Judy Carmichael and Larry Koonse illustrate & discuss the skill of listening through improvisational jazz


Photo courtesy of Arts & Lectures via Judy Carmichael

Judy Carmichael received a Grammy nomination for her 1982 album Two-Handed Stride

Lewis Jones Jr., Staff Writer

Grammy nominated jazz pianist and singer Judy Carmichael visited CSUSM for an event titled “Is Anyone Listening,” which was part of the Arts & Lectures series. Co-sponsored by the Museum of Making Music and the CSUSM Music Department, the evening featured a performance and a discussion on the importance of jazz for fostering listening skills. 

Accompanied by jazz guitarist Larry Koonse, Carmichael explored early jazz and components of listening in improvisation and demonstrated these listening dynamics to tell a story during the performance. 

The ability to listen requires receiving and interpreting information as well as providing feedback during the communication process and Carmichael pointed out that, in improvisational jazz, the same functions of listening apply. This fact leads Carmichael to believe that jazz musicians are the greatest listeners in the world.

In recounting her beginnings as a pianist at Disneyland in the 1980s, Carmichael felt fortunate to have developed a friendship with one of her jazz heroes, Count Basie. Basie actually gave her the nickname of “Stride” because of her virtuosic mastery of stride, a particular style of jazz piano. 

She recalls asking Basie for advice on how to become a jazz musician and his response was to just “listen.” As simple as the advice was, she found it to be profound and has carried it with her throughout her musical career. 

Carmichael said that she understood Basie’s words as instructions to “listen to records, listen to music, listen when you are talking to people, listen to yourself, listen and be quiet.” It is the key component of listening that allows for a jazz musician to create spontaneously while playing in harmony in a duo or within a group. 

During the theater format conversation-based show, the two jazz musicians alternated in performing improvisational tunes and engaging in an explanatory discussion to the audience. After their first song of the night, “I Found a New Baby,” Carmichael explained the history of the stride jazz piano style that she specializes in and the excitement and thrill that this form of jazz music can elicit. 

Larry Koonse, one of the first recipients of a degree from USC’s Jazz Program and a virtuoso guitarist, described improvisation as an activity that incorporates verbal and visual cues and as the listening of the music’s different colors, harmonic structures and harmonic motions that shape notes. 

Regarding Carmichael’s mastery of the stride piano style, Koonse noted that it is important to listen to be able to match the melodic structure that she is composing. He says it requires all his attention to understand the dynamic exchange in each tune between Carmichael and himself to communicate a harmonic path that they want to delve into.

Carmichael said that both she and Koonse listen the same way, share similar interests in jazz, intend to illustrate a story through their play, seek to build a beautiful composition and listen to the dynamics in a set. She described their ability to play together as a cerebral level of synchronism through their attentive listening. 

Carmichael recommended that the next time you listen to a musical composition, listen to which musician responds to another through listening and establishing harmony.

Carmichael said that a good conversationalist is a good listener. “Our favorite people to talk to are usually good listeners that are attentive, engaged and focused in the conversation, not their own thoughts,” she said. 

Likewise, Carmichael compared a jazz musician to a good conversationalist, because jazz musicians can come up with a unique improvisational idea while also staying focused on the harmonic structure on which they layer their own melodic idea. 

In contrast to fostering good conversation skills, Carmichael pointed out that today we are often plugged into a private world on our phones and distracted by our tech, demonstrating our society’s low value on listening attentively, being present and being fully engaged. 

For Judy Carmichael, jazz for her is an entry point to encourage others to listen more, just as Count Basie had encouraged her.

A promo reel of Carmichael’s work can be found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x0_r99xaGRA