As someone who was educated by jazz radio as a teenager, and a tip of the hat to Joel Dorn’s programming on WHAT-FM from Philly here, I had a special appreciation for how whose jazz radio programming can be enlightening. Yet my appreciation of 1960s jazz radio often turned into disappointment over the following decades. This is not to downplay the efforts of talented jazz musicians and educators on the order of Billy Taylor and Marian McPartland, but their charms seemed limited, in terms of show format, to preaching to converts, addressing the followers of the intermediate level culture who could hear a jazz program (interviews seasoned with small instrumental interludes) as a slight diversion from the “classics”.
Last night I spent hours hearing how intellectually and artistically stimulating jazz radio can be. I stumbled across the internet on jazz pianist / educator Judy Carmichael’s “Jazz Inspired” radio show, and finally heard the promise of jazz radio that I had sensed decades ago, but that I was waiting to see it happen. Rather than the usual jazz radio format of interviewing the already acclaimed musician, Carmichael boldly went where no jazz radio programmer has gone before. She uses the general theme of jazz in general, and improvisation in particular, as the root metaphor for the creative process in any artistic endeavor. The results are often astonishing.
She interviews Robert Redford and we find out how the music of Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker influenced his acting and directorial careers, how Redford went from their rhythms to cinematic rhythms. Comedian Chevy Chase reveals his friendship with pianist Bill Evans and its impact on trying to learn to play jazz piano now. Even more revealing is Chase’s informative discussion of the links between timing in comedy and jazz. Film animation director Tim Johnson discusses how the narrative aspect of the music in Miles Davis’ soundtrack influences how he directs the animation. And who knew that Walt Disney had a reputation for saying “Every entertainer is a frustrated musician”?
When Carmichael interviews musicians who have gone from classical or pop to jazz, she treats them less as converts to her church and more as intelligently large musicians with open ears. She has a sweet touch as an interviewer, but isn’t intimidated by stars like Redford when they step off the runway somewhat. As well as being a very accomplished stride pianist, Carmichael doesn’t let her ego get in the way when she interviews non-jazz celebrities who make music on the side. She is always warm and highly focused on the different ways improvisation is bigger than jazz itself.
Some might argue that by interviewing actors, hosts, architects and television journalists about how jazz inspired them, and playing generous selections from its guests’ record collections, it is not a “pure” jazz radio. I think she brings jazz back to its historical roots as an art form intimately linked to all the arts. For that, she deserves our thanks and support. Listen to “Jazz Inspired” on 170 NPR stations, or from audio files on Judy Charmichael’s “Jazz Inspired” website. See if you don’t agree that she translated the intellectual nerve of a book like Paul Berliner’s. Think in jazz in premier 21st century mass entertainment.