Bloomington Residence of Collett and Vertis Johnson
Hoagy Carmichael's songs and musical style were heavily influenced by the Black musicians he heard in the jazz clubs of Indianapolis and at the socials he frequented at the homes of Black friends in Bloomington. One was the 1920s home of Collett Johnson and Vertis Hunter Johnson, a Black couple who owned a piano, which Hoagy played at parties. “We liked to dance and he played the piano for us,” said African American Bloomington resident Mary Cardell Johnson said in a 1982 reminiscence.
Despite Hoagy being welcomed, present-day African American Bloomingtonian Betty Bridgwaters says that many believe Hoagy stole tunes, including “Star Dust,” from the Black community without crediting his sources. The lyrics to a number of his songs, such as “Lazybones,” convey stereotypical depictions of African Americans that render the works offensive today.
If Hoagy was not completely free from the prejudices of his era, however, his friendships and musical collaborations across racial lines were still notable for the time. One such friendship was with the great Black jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong, who in 1970 insisted that Hoagy be the host for his 70th birthday celebratory concert in Los Angeles. As Hoagy’s eldest son reported, “There was a lot of pressure on Louis to get a black guy in there instead . . . but Louis stood his ground: said this wasn’t about race, it was about music. He wanted Hoagy, and if it wasn’t Hoagy he wasn’t gonna do this thing.” Hoagy’s musical style was heavily influenced by Black Indianapolis orchestra leader Reginald DuValle, who instructed Hoagy in improvisation and musical techniques. Hoagy credits DuValle with career advice that he never forgot, saying: "Never play anything that ain't right. You may not make any money, but you'll never get mad at yourself."
In his autobiography, The Stardust Road, Hoagy describes himself as a “jazz maniac” whose judgement was “thrown out of kilter” after hearing a jazz cornetist play. He went on to stardom and wealth in Hollywood, but Bloomington always meant home to him. He was exposed to many different cultural milieus in Bloomington—his extended family, the Black community, Indiana University academic and social life—all of which contributed to his development as a songwriter and unique musical style.