The Music & Life of Hoagy Carmichael

Today’s celebratory subject for Harvey Granat, cabaret performer, producer, and educator is the inestimable Hoagy Carmichael. With the help of Hoagy’s son, writer/producer/filmmaker Hoagy “Bix” Carmichael, and pianist Roy Gerson, our noontime raconteur sketches an accomplished life and sings iconic songs.

Howard Hoagland “Hoagy” Carmichael (1899-1981), Granat begins, was, like Cole Porter, an Indiana boy. While Porter longed for the lights of Broadway, Carmichael explored the jazz around him at the crossroads of Chicago, New Orleans and Mississippi. According to his son, Hoagy met and played piano for cornetist Bix Beiderbecke while attending law school. “You can do the law school thing if you want to, but there’s some magic coming off your fingers,” he was told. Carmichael graduated and worked in both law and finance until music took off.

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 Harvey Granat                                            Hoagy “Bix” Carmichael

Lucky for us, the artist was eventually able to turn to music full time. Carmichael was a perpetual student of his craft; composer/songwriter, singer (he described his own voice as sounding like a shaggy dog looks), pianist, and bandleader-not to mention appearing in 14 films, most often playing his own music. Son, Hoagy Bix tells us there are over 24,000 versions of “Stardust,” a 1927 composition that acquired lyrics by Mitchell Parish 2 years later. Granat croons this number, makes “Old Rocking Chair” (introduced by Louis Armstrong and Mildred Bailey) a ballad, and delivers “Georgia” with the rhythmic slide of a soft shoe number on sand. By the time we get to “Up a Lazy River,” people are singing along softly.

When Louis Armstrong had a 70th Birthday concert in 1970, he chose Carmichael as Host. Political groups wanted a black man out front. “This is not about politics, it’s about the music,” Armstrong told them, indicating how highly respected the artist was by his peers. Carmichael hosted a radio and then a television show in addition to other professional demands. Hoagy Bix calls his father “a little 5’7” bundle of couldn’t say no.”

Inspiration came from everywhere. Carmichael reworked a poem called Except Sometimes  and set it to music. It was reborn as “I Get Along Without You Very Well.” He was told he’d have to track down the author listed only as J.B. before recording. Walter Winchell put out the search in his column and Jane Brown began to receive three cents a copy. Her estate still draws 50% of lyric rights. Hoagy Bix tells the story with evident pride.

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We hear smoooooth renditions of “The Nearness of You” and the unbearably beautiful “Skylark,” both of which Granat gets through nicely despite florid accompaniment; “Buttermilk Sky,” and “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening,” for which Carmichael won an Academy Award in 1951. (The film was ‘Here Comes the Groom.’) With the bounty of songs, Hoagy Bix tells us his father’s best composition is a classical suite he hopes will someday become a spring ballet.

Carmichael’s son is currently working with Robert Mackintosh (Cameron Mackintosh’s brother), on a musical of his father’s oeuvre called Stardust Road which will begin a run outside London in October and hopefully move to The West End. It’s apparently as full of dance numbers as wonderful music, an art for which Hoagy Bix acquired affection during a long friendship with Fred Astaire. The entrepreneur also co-founded The American Tap Dance Foundation with Gregory Hines.

Hoagy Carmichael’s self-effacing, laconic manner belied terrific musical sophistication. He leaves a lasting legacy of signature sound. The program was entertaining and enlightening.

To read more about Hoagy “Bix” Carmichael, see Marina Kennedy’s 2013 article.

Join Harvey Granat May 12 for a program saluting Johnny Mercer with special guest Robert Kimball and David Lahm on piano. Click for more information.
And on June 9 for an hour with the life and music of George Gershwin featuring his grandson, Todd Gershwin and David Lahm on piano. Click for more information.

The Music & Life of Hoagy Carmichael
Harvey Granat with Hoagy “Bix” Carmichael and Roy Gerson, Piano
92 St Y
March 24, 2015

About Alix Cohen (847 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.