Saturday marks the 115th anniversary of the birth of composer Hoagy Carmichael. Cruise through YouTube or any number of jazz sites and you can find video of top artists performing the best of the composer’s work. It’s an estimable list, featuring such artists as Louis Armstrong (“Lazy River”), Carmen McRae (“Baltimore Oriole”), Dave Brubeck (“Georgia on My Mind”), Fred Hersch (“The Nearness of You”) and Ann Hampton Callaway (“Skylark”). I should add that there are some fine non-jazz renditions by the likes of Willie Nelson (“Stardust”) and George Harrison (“Baltimore Oriole”).
I recall first encountering Carmichael’s work through the Beatles guitarist; besides “Oriole,” he included “Hong Kong Blues” on his 1981 album, “Somewhere in England.” I only really began to appreciate the composer, however, after enrolling at Indiana University. Carmichael was born, raised and is buried near the Bloomington campus.
IU is home to one of the world’s top music schools and, as you might imagine, the university isn’t shy about its Carmichael connection. In fact, the Music School is home to the composer’s archives and a visit to the web site includes the following primer on Carmichael’s Bloomington days.
After completing high school, Carmichael entered Indiana University where, judging from his memoir “The Stardust Road,” it would seem he majored in girls, campus capers and hot music. He reveled in a growing passion for jazz and started his own group, Carmichael’s Collegians, which developed a reputation not only on campus but in the region, as they traveled through Indiana and Ohio to entertain young dancers.
In the spring of 1924, Bix Beiderbecke – a young cornetist out of Davenport, Iowa – came to Indiana University. Carmichael booked him to play a series of 10 fraternity dances and the two became fast friends. It was for Beiderbecke that Carmichael wrote his first piece, titling it “Free Wheeling. Beiderbecke took it with him to Richmond, Ind., (100 miles to the east) … and waxed it with his seven-piece band, the Wolverines. It was now retitled “Riverboat Shuffle.”
Carmichael himself got a chance to record. One of the numbers he recorded on Halloween, 1927, was an up-tempo wordless original called “Star Dust.” It initially landed with a thud.
Meanwhile, Carmichael managed to secure his bachelor’s degree in 1925 and a law degree in 1926, both at Indiana University. Carmichael closed the chapter on the first of three periods in his life when he left Indiana in 1929 and moved to New York City – where you had to go to make it in the music business.
Part of my interest in “Stardust” came, strangely enough, through pizza. Like many a mid-‘80s IU student, I frequented Garcia’s Pizza, which was just off campus across Indiana Avenue. There, I would while away the winter hours consuming beer, pizza and the latest music news via Rolling Stone and Musician. And every visit brought my eyes across a plaque that noted how, 60-something years earlier, the place had been called the Book Nook and Carmichael had composed “Stardust” on its piano. That led me one Sunday to catch a student-union screening of “To Have and Have Not,” which features Carmichael in a supporting role to Bogart and Bacall.
I will be back in Bloomington over the long Thanksgiving weekend and plan to revisit the sculpture erected to Carmichael near the IU Auditorium and perhaps visit the Carmichael Center, an office building scarcely a block down from where that Hoosier great composed “Stardust.”
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