Jean Carn in The Great Kwanza Re-Union Concert
A Musical Happening In The People’s Republic Of Brooklyn
One of the many blessings that come with living in New York City is the opportunity to enjoy cultural happenings that occur nowhere else. Such was the case with the Kwanza reunion concert of Doug and Jean Carn. It was like a rendezvous with history, as longtime fans turned out bringing copies of their old records of thirty five years ago for the duo to autograph. It was a homecoming of sorts, because the couple resided in Brooklyn back in the early seventies when they burst on the Jazz scene with a completely original sound. In an art form like Jazz, where creativity and originality are stressed, it is hard to come up with something really new. That’s why they rose so quickly in the Darwinian milieu of the New York Jazz world.
The music of Doug and Jean Carne in the early Seventies, when they were man and wife, was heroic. Combining swinging straight ahead instrumental Jazz with a great singer performing lyrics of incredible spiritual gravitas and poetic beauty, their music could make your spirit dance. After making three albums – and three children – together Doug and Jean went their separate ways; artistically and personally. While Doug kept swinging straight ahead, Jean branched off into Rhythm and Blues, signing up with the famous production team Gamble & Huff, owners of the hit making Philadelphia International label. Known around the world as “The Sound of Philadelphia, this label dominated Afro-American popular music in the 1970’s.
They did well apart, especially Jean, who had several hit records with Philadelphia International beginning with “Free Love.” This period of her career, the collaboration with Gamble and Huff, has come to define her sound for many fans that only discovered her after she abandoned Jazz for R&B. Yet to the ears of this crowd neither Doug nor Jean ever reached the artistic heights they achieved together. It is a verdict this writer shares. And I had the perfect seat from which to observe Jean’s career change, because I was the leader of her touring band when she was enjoying her first hit ‘Free Love” with Philly International.
While most serious instrumentalists think it’s a drag to play behind singers, there are a few exceptions. The great Jazz Diva Betty Carter comes immediately to mind because she allowed her musicians to play full tilt with a very hard swing. Indeed, in a penetrating interview about Ms. Carter’s approach to leading the band, conducted by Brooklyn documentarian Fukisha Cumbo, Ms. Carter says she demands that her musicians swing straight ahead! It’s fun for musicians to play with a singer they love.
This was the case with Jean Carn, she is a first rate musician who can read musical literature as if she were reading the morning newspaper; she has great ears, she is organized and professional, and has a voice of great range and beauty. We could hardly wait to get on the bandstand each night of the tour because we never knew what sonic gem Jean would treat us to. The band was as big a fan as the audience.
Doug Carn is a bonefide master musician. I have known him since he was a little boy, because we both grew up in St. Augustine Florida. A beautiful little town on the Matanzas Bay with a classic Spanish ambience; St. Augustine is the nation’s oldest city. Doug showed a remarkable gift for music early on. His mother was an organist and pianist, and she also taught music. The musical environment Doug grew up in was a rich one. There were marching bands, a concert band, and a wealth of church music.
Cats playing Jazz too, and everybody who played an instrument wanted to play jazz because of it’s artistic challenges and opportunities to be creative…to reach the point of mastery on an instrument where you could express your personality in the music you played. The great drummer Max Roach explained it this way: “Charlie Parker once told me that you should master your instrument to the point where it becomes like another part of your body!” But as a music that requires virtuosity from all players, not everybody realized that ambition, many made their bids but few were chosen. The church music he heard included standard Protestant hymns, modern gospel songs composed by Professor Thomas A. Dorsey and made world famous by Mahalia Jackson, “Negro Spirituals,” and European classical music. The careful listener can here all of these elements in Doug’s music.
There are also aspects of Doug Carn’s music that reminds me of the music of the great German romantic composer Richard Wagner. By this I am not implying actual borrowing, imitation, or even conscious influence. It is in the nature of its esthetic values and spiritual purposes that I find a rapport between these two dramatically different musical genres. For instance both composers are fond of brass and use horns for dramatic effect. If you listen to the use of horns in the beginning of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkeries” and Doug Carn’s “Power and Glory” you see the same type of affects: drama, mystery and deep spirituality. I believe that this essentially heroic sound we hear in the music of these two very different composers is inspired by their similarity of purpose.
Doug Carn: Directing the action at the Keyboards
Both musicians viewed their music as something far beyond mere entertainment, or even a transcendental spiritual experience that is highly esoteric and deeply personal. Their intention is to create a music that can elevate a nation to its highest potential. As a young man Wagner was a part of the Revolutionary “Young German Movement” popularly known as the “Forty Eighters,” a movement that sought a freer and more equitable German society but was crushed by the Prussian Army in 1848.
The young Karl Marx was also an activist in that movement; its probably where he got his ideas about “class conflict.” Doug Carn on the other hand was a child of the black liberation struggle in the American South. He was living under a white supremacist caste system known as “segregation” in St. Augustine, when Dr. King came to town and led historic Freedom marches, which brought Jackie Robinson and other celebrities to town to walk with the local black folks in their quest for freedom.
As the most sensitive antennae in our society, the artists who came of age amid the chaos of those years of joy, pain and hope had their art molded in the fires of struggle. You can hear it in the cries of poets, the tales of novelist and the the plays of dramatist. And it is clearly evident in the music of Doug Carn. For those black students who were fighting to get black studies departments on white university campuses during the early 1970’s – an expression of the black Cultural Revolution that began with the “Black Arts” movement of the 1960’s – the music of Doug and Jean Carn was “the sound of the revolution,” as Kwaku Leon Saunders, the promoter of the annual Jazz in the Gardens concerts in Miami, recalls it. Kwaku was one of the student activists who helped to establish the W.E.B. DuBois Department at the University Of Massachusetts in Amherst in 1970.
In selecting the band’s musical repertoire, Doug was clear in his purpose: he wanted to use his music as a vehicle for the spiritual elevation and total liberation of African Americans. In this he and Wagner were cut from the same cloth. For instance, in spite of his genius at composing instrumental music, Wagner turned to vocal music with lyrics to be certain that he got his exact point across. Although he was writing musical dramas Wagner disdained the word opera because of it’s Italian origins and the air of frivolity that permeated the opera scene. Their purpose was to entertain, and Wagner wanted to inspire and indoctrinate a nation with his ideas of Tuetonic superiority. Thus he he coined the term “music/festival/dramas,” to describe his work, which was highbrow agit-prop.
Doug Carn, on the other hand listened to all of the profound instrumental statements in the Jazz canon and decided to translate the messages he heard in the music into words, so that Jean could sing them. And thus a great lyricist was born. He also composed original instrumental works and songs with lyrics. This explains the inspiration behind the esthetic choices Doug made. Look at the instrumental performances he chose. Lee Morgan’s “Search for the New Land,” McCoy Tyner’s “Contemplation,” John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and “Naiema,” Wayne Shorter’s “Infant Eyes,” Bobby Hutcheson’s “Little B’s Poem,” et al.
The themes that emerge from these compositions celebrate family and children, spiritual reflection and the search for higher truths, the glorification of God’s Love, and a call to nationhood. The lyrics he wrote to the instrumental performances…sometimes writing out parts of solos, seemed to fit the complex music like they were written together. Jean’s renditions of these arrangements revealed a spirituality and intellectual complexity that few had heard in the music before, and won new fans for the music – expanding the Jazz audience.
We also find similar themes in Doug’s Original compositions like “Power and Glory,” “Time is Running Out,” “Fatherhood,” “Revelation,” “God Is One,” “Arise and Shine!” When this music and Lyrics are sung by Jean it can electrify an auditorium and touch the souls of the audience. Thus like fans of Bach or Mozart, those who heard this music in its original incarnation in the early seventies have remained loyal fans for thirty five years! This was the crowd that made up most of the audience.
Thus it was a love fest; Doug and Jean could do no wrong. Doug had performed in Brooklyn a few months earlier at Sista’s Place, but it didn’t attract the excitement that this concert did. This was the great reunion that everyone has been waiting for. On this gig Doug and Jean were accompanied by a younger group of Jazz virtuosi, propelled by the hard swing of the Carter brothers on bass and drums. Dwayne Eubanks blew up the house on trumpet and Stacy Dillard bewitched the audience as he manipulated the many keys of his tenor saxophone to create sounds that conjured up strains of Trane.
Doug and Jean were Joined Onstage….
From the moment they took the stage the crowd was ampted up. As they moved through their program the audience was constantly on their feet in ovation after each presentation of the old songs that inspired them in their activist youth, when the revolution seemed well under way and nothing could turn us around! Coming at the end of the turbulent Sixties, an uncertain time when the reactionaries in the Republican Party under “Dirty Dick” Nixon had sworn to put the brakes on the revolution, forcing us to confront our weakness beside the power of the American government, this music was a healing balm to sooth our souls and steel our spirits for the fight. That why their fans are the die hard’s that they are.
On this evening all their love and affection was returned in a superb musical offering. As always the instrumentalists served up the music straight with no chaser. Doug was all over the piano, as you will see on the video below, setting the pace and keeping order in a musically accomplished ensemble. And Jean, elegantly gowned and basking in the effusive praise, sang these now classic songs with a lot of soul. There were noticeable differences from 35 years ago; back then Doug was something of a McCoy Tyner clone on the acoustic piano…now he has found his own style and it is dazzling.
When they first recorded together Jean was only a few years away from her MET audition, and her voice still had that strong operatic power. Today she shoots for the lower notes, brings it down a notch, and her phrasing reflects the years she has spent on the Rhythm and Blues Circuit, singing with a lot more vibrato and relying on gospel like melismas to grab the crowd. While there were a few young people in attendance – including their daughter Jeanie who appears on the cover of Infant Eyes as a toddler but is now a Philadelphia lawyer – it was an old timer’s affair.
For these people the music of Doug and Jean Carn represents a sound portrait of an era. As Ralph Ellison observed “Music gives resonance to memory!” And one of the most powerful memories I had on that evening is that this concert was promoted by the same man who promoted the show the first time I saw them perform in 1974: Brother Jitu Weusi, an intrepid promoter who is as much fan as businessman. And for musicians who put musical values first, Jitu is a God send.
Jean In A Magical Moment
Double Click to see Doug and Jean in concert
Text by: Playthell Benjamin
Photographs by: Jo Ann Cheatham
*Except for the picture of Playthell and Jean