On a small independent label, in the early 1970s, musician Doug Carn made history.
The label was Black Jazz, and through its deep, ebony vinyl grooves the Florida-born Carn — a trained organ and piano player, composer, arranger and bandleader — almost single-handedly created a new form of fusion.
The music on the Black Jazz albums Infant Eyes, Revelation, Spirit of the New Land and Adam's Apple was free jazz, rangy and atmospheric, with cosmically (and politically) charged lyrics. There was funk and R&B in its lengthy, tie-dyed threads. Immaculate stuff that represented the changing playing field for African Americans — both musically and lyrically — in the nascent Age of Aquarius.
He wrote the inspirational lyrics, and the band charts, for pre-existing jazz tunes ("Infant Eyes," for example, began as a Wayne Shorter instrumental).
Although Carn's recording career went on — indeed, it continues to this day — he is still highly regarded for that series of Black Jazz albums, which featured his then-wife Jean on sensual and haunting vocals.
After the couple divorced, Atlanta-born Jean Carn went on to a successful solo career on the Philadelphia International label, scoring a number of R&B hits including "Free Love" and "My Love Don't Come Easy."
The 2013 Savannah Jazz Festival welcomes the Doug and Jean Carn Quartet — professionally reunited, and it feels so good — during its big finale event, Jazzy Picnic in the Park, on Saturday, Sept. 28.
We spoke with Doug Carn this week from his home in St. Augustine, Fla.
You had been working in Atlanta. How did you end up in L.A. and recording with Earth, Wind & Fire?
Doug Carn: After Dr. King was killed, it seemed all his disciples just scattered to the four corners. We had done just about all we could do in Atlanta, the 20, 25 musicians that were there. A whole bunch of us moved to California at the same time. Me and Jean moved into this apartment building on Sunset Boulevard, and Mandrill was in there, the Chambers Brothers was in there, Janis Joplin had an apartment in there that she used when she came to L.A. And these new guys named Earth, Wind & Fire, in five or six apartments. The whole band was there.
Reverend Ike, the preacher, was in there. And Famous Amos, he could hardly read and write. He worked at McDonald's. He said "I'm gonna sell cookies." I said "What else?" He said "Nothing but cookies." We all laughed at him, you know?
The next thing you know, people were standing in line to get the cookies.
Didn't Earth, Wind & Fire already have a keyboard player?
Doug Carn: They had two or three people that played keyboards, two or three people that played drums. Now, (bandleader) Maurice White played drums, but he had another drummer. Verdine White was the bass player, but they had another guy that played bass, and he played keyboards ...
I guess they wanted me mostly for the organ. After the time came, I was utilitarian so I played some keyboards, too. They did not want that Fender Rhodes sound, and Horace Silver had just started using the RMI electric piano. So I used that. Of course, Jean did some background vocals, a lot of overdubs, creating a vocal wall of sound. They were very jazz-oriented, and I guess I was already R&B-oriented a little bit.
Maurice was going to be the drummer on Infant Eyes — but he wasn't heavy enough as I wanted. In hindsight I wished I had used him on at least one track!
We worked on their first two albums, for Warner Brothers, before they went to Columbia Records.
How did the association with Black Jazz come about?
Doug Carn: Me and Jean were working club gigs, organ club gigs. What happened was, that first record Infant Eyes was a demo. I had taken it to all the major labels — I got on a plane and I went to New York. Blue Note heard it, Impulse heard it ... I took it to all of 'em, and none of the major labels wanted it.
One day this guy that founded Black Jazz found out where I lived and knocked on my door. So I said "Well, I'll let him do it just so we can get it out there." And I'd get my money back.
That's a really distinctive sound, on Infant Eyes.
Doug Carn: I'll tell you, I'm just discovering things about it. One thing was the studio it was recorded in — it was the same place Earth, Wind & Fire had done their demos — and another thing was the mix. At that time, my head was about as big as it is now, I guess, but when I'd go somewhere I'd ask "Who's the best in town?" And they'd tell me.
So when we got ready to mix, there was this engineer who had his own mixing studio in his house in Santa Monica. He mixed for motion picture soundtracks, and he charged $200 an hour. And I had $200. I said "The album is 52 minutes long."
But anyway, he did a motion picture soundtrack mix on Infant Eyes. And that's why it sounds like that, you know? That was the first album I made, and it sounds good — but I thought that was the norm. If I'd known it was exceptional, I would have gone back there and had the same guy and the same studio do the other albums.
How is it you and Jean are working together again? That generally doesn't happen with divorced people.
Doug Carn: It sure don't! It's a testament to the strength and the value of the music. What the music is saying, subliminally. A lot of people were saying "People don't want to hear that — they want to go out and party. They want to go out and have a good time."
Well, I wrote the lyrics but I didn't make that stuff up. I just took Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, McCoy Tyner, Horace Silver, and put 'em all together, you know. Like if you're doing an album of the Great American Songbook, you do Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein ...
That's just how it happened. I was being myself. And because the label was Black Jazz, of course I put on a dashiki. I didn't wear that all the time, you know? (laughing)
So, you and Jean ...
Doug Carn: Right, right. The little baby on the cover of Infant Eyes is a lawyer now. She called me up and said "Daddy ...," See, that's a danger signal, when they say "Daddy." They want something. When they say "Father ...," that means "Give me advice." But when your little girl says "Daddy," you watch out.
She said "What if you and Mom got back together?" I said "Jeannie, don't start that. Because people have been saying that ever since we broke up. And I don't want your mother to think I'm trying to use you to get back with her." And she said "Don't worry. We can handle Mommy. We just want to know if you'll do it."
What happened was, my daughter's husband noticed that every time Jean would do one of her shows, people would come with copies of Infant Eyes and Revelation for her to autograph. And how they spoke about it. He told my daughter. He was worryin' the heck out of her, and she started worryin' the heck out of me, right?
Next thing you know, I'm talking to Jean like nothing happened.