Portrait Of A Georgia Song Bird




Jean Carn 


 A Saturday Night Fish Fry with Jean Carn and Friends

 I have see Jean Carn perform in some of the world’s most prestigious venues, and once fronted a band that accompanied her in a sold out concert in Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall.  But this was different.  It was home cooking at the East Point Municipal Auditorium last Saturday night when she joined a group of Jazz cats from Atlanta who got together to jam at a fund raiser for Ronald Reed Senior, a local Afro-American politician who was running for Mayor of this little pastoral town on the outskirts of Atlanta.  It was a part of the community service that appears to be second nature to her, the results of which is clearly observable in the warmth and admiration with which she was greeted everywhere I went with her in the black community. And her contributions were recognized with a “Distinguished Service” award, presented on stage at intermission for her work, in heading a committee struggling to save her Alma Mater Morris Brown College.  And with characteristic modesty she smiled brightly, uttered a simple thanks and departed the stage.

 Although she was definitely the star of this show, Jean conducted herself as just one of the guys. Generously complimenting the other singers on the bill she pointed Henry Porter out to me and extolled his prowess as a singer of European classical music, as he gave a soulful rendition of the beautiful ballad My Funny Valentine, and she gushed with compliments for Reginald C. Dancil, who sounded like a classic crooner ala Billy Eckstine and Al Hibbler as he glided through such standards as Orange Colored Sky and My Favorite Things, a beautiful Broadway tune immortalized by John Coltrane, which he graciously dedicated to Jean.  And he sang it to death!  This guy is great; he can sing the socks off suckers like Tony Bennett – or Frank Sinatra for that matter!   He should be a household name, and the fact that he isn’t is further testimony to the venality of the music business and the banality of public taste.    

 From the moment they got together to rehearse you could feel the love.  The love of great music, and the love for performing live for an audience.  The band, Jazz South, was fronted by J.O. Wyatt, Atlanta’s venerable Jazz promoter/politician who once owned “Just Jazz,” the premiere downtown jazz club showcasing the major talents of the genre until he was driven out of business due to the skyrocketing rents ushered in when the Olympic Games came to this southern boom town. J. O., as he is known about town, hails from San Antonio Texas – a town that evokes unpleasant memories of my stint in basic training at Lackland Air Force base, where my transformation from a “candy-ass” civilian to a “SAC trained killer” began.

 Like Jean, he was educated at one of the city’s prestigious black colleges.  While Jean attended the financially troubled Morris Brown, J.O. went to Morehouse, the Alma Mater of Dr. M.L. King, historian Lyrone Bennett Jr. and legions of other Afro-American men who departed those ivy walls and made history. J.O.’s personal history provides a glimpse of the fabulous legacy of black colleges.  A varsity basketball player at Talladega College before transferring to Morehouse, he was a team mate of Calvin Hernton, who went on to become one of the nation’s most accomplished writers and critics, holding a professorship in English at Oberland College before his untimely death.  And at Morehouse he was a team mate of Don Clendenin, who went on to a great career in major league baseball.

 That Jean attended Morris Brown is another measure of the talent that passed through the halls of these historically black colleges. Having won a Metropolitan Opera competition at eighteen, she could, like Miles Davis and Wynton Marsalis, have gone up north and attended Julliard.  I first heard her sing when I came down to Atlanta in the late Sixties to speak at a conference of progressive clergymen who were active in the Civil Rights struggle, and she performed as a soloist with the Morris Brown choir. 

 Having spent many years in the bass section of school and church choirs where we sang chorals written and arranged by the great masters, and after listening for years to the many fine singers who came to my aunt Marie for vocal lessons, I had a well tutored ear for good singing and was not easily impressed.  But this slightly built young lady nearly knocked me off my feet with her big voice.  I remember wondering where all that sound was coming from, since I had already concocted a theory about the sources of the marvelous multi-colored sound that is the hallmark of great black singers.  Using such wonderful songbirds as Marian Anderson, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald as models, I had concluded that it was a combination of full lips and healthy hips. 

Since Jean had neither of these physical features, she blew my hypothesis out of the water.  As an unmitigated partisan of science, I was forced to seek other explanations, since everything that is wonderful about the black female voice – from the gifts of warmth and color, to its tantalizing timbres, to the way in bends notes like pretzels – is abundant in the sound Jean’s bewitching vocal instrument. Here is a voice of such versatility and sheer beauty that one is tempted to paraphrase Maestro Leopold Stokowsky’s panegyric to Marian Anderson: “Hers is a voice that is heard once in a century!”    If this was true of Ms. Anderson – and I don’t doubt it, for I have yet to hear another contralto comparable to hers – then it is certainly true of Jean Carn, because she can sing brilliantly in every genre from the European classics to gospel, jazz and rhythm and blues.



 Around 8:oclock a rotund fellow with a jovial personality approached the mike and introduced himself as “Captian Mellow” an Atlanta Jazz D.J., and he was enthusiastically applauded when he asked if the audience was ready to hear some jazz.  He was greeted with more applause when he introduced “Jazz South” the house band for the evening.   When J.O. took the stand he looked different from the evening before when we first met in Satterwhite’s Feast, a unique soul food restaurant that is distinguished for its delicious pork free southern cuisine and all-you-can-eat smorgasbord style, he was dressed casually in shirt and pants with a Nike sports cap.  But when he struck up the band Saturday night he was quite the fashion plate, his fine slacks and sports coat topped off with a elegant fedora; strictly high fashion.  The instrumentation in the quintet was standard issue for jazz combos, except for an amplified wooden guitar accompanying the tenor sax in place of the traditional trumpet voice. 

 It didn’t take long to peep the fact that they were all master musicians with mucho chops on their axes.  The warm response from the audience – who were well schooled in jazz etiquette and knew when and where to clap – fed the creative impulses of the musicians and they swang with a steady groove  up-tempo, and flowed as smooth as butter on the ballads, especially “Tenderly.”  Although I had winced when I saw an electric keyboard onstage – being a great lover of the art of acoustic piano, Jim Bell, a local music teacher, took us to different places with his artistry on the amplified keyboard, reminding me of Lonnie Listen Smith when he was Astral Traveling. 

 J.O. demonstrated his mastery of all genres of the Jazz esthetic with his full bodied sound and blues voice that reminds me of those other big voiced blues shouting Texas Tenors like Arnett Cobb and Illinois Jaquette.  When they played “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” the Joe Zawinul tune made famous by the late Cannon Ball Adderly’s band, which featured a rousing and technically brilliant solo from the guitarist, Charlie Robinson, the audience went off.   By the time the pianist took his solo, folks were clapping on the beat all over the room.  The audience stayed right in the groove as the band went right into Charlie Parker’s Latin inflected tune “Little Suede Shoes.”  Jazz South is a band who really knows how to swing the blues in any tempo, and the audience gave them a hero’s welcome.

 When the MC, Captain Mellow, introduced Henry Porter, he was greeted with tumultuous applause before singing a note.  As it turns out he used to teach mathematics in the public schools of East Point.  And he continues his career as a pedagogue by teaching voice pro bono at his beloved Alma Mater, Morris Brown.  When he opened his set with the old Ray Charles classic “Hallelujah I Just Love Her So,” sounding like a flat footed blues shouter right out of the honky tonks, I was reminded of the unique artistry of Three Mo Tenors, some other brothers who can sing Verdi and Ray Charles on the same program.   After rocking the house he mellowed out and serenaded us with the lovely ballad “The Nearness of You.”  He completed his set with a selection of standards that included a swinging version of “Bye Bye Black Bird that had the house clapping along.




            Finally it was star time at the East Point Center,  “Everytime I hear this lady’s name three words come to mind “Magic, Magnificence, and Melodic.  Captain Mellow intoned.  The audience exploded in sonic waves of applause as Jean came on swinging hard on the classic Ellington/Strayhorn tune “Take the A Train, a tune loved around the world.   From the outset the learned listener could revel in the fascinating colors and remarkable versatility of her voice.  After dedicating her next song to “the Divas who inspired and influenced me” she launched into a soul stirring rendition of “At Last,” a beautiful ballad made famous by the great Etta James.  J.O. now having dressed down to his street soldier uniform, knit skull cap and all, played a magnificent solo behind her.  I loved it, I could feel the words deep in my soul and it sent a thrill cascading down my spine from my cranium to my phalanges.

 Then the mood changed dramatically as the band broke into the entrancing Bossa Nova rhythms of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Brazilian classic, “The Girl/Boy from Ipenema,” and jean reminisced about her recent sojourn in Brazil.  I had not seen her perform live in a decade, and the main difference I observed in her performance style is that she has become much more theatrical – dancing constantly and acting out the lyrics in dramatic gestures – whereas before she simply stood and sang, relying only on her magnificent voice to capture the audience.  It is an extra added attraction however, because it is still that incomparably beautiful voice and inventive delivery that satiates the hunger of her audiences.  The fact that this was a pick-up band that she was performing with, having had only one rehearsal a couple of hours before the show, is a powerful testament to her special talent. 

  The next Diva that she selected for tribute was the late great Dinah Washington as she sashayed into “What a Difference a Day Makes.” Although her up-tempo Latin tinged version of the tune was lovely, I’d have preferred to hear her sing it in slow drag time.  After she concluded the tune she was presented with flowers by Ron Reed, another demonstration of the love and reverence which the audience feels for this wonderful and generous artist who seems – like the late great Sammy Davis Jr. – to give her all to every song she sings. 

 When she sang the moving ballad, “The Wind Beneath My Wings,” and took the liberty to alter the lyrics to say “Shero” in alternate verses, with hero, dedicating it to the candidate and his wife, we all fell completely under her spell. The audience drowned her in applause and gave her a standing ovation. This writer included.  And here is the downside to unrecorded live performances: Some of the greatest performances are confined to the few lucky souls that happen to be there in the moment. Then Jean was greeted with another round of applause when she introduced her son Joe Carn, a fine young man who is running for the city council in College Park Georgia.

 After acknowledging the contributions of several Jazz giants the lady sang the blues, inspiring the musicians to get down and dirty with a sassy shuffle that made the audience clap on the groove and me want to jump up and do the “Funky Chicken” or the “Dirty Dog!”  It was a Saturday night fish fry the way Louis Jordan told it, home cooking for real.  J.O. fired up the house and became a honker in the tradition of Gator Tail Jackson and the Bull Moose.  I looked around and saw that I wasn’t the only one felt like I wanted to dance or die!   Even the security people were cutting a rug. It was reminiscent of that great scene from the Fats Waller video “This Joint is Jumpin,” where the cops come to quell a loud party and ended up boogying down with the guest.  Before it was over half the audience was on their feet and the other half were grooving to the beat in their seat.  The audience loved Jean…and I love her too.

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