then—“Lee Mergner says three books.” [laughs] What was the order you recommended?

I think I said the Jazz Inspired book of interviews first because you had already done those interviews and so it was a bird in hand. It would establish you as an author and you could promote it with your show. Then when you wanted to come out with either a travel book or a memoir, it would make sense.

What happened is I tried to get interest in the Jazz Inspired book, and that was harder than getting interest in a memoir. So, I thought, “Okay, I’m going to do the memoir.” The key that gave me the total thrust of this book was that my back went out. I had a day where I literally played five hours of tennis and went home and my lower back went out, and I couldn’t move. They sent an ambulance, they took me to the hospital, and while I was at the hospital hoping that they were going to give me drugs—which they didn’t—just to get me walking, I had a friend with me, and I said, “Call my massage guy and hold the phone up to my ear,” because I couldn’t move. She’s holding it there and I said, “Meet me at my house, I can’t walk. I have to be on a plane to Berlin tomorrow. I’m doing a concert the next day, then the following day I’m flying to Rio for a concert there. Meet me at the house.” He did, massaged me, got me in shape, I could walk.

Right before he left, he said, “I just love that it never occurred to you that you wouldn’t go to Berlin.” And then he said, “Just think if everybody lived their life that way.” I knew at that moment that that was the focus of the book. Look at a jazz life—not just my life, because I’m not unique in that. I know other jazz musicians who have walked onstage and it isn’t just “The show must go on,” because for some showbiz types, narcissism can get them onstage. With a jazz musician, with the good ones, it’s just “There’s a gig to do, get out there and play the gig.” Jazz people, you know, we’re not whiners, or we shouldn’t be.

There’s that famous line, “They don’t pay me to play, they pay me to travel.”

Yes, exactly! When I was writing this book, I had all these side stories of other people and I was more of a peripheral character in the sidebars. They were illustrative of this philosophy, of a “Don’t whine, refuse to suffer, just keep going and get the most out of life.” That was basically my thing. My editor, Constance Rosenbloom, said, “This is stopping the narrative thrust, this book is about you.” I cut out about 20,000 words, which were funny stories. The thing that kept me going was that I thought, “The next book is just going to be these funny stories in the sidebars.” Because she loved them all, she just said that this first book was about me, and to stick to the story of this character who becomes this jazz person. So I do have three books still.

One of the things that struck me about the book was the personal aspects regarding your family. Did you have any feeling of “Maybe I shouldn’t air this”?  It’s very affectionate, but obviously your parents weren’t perfect. Did you have any of that trepidation that every memoir writer has at some point?

I had a friend that I was on the road with for two weeks, and we were really talking about our stories. And he also had a difficult childhood, and he goes, “That’s in the memoir, right?” And I’d go, “No! It can’t be in the memoir!” And he kept saying, “No, it has to be in the memoir.” And what I thought about—again, I thought back to when I was first in therapy—my therapist handed me a book and he said, “I want you to read the first page.” I couldn’t get past the first sentence before I was sobbing. It said, “She always had to be perfect.” Then I started sobbing, because my nickname was “Perfect Judy,” and he knew that was going to have that effect on me.

I thought back on that and I thought, “If I can write these things”—because I felt no need. A lot of people feel they have to do this, but I didn’t. This was not any sort of catharsis. I’ve talked about this stuff, I’ve worked it out with the people I need to work it out with. But I thought, “Lots of people have had these kinds of things happen. Lots of people have had a relationship with alcoholics. If I can write this in a way that shows my appreciation for these flawed but really fabulous people, in a clear-eyed way, then I’ve really accomplished something.” Those were the hardest chapters to write, not because they were emotional, but because I really wanted to show my appreciation and my sympathy for these people.

There was something at the end that made me think, “Wait, she’s her mother.” I realized then that your mother really defines you in so many ways.

I have a lot in common with my mom. Ironically, what she really wanted to do was be a writer. She was the one who would read my school papers and edit them and would say, “See how this sentence could be made shorter?” And we could talk about a word for an hour. People who know me well, who have read it, who know the truth, talked about how I gave a pass to some people. I changed the names of anybody who’s still around. I thought, “There’s no way I’m going to say anything bad about anybody who’s still with us.”

The people who have helped me, and the people who haven’t, know who they are. I don’t need to name them. And I’m very grateful for having those very interesting parents. The very beginning of the book, when I say, “Is it worth my mom being all these things to get all that other stuff?” I did literally think that, and I thought, “Absolutely.” I mean, they were interesting people. Very difficult, but really interesting people.

The other important aspect of the book is the C word, which is not a spoiler since you open with your bout with cancer—a loaded topic, in part because it’s so very personal and private. As you know, musicians are very protective of word getting out about something like that, mostly for professional reasons.

That’s why I addressed it. I didn’t tell anybody at the time. I’m now telling people. As soon as it was published, I did have this sinking feeling because I’ve been very, very private—not just because of the musician thing, but just in general. Plus, I also have a real thing about entertainers, people in the entertainment world, who use these kind of things: “Oh, my cancer!”

That’s a real pet peeve of mine: Somebody who has a freckle removed and they say they’ve seen God. I wanted to address that in this book. I don’t feel special, I don’t even say I’m a survivor because what does it say about the people that didn’t survive? I’m not special—I got through it, I’m happy, I’m fortunate. And I still don’t talk about it. I’ve had friends who have called me and asked if I would talk to a friend of theirs who has been diagnosed—that’s when I’ll talk about it. But if somebody tells me they have cancer, I don’t tell them I’ve had cancer, because it’s about them, not me.

After I published the book, the emails I have gotten from people…. I could start crying to you talking about it because, specifically about the family, people that have told me that it brought up stuff for them, that they found the book riveting and essential and that it’s prompted one woman to buy a book about problems with a difficult mother—and this is a woman who’s had lots of therapy and stuff, but she said she had to put the book down for a bit to just contemplate.

A little too close to home.

Really beautiful, touching things. People that I’ve worked for—one guy who I worked for 11 years ago, when he was diagnosed with cancer, and he revealed that to me, and he said at the time I told him I understood, now he knows why I said that. I was only three years away from my cancer. And it’s been gratifying in reinforcing that I made the right decision. I mean, it’s really been humbling.

Over the years, I’ve had a couple of instances when a notable jazz musician has told me they had cancer but has also told me that I could not tell anyone. And I understand it and I honor it, but I always feel kind of bad for them, because in the rest of the world, they would get support from a little bit wider than the few people who could keep a secret. I understand it because it’s a professional danger in a way.

I had a couple of people that did tell someone because they thought they knew better than I did and that I couldn’t do it on my own, and it infuriated me, it really enraged me. Because it wasn’t even about the business. One of the big things was, and I think I said this in the book, was that the only appropriate response was “How can I help?” and I also thought that if I told somebody, and they told someone else, and that person didn’t call me and say, “How can I help?”, that would piss me off. I didn’t even want to know and I didn’t want to have that kind of negative energy.

They probably had good intentions, but good intentions don’t make it right. “I was only trying to help” is the classic answer.

I didn’t want to risk that, because most people are not equipped for this sort of thing. I did have a friend who said, “A friend of mine has just been through this, would you like to talk to her?” And I didn’t, but then, because I respected this person, I did call the other person and they wound up being a great support, a great education, wound up being a close friend. So then I offered myself up when a friend would say, “So-and-so, my best friend got cancer.” And I would just put it there gently, I would say, “If you would like me to talk to them, I’m good at this, I have been through this, I’m willing to do it.” And it’s not something that’s fun to do, but I thought, “I’m going to do the same thing that this other person did for me.” And I’ll tell you, the fact that I was a stranger was one of those things that was really helpful for them.

You’ve interviewed a lot of writers on Jazz Inspired. Did you learn anything from talking to all of them that helped you with this book?

Interestingly, what really helped me with my lyric writing was Ed [E.L.] Doctorow telling me that the ultimate short story [is] lyrics. Now, not every lyric is a short story. But that’s the way I think of it, and I like to make it a short story. I know how much Ed admired great lyrics and how evocative they could be. That helped me because it gave me the confidence to think of a lyric as a short story, to take people on a journey.

I don’t listen to music when I’m writing, it’s too distracting. And Ed got distracted, he couldn’t listen to music. In fact, he lived very close to me here in the Hamptons, and he lived right on the water, and he never wrote facing the water because he didn’t want to look out, he wanted to look at a wall. Nothing that would take away his focus. Be isolated, and stick with it.

Given your busy schedule as a touring performer and radio host, how did you write this? Were you able to write en route? I know so many people who say, “I’ll do it on the plane!” But they never do.

You’re one of those few people who I think actually understand what my life is. A lot of people are like, “Oh, yeah, you’re out in the Hamptons playing tennis.” Years ago, I did a concert at the American Academy in Rome. Are you familiar with the Rome Prize, where you get an apartment in Rome at the Academy?

Is it kind of like the MacDowell colony?

Exactly. They wouldn’t give it to a jazz musician. I actually confronted one of the people on it—they would give it to composers, to painters, and it was so that they would absorb Rome there at the American Academy. I was one of those interesting people who’d come through, perform, hangs out with them for a week, that kind of thing. And I said, “You don’t think jazz musicians need that?”

So you were the entertainment? You came in through the kitchen door?

Exactly, but I got a villa for a couple weeks. What happened for me with the writing, what made it possible, were the cruises. I really thought of them as my floating MacDowell colony. And I took those gigs, more than I normally would, because I thought, “This will be good for me, every morning I’ll get up and somebody will have made breakfast for me, I’ll go back in my cabin and write for three hours, I’ll come out and have lunch, write for two more hours, go to the gym, do my concert.” I’d only do one concert in a week, so I owe it to playing concerts on cruise ships.

It is a challenge. When I’m home, it’s very hard to write. I did it, but when you travel as much as I do, when you’re home it’s like you’re usually catching up with mail, bills, etc. And God forbid you actually go to a movie or do something normal. I did write on planes, but it was mainly writing on cruises. I’m very good at working while traveling. I’ve gotten a lot of emails from people who are like, “You wrote a book? How did you write a book?” I thought that was pretty funny.

My biggest fear was that writing funny is a very specific skill. That’s why that editor had said to me, “If you can be as funny in print…” You know that’s a very different thing; some people are funny on stage, [but] they’re not in print. I know I’m funny in print, and I was afraid of an editor messing that up. I had written it more novelistically originally. I didn’t write it chronologically. My editor said, “Chronology is your friend.” And so that was great, she was right. She wanted more dates.

I hate trying to figure out the chronology in novels or memoirs that jump around with the narrative. It just gets confusing.

Exactly. The best part about having Constance as an editor was that we got together the first time and she actually auditioned. She was an editor for the New York Times, she’s written her own book, she’s not some girl-next-door. She said, “Why don’t I edit a chapter and see what you think?” Which was really, I thought, above and beyond. She read the whole thing, and she did the one chapter, and we got together, and every single thing she said I agreed with. I thought, “Man, this is really good.”

Criticism is not always easy to take, especially when it’s about your writing.

As Constance got into the editing, I could see why she was making the decisions she was, and it was: “Add more dates,” “Flesh out your family, I don’t know what the history of your family is,” “What are your parents like?” It was great, and it did make it more interesting. Because I was so conscious of not sounding full of myself, originally there wasn’t enough about music. I was way too humble, almost to the point of being disingenuous, and she said, “You’ve tried too hard to leave this stuff out. People want to know that stuff.”

The book has funny moments, but I thought the more serious parts about your cancer and family were moving. You know a book is good when you put it down and are doing something else but still keep thinking about it.

That is the biggest compliment. That’s the book I wanted to write. I didn’t want it to just be a book of anecdotes, because every musician has them. I use those stories—even my sports stories, because sports is in many ways just as important or more important than music because it’s the one thing I do just for me, that has nothing to do with my business or anything—I looked at them as the sorbet between the other things. I really was happy with the balance of the book because I wanted to go deep, but then I wanted to have something that gave you a little breather. It’s like I’m putting together a good set. The two people who know me the best—Mike Hashim, who was my original saxophonist in New York, and Chris Flory, my guitarist all that time—both told me that those were the chapters that moved them the most. Their reaction was just like yours, so that means a lot to me. Because those were the ones that were the hardest to write elegantly; to talk about those things and not have self-pity. To get the right tone. I went a little bit further than I think a lot of people would on the cancer experience. But for me, cancer is not the defining moment in my life.

It may not have been the thread, but it was certainly the bookend.

It was in terms of the “refuse to suffer,” my sort of motto. But I wanted to put some of what I call in the book “the ugly clean-up of cancer” because everybody is sort of like, you get cancer and then you’re over it. That’s sort of the face of it with the movie stars. And I use movie stars as anybody who is beautiful and is on the cover of People, and is like, “My husband was my hero as I went through this!” And you know they’ve got millions and five live-in help. They put out this thing that, for people that have had it much, much worse than I, in terms of their cancer or another kind of illness—they see that stuff, that’s like a dagger in your chest.

I’ve talked to other people and it is so upsetting, and you don’t need anything that’s upsetting. The bar is raised every single day when you are going through a life-threatening disease, and you don’t need anything that makes you feel that you’re not a super-person. You have to be a superhero to get through this, and you have to believe it, you have to keep being empowered, and anything that makes you feel that you aren’t doing a good job takes you down. I would go into radiation and I would see a girl who was in there at the same time as me and she was 19, beautiful and bald. This was her third time going through this where she was supposedly cured and then there she was, and she was only 19. And, man, if that doesn’t humble you and make you go, “I’m not going to brag about how great I am going through cancer.” I wanted to put that stuff in so people would be maybe a little bit smarter or maybe a little bit more supportive and less fearful about it if someone tells them. Say, “What can I do to help?”

What authors did you feel formed you or had an influence on you in some way as a writer?

Many, many years ago I did fantasize about being a writer. I remember it was when I first came to New York and I was reading Fran Lebowitz and I had already read Oscar Levant, who wrote this book called Memoirs of an Amnesiac, which is hilarious. And David Sedaris.

I’m a huge fan of both of those people [Lebowitz and Sedaris]. I thought about all those women comedians [who] felt bad about themselves and who said, “I’m sad, I can’t get a husband.” I was convinced that I could be funny and empowered and positive. Still see the dark side, but not in an overwhelming way. Reading Fran and reading David, I thought someday, if I could get my writing together, I would want to be Fran Lebowitz/David Sedaris, but straight. And happy. They were both huge influences on me.

What’s next?

When I was writing this book, I loved writing so much that I thought, “I’d like to try short story writing.” And that hit me, and that was a thought. Because I loved writing so much; I would just write and keep writing. I would finally have to go to bed because I would want to keep writing. And then, concurrently, [saxophonist/composer] Harry Allen asked if I had ever thought about lyric writing. Those were my short stories, à la Ed Doctorow.

The next thing for me is writing a musical. I realized, writing those tunes, those little short stories, that whenever I’m writing, I’m never picturing a jazz singer. I’m always picturing an actor on a Broadway stage within a story. That I’m really writing for a character, which is one of the things that makes Harry and me such compatible writing partners, because he comes out of that tradition of American standards. I think of musical theater—with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Probably about three years ago, someone in England, a director, asked if I had ever thought about writing a jazz musical. I had just started writing with Harry. I think I had written two tunes. I had not thought of that, but I of course said, “Yes.” That got me inspired. Practically all of the music is written and I’m going to take a shot at writing the book.

Read excerpts of select interviews from Judy Carmichael’s Jazz Inspired.

Listen to episodes of Judy Carmichael’s Jazz Inspired.

Listen to cuts from the album Can You Love Once More? by Judy Carmichael and Harry Allen.

Buy a copy of Swinger! A Jazz Girl’s Adventures from Hollywood to Harlem by Judy Carmichael.