An Interview with Doug Carn
Doug Carn Returns
by Mark Ruffin
For those of you out there who swore never to give up those vinyl records until all your cult favorites are on cd. Well if Doug and Jean Carn and the rest of the roster of the late 60’a and early 70’s jazz label Black Jazz, were among the last of your favorites to go digital, it’s time to recycle your vinyl. Carn was clearly that label’s largest seller, and because of the acid jazz movement, he joins Terry Callier, Ruben Wilson and a few others as artistically brilliant, but marginally commercial acts from the 70’s who have become essential in the 21st century.
Carn’s specialty besides his keyboard and arranging talent, was supplying he then wife with lyrics to many jazz standards. Today many of his lyrics to tunes like, Naima, Peace, Passion Dance, Sanctuary, A Love Supreme, Little B’s Poem, Infant Eyes and others are important parts of the vocalese lexicon. While his wife with onto superstardom with the legendary Philadelphia International producers Gamble & Huff- her biggest hit was a song called “Don’t Let It Go To Your Head- her ex fell into relative obscurity while still playing with major jazz stars on the road, but rarely in studios.
It was the incredible saga of Black Jazz Records’ resurrection that has fueled his comeback. He talked with JazzUSA’s Mark Ruffin from his home in his hometown of St. Augustine, Florida.
JazzUSA: You know Doug, I’m always correcting singers, and always see that you’re not credited on so many vocal albums for all those great lyrics you put to jazz standards. Usually, they’re always credited to Jon Hendricks. Do you have that problem a lot, people not recognizing your lyrics?
DC: Yeah, and I tell you, Jon Hendricks wrote some lyrics to “Naima” that were very similar to mine.
JazzUSA: “Queen of the night?”
DC: Yeah, and he used terms like, “child of gods.” But you know I don’t fault him for that. What can I say? He was one of my influences in this whole thing anyway.
JazzUSA: And the laws have changed since you wrote those lyrics too. (ed. Note- essentially, nowadays if you write lyric to a jazz tune, in order to collect publishing royalties, you must change the name of the song and co-credit the original composer.)
DC: Yeah, I know what you’re talking about and I hate that. You write lyrics to a Horace (Silver) tune or a Wayne (Shorter) tune, because you love them. And if they don’t like them and don’t think they work, then you don’t need to me messing with them. That’s worse than sampling. At least, sampling is honest. They say I like your stuff. I can use it. I’m going to sample it. Here’s your check.
JazzUSA: Have you been sampled a lot?
DC: No, but a rap group sort of did one of my tunes in England, and sampled it in a way. It’s kind of hard to sample jazz, unless what you’re sampling is already commercial. Because the tempos kind of floats around a bit more. It’s not as tight in the pocket as much of commercial music is.
JazzUSA: I know you’ve probably been asked this a lot, but where have you been?
DC: Well, In a way I really haven’t been anywhere. You know I never did really get all the way out there you know. As soon as we were about to get out there, it seem that me and Jean broke up. So people kind of stood off for a couple of years. But, I’ve still been out there. I worked with Nat Adderley for a while in the 80’s. This music game, the jazz game, the success game is kind of competitive and assertive and I’m not the kind of guy to go around and push himself too hard. I push what I believe in, but I don’t really get obsessed with it
JazzUSA: So you’ve been making a living playing music?.
DC: Sure, I was doing that before I put out those Black Jazz records anyway. So, you know, I’ve got family down south and they’ve got themselves a few houses, part of the family had a funeral home, and I had a few things I had to look after because the older people started getting too old, I went back to L.A. for a while, and I lived in the D.C. area for a while and in the past eight years, I’ve been back in Florida.
JazzUSA: Were you also in Atlanta?
DC: : In the beginning, late 60’s, early 70’s. That’s where I met Jean, in Atlanta, and we went to L.A. afterwards.
JazzUSA: I just had an argument with a guy who, on the phone, sounded very racist. He got on my case because I had said on the radio that no matter what you think about the acid jazz movement, you have to respect the way it resurrected the careers of so many folks who fell through the cracks. And this guy got on my case about calling great black music acid jazz., and how dare I. He said “what’s the name of the label? The label’s Black Jazz. Acid jazz is drugs and white folks.” Has the acid jazz movement helped you at all?
DC: I think it has. I think it helped Herbie Hancock. What has happened is that young people have discovered that a lot of that jazz was viable and it was something that they could use and see value and could relate to themselves, because the commercial aspect of the music was kind of timeless and universal and they could adapt it. That they chose to call it acid jazz is on whoever made that label (ed. Note- it was Gilles Petersen of the BBC and head of the English record label Talkin’ Loud.) But we know what body of music they’re talking about.
JazzUSA: I also told this guy that people talk all that racist smack to me, but whenever I go out to hear those great black artists or acid jazzers , they’re nothing but white folks there under 25. Do you see a lack of black participation in the kind of jazz you present?
DC: That’s one reason why I haven’t been out there so much, like you said, where have I been. I guess in a way, that’s always been the case, but in the mid to late 60’s or early 70’s it looked like the black community might have been taking on a direction of greater awareness. It seems like that only went so far. But, yeah, that happens all the time. I was shocked the last couple of times I went to London,. There were young white kids under 25 who knew all the lyrics to my tunes. As soon as I played the intro, they’d go to cheering. They were singing the lyrics while I was playing and some were even dancing.. That’s a problem. The greater reason for that, for the most part, the black intellectuals have just abandoned the black community, not so much that they have joined the white community either, but they’re just kind of off to themselves. They’ve kind of written the majority of the people off in the community as incapable of understanding and appreciation.. Then too, the other thing, when you get out there and make a record of two, they think that, ‘well you’ve made it. You don’t need our help.’ I tell people all the time that as successful as Miles Davis was, he needs the help of the black community right now. Where is the Miles Davis Center for the Performing Arts? Anywhere, specifically, anywhere in black America?
JazzUSA: And chances are, if it comes in the world, it’ll be in Japan, or England or South Africa. I will be seeing you this month in a series called “Heroes of the Hammond,” what kind of music will you be presenting?
DC: Well, it is a organ gig. That was one of the things that I did for quite a number of years, was play the Hammond B-3. But during the time I was coming along, organ was still in the miscellaneous category, like in Down Beat polls. It was well into the late 70’s, when this guy named Eugene Ludwig came out. That’s when they changed it and gave organ it’s own category. I didn’t want to be in a miscellaneous category, so I did concentrate on piano, but organ is really my axe. So I will take it as far as the local guys playing with me can take it. Larry Young was a good friend of mine, and I play that style.
JazzUSA: Yeah, I remember saying when I was younger, that you made Larry Young’s sound more accessible.
DC: Yeah, I think I am probably a bit more straight up and down than Larry was. (laughs)
JazzUSA: Yeah, that’s what I mean.
DC: He was my buddy, but sometimes I have to break away in tears. I couldn’t hang for so long. I’ll be playing that, and I’ve got my originals that was organ based stuff too, on some of the Black Jazz stuff.
JazzUSA: You mean like, “Time Is Running Out?”
DC: “Time Is Running Out,” “Arise And Shine,” “Passion Dance,” even “Little B’s Poem,” makes a great organ piece. Some of them make great instrumentals, and some of them, I do vocals on myself. So it depends on how the moods hits me and how the crowd is, and how hot the B-3 is.
JazzUSA: Like you were saying, this is an organ gig. If they weren’t restricting you and were just presenting Doug Carn, how would it be much different?
DC: In order to bring my music out, I need seven to ten pieces, but clubs, they rather have trios. You can get a quintet, if you’re kind of hot, or famous, or on a major label. Clubs just aren’t ready for seven to ten pieces.
JazzUSA: Do you have any recordings coming out in the future?
DC: Yeah, I have some beautiful music that I’ve been working on, and projects that I’ve already completed. I was just waiting to see how the second re-incarnation of Black Jazz is going to develop and see if I was going to go with them again, or try to get the services of a quote, unquote, “major label.”
JazzUSA: Yeah, right. (laughing) It’s only two or three of them left.
DC: And Americans don’t own them.
JazzUSA: Yeah, I hated it when Warners made a move, but then I thought about it and realize, at least they’re keeping it in America.
JazzUSA: You mentioned the second resurrection of Black Jazz. What’s that about?
DC: You know all that music is back out on compact disc.
JazzUSA: No, I did not know that. I play it on vinyl.
DC: Oh man, I’ve got compact discs on all of it. Yep, the Walter Bishop Jr’s out there. The Henry Franklin’s “The Skipper” is out there.
JazzUSA: How many of yours?
DC: Four of mine. “Adam’s Apple,” “Revelations,” “Spirit of the New Land,” and “Infant Eyes.”
JazzUSA: on Black Jazz?
DC: Yeah, you should check out their web site, www.blackjazz.com/
JazzUSA: Who owns it?
DC: A brother, I guess he’s a brother. I’ve never seen him.
JazzUSA: Did he pay you?
JazzUSA: Well, shit then, okay. Where is he based?
DC: He’s based in Oakland.
JazzUSA: He bought the masters?
DC: Yeah. He’s had it out for two or three years, but it’s been creeping out.
JazzUSA: I heard a couple were out two or three years ago, but somebody got sued, and ordered to cease and desist.
DC: He did go through a few changes, but he survived it and revamped it and got it out there. It’s also out on compact disc in Japan and England too A company in England named Universal Sound put it out. They did a “Best of Doug Carn,” vinyl and cd, and a “Best of Black Jazz.” And Peevine has got it out in Japan. So in the past four or five years, I’ve been creeping back out there.
JazzUSA: How does that make you feel?
DC: Well, it makes me feel good in a way, but in another way, it’s like it always was. If you live long enough, they’ll eventually come back around to you. Not that I’m that old, but a lot of guys younger than me have passed away. If you can stay healthy, stay out of trouble and keep on creating, you’ll get your just rewards:
JazzUSA: Can I ask how old you are?
DC: You can ask and I’ll tell you, but you can’t publish it.
JazzUSA: You’re still a young man.
DC: I know it. A lot of people thought I was older than I was anyway.
JazzUSA: Doug, I grew up in the Chicago area, and Black Jazz was always an enigma to the crowd I hung with. I assumed that Gene Russell owned the label, or was he just the president?
DC: I don’t really know, man. I think that he was just the president. Either that or he owned it in the beginning but couldn’t hold on to it, because Ovation Records? JazzUSA; Yes, in Glenview, Illinois
DC: Right. They were the people who were calling the shots. When it finally came down that that was what was happening, a lot of the guys on the label were totally wiped out and dismayed, ‘I thought we were working for the brother, blah, blah, blah.’ I said, ‘well I’m glad to meet you Mr. White Folk, maybe we can finally accomplish something and go forward.
JazzUSA: Doug, I happen to be researching the lives of two men, who I think you knew, Donny Hathaway and Charles Stepney, do you figure in the lives of either.
DC: No, except, that I was associated with Earth, Wind & Fire and I knew a lot of what was going on. Donny Hathaway used to come to Atlanta quite a bit when I was there in the late 60’s. In fact one of the greatest moments that I’ve ever experienced in my life was when came in and sat in with Wes Montgomery. Man you should have seen that shit. I saw it with my own eyes. It was ridiculous. You see, Atlanta, Georgia, everybody used to come there. Black people owned very high -class establishment, like the Pascoal brothers who owned the La Carousel, and there was another joint named the Birdcage. People like Wes Montgomery, Jimmy Smith, Charlie Earland, Cedar Walton, Freddie Hubbard, Jimmy McGriff, Groove Holmes, they were part of the community, because during those days, they’d book you for two weeks at a time. We’d be making them dinner, and frying fish for them, you know. It was like that. It would be nothing to see these people walking down the street, or having coffee and doughnuts in the coffee shop.
JazzUSA: It’s funny how fate works. When I was young, I was way into Earth, Wind & Fire from the very first album 30 years ago, and I loved your albums, which came about the same time. So, naturally I saw the credits on Earth, Wind and Fire’s first two Warner Brothers’ albums, ‘thanks to Doug and Jean Carn.” So, I always thought on “Love Is Life,” and “I Think About Loving You,” that’s Doug Carn’s Hammond B-3,
DC: Yeah man, I’m on all that stuff. On “Everything Is Everything” and “Energy,” that’s me on all of that. You see, what happened was I lived in the same apartment building with them. As a matter of fact, Janis Joplin was in that building. It was one of those Hollywood apartments that rented by the month, the week and the year. A lot of entertainers were there. So, a friend of mine, named Sidney Miller, Jr., he had Black Radio Exclusive.
JazzUSA: Yes, the radio industry magazine, B.R.E.
DC: Yeah, I’ve known him from Atlanta. He was big with Capitol, until they picked his brain and let him go. He was living there, and I said, well with Sid’s living there, it must be a good place to live. So, I’m in a building with some guys called Earth, Wind & Fire who don’t ever play gigs, they just practice all the time, and go in the studio. I had me an organ gig every weekend. Every Friday and Saturday, I was down in the hood making me that money, just like I did when I was in high school. When they found out I could play and I was down, they used me and they used Jean too.
JazzUSA: And eventually, they got a deal?
DC: No, they had the deal all the time, but I didn’t know the particulars about it. People don’t spill out all there business, but I tell you, I had no idea that Maurice was going to take that shit that far.
JazzUSA: No idea?
DC: No idea. I don’t know if he did either. You know, everybody believes. As a matter of fact, he was going to play on the “Infant Eyes,” album. He rehearsed it and everything, but it just wasn’t quite hitting the way I wanted it to hit. In hindsight, I wished I would’ve used him on at least one cut. (laughs) Verdine, Don Whitehead, I knew all of them. But it was the old group that I knew. Then one day he went to Denver and came back and fired all of them. That’s when he got Phillip Bailey, Larry Dunn, Andrew Woolfork and the rest of them.
JazzUSA: What do you mean, he went to a gig in Denver and came back and fired them all?
DC: He went to Denver to do a gig?
JazzUSA: With Earth, Wind and Fire?
DC: Yeah, with the first group, and then came back and fired them.
JazzUSA: I have met Maurice a couple of times, in fact, he produced the group called Urban Knights, and I wrote the bio for the record company, so I got to hang at the studio with him and Grover Washington, who was in the group. I remembered that during one conversation we had, I asked Maurice did he know that you did a version of “”Mighty Mighty?” He said no and seemed genuinely surprised and not hip at all that you did “Mighty, Mighty.”
DC: Well, at one point, he was hip to it, because I saw Verdine on Hollywood Boulevard and he wanted to know if me and Jean were still together. I said no. He said, well is it alright if we produce her? I said yes, it’s alright, don’t be asking me. I said, that’s cool. That would be a great thing. I said, you mother fuckers ought to be producing me.(laughs) I said look man, I want to record “Mighty, Mighty,” what do I have to do to do it. He said, record it man, just record it. So a few years later, it seems like I ran into Verdine and asked him how did Maurice like it, and he said he loved it.
JazzUSA: And you never know, you know what I’m saying?
DC: Yeah, let me ask you this, did you hear that Charles Stepney died of a brain stroke while he was talking to Maurice on the phone?
JazzUSA: Wow. The rumor here is that he was actually working on the Earth, Wind & Fire song, “Spirit,” when he had the stroke.
DC: Could’ve been, he could’ve been talking to Maurice on the phone and looking at the music, because Eddie Harris was mad at Maurice, because he said Maurice was working Stepney too hard.
JazzUSA: Do you have a problem talking about you and Jean?
DC: No. But I’ll tell you. It’s ain’t all that much to talk about. We were just like everybody else.
JazzUSA: Are you guys still friends?
DC: Not close friends, no.
JazzUSA: But you’re civil.
DC: Oh yeah.
JazzUSA: As opposed to most divorced couples out there. You guys had kids too.
DC: Yep, three.
JazzUSA: How long were you guys together?
DC: Four or five years, something like that.
JazzUSA: So, the length of the three albums you made together?
JazzUSA: Did you guys meet in college?
JazzUSA: What college?
DC: I was going to Georgia State in Atlanta and she was going tp Morris Brown.
JazzUSA: Where are you from?
DC: I’m from Florida.
JazzUSA: Oh, so you’re home.
DC: Yeah, I came back home. I started a black cultural festival here in the town. We’ve got two jazz societies going.
JazzUSA: What’s the name of the town?
DC: St. Augustine, Florida
JazzUSA: The oldest town in America.
DC: That’s right. And you can find out all you want about the festivals and societies in St. Augustine on the web at dougcarn.com, and buy the Black Jazz albums on the web at blackjazz.com.