Swinger! A Jazz Girl’s Adventures from Hollywood to Harlem by Judy Carmichael

Review of memoir by celebrated pianist and radio series host

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Cover of Judy Carmichael's book Swinger!

Bright, breezy, intelligent, assured: hallmark adjectives of Judy Carmichael’s celebrated dual careers as one of the foremost stride pianists of the past half-century and host of the long-running radio series, Jazz Inspired. Also apt descriptors for Carmichael’s recently published memoir, a delightful, circuitously episodic exploration of her life in and out of jazz.

Carmichael claims her earliest musical memories were in utero, listening to her mother play piano. She later discovered much to her surprise that “Night and Day” and other standards that filled her childhood were not her mom’s compositions. She was a child of California, born Judy Hohenstein in 1957 and raised in the slightly seedy L.A. suburb of Pico Rivero. She fit the SoCal stereotype: blonde, athletic, and fun-loving, an eager participant in and frequent winner of beauty pageants. But growing up wasn’t all Beach Boys tunes and ponytails. Product of a kind but passive, alcoholic father and a bright but distant mother she describes as a bundle of “narcissism, neuroses [and] irrational behavior,” she learned early on to be independent, a trait that has served her well ever since. Still, her parents could be strongly encouraging, instilling the belief that “you’re smart, you’re talented, you’re pretty; you can do anything.”

Despite a keen aptitude for piano, she dreamed of being a stewardess, or perhaps an actress (a path briefly pursued but quickly abandoned), never seriously contemplating a career in music. She won a $50 bet with her grandfather for learning “Maple Leaf Rag” and it became her go-to audition piece. Then she discovered Count Basie and the swinging power of stride piano. There was no looking back.

Early on, she encountered arranger/composer Paul Weston, who encouraged her to change her name. She borrowed Carmichael from Hoagy. One of her first steady jobs landed her inside Disneyland, decked out in red and white as the perky, stride-playing centerpiece of the theme park’s Coke Corner. Over time, she attracted a spectrum of mighty jazz mentors and friends, including Sarah Vaughan, Freddie Green, Tommy Flanagan, Harold Jones, and Antonio Carlos Jobim. A record deal with Columbia seemed firm, until producer John Hammond discovered she wasn’t black.

Still she persevered, officially relocating to New York in 1985. She disliked serving as a sidewoman, so simply decided to always lead, steadily building a global following while self-producing most of her 14 albums for her own label. Like her mother, she survived cervical cancer but roared back stronger than ever, indulging her lifelong wanderlust with international festival and jazz-cruise dates and, in 2000, independently launching Jazz Inspired. Over 18 years and counting, she’s clocked more than 300 episodes, with guests ranging from Tony Bennett and Blossom Dearie to Robert Redford and Billy Joel.

Carmichael closes by describing her attendance, one of 60,000 crowded into Wembley Stadium, at Roger Waters’ The Wall Live. What at first seems a disjointed addendum proves the perfect coda, cleverly examining the art of showmanship, of which, as a musician, radio personality, and sparkling raconteur, she remains a master.

Check the price of Swinger! A Jazz Girl’s Adventures from Hollywood to Harlem on Amazon!