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Celebrating Hoagy Carmichael’s 118th Birthday

Jazz piano professor shares insight into the world of jazz then and now


The Hoagy Carmichael statue plays the piano outside of the IU Auditorium. Community radio station WFHB will celebrate Carmichael’s birthday with a fundraising event Nov. 16 at the Fountain Square Ballroom to honor the Bloomington-born musician.  Buy Photos

Nestled in the gardens between Showalter Fountain and the IU Cinema, bedecked with seasonal flowers, is a statue of a man fiddling around on the piano, struggling to write the song “Memphis in June.” 

The man is jazz pianist and composer Hoagy Carmichael. 

In 1921, a young Carmichael made his way to the halls of IU. Already familiar with jazz and a habitual musician, he spent his time seeking out pianos and venues that would let him play.

According to John Hasse's online biography of Carmichael, the musician formed a band during his time at IU, Carmichael's Collegians. Together, they traveled Indiana and Ohio to play for dancers and at fraternity parties.

Luke Gillespie, jazz pianist and IU professor, said Carmichael wrote his most famous tune, "Stardust," at what is today known as BuffaLouie’s. 

“It had an upright honkey-tonk piano, and apparently, he wrote the song there,"  Gillespie said. “Most people don’t realize it was written as a jump tune.” 

Although a jump tune is an up-tempo song you can dance to, Gillespie said he doesn’t know anyone who has recorded it as anything but a ballad. He said the slowing of the tune can be attributed to the Isham Jones Orchestra, which played a slow version of "Stardust" only a few years after the song’s publication. 

While most jazz composers of the day were writing songs for Broadway, Carmichael was writing individual songs. In fact, Gillespie said Carmichael’s songs were difficult to sing. 

“I’ve noticed his songs have a lot of chromaticism in them,” Gillespie said. 

This means there are lots of notes which differ from what you would expect on a normal scale, he said. 

“The songs are better for instrumentals," Gillespie said. "That was part of his appeal and part of his criticism, it's too complex.” 

The Great Depression marked the end of the jazz age. Nevertheless, jazz remained popular for another few decades, allowing Carmichael’s career to peak in the 1940s. Today, jazz records make up only two percent of the music industry, Gillespie said. 

Gillespie said during a dinner with Carmichael’s son, Hoagy Bix, Bix told a story about his dad sitting down to play at a public establishment in New York City.

He sang and played his songs, but no one paid attention. At that point, Gillespie said Bix remembered his dad saying, "I’m done. It’s over."

“As far as Bix knew, he never performed in public again,” Gillespie said. “I believe it was in the 1960s, rock 'n' roll had taken the world. It’s sad because we jazz musicians still play his songs.”

Although jazz is not as popular as it once was, Gillespie said he finds hope in an unlikely place: the education system. 

“Colleges, high schools, even some middle schools have jazz bands, and I would like to see it in elementary schools, too,” Gillespie said. “Jazz is a language. Music is a language. I try to teach my students to use it to express themselves.” 

Gillespie said even if you’re not sure what the artist is saying, they can make you feel something because music makes you react. 

“Jazz is the art of the moment,” Gillespie said. “It raises the significance of that moment to its highest point because what you are doing is a creative act on the spot.” 

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