Jean Carne, soul veteran: “Duke Ellington was a wonderful grandfather’s gentleman” | Jazz
A21-year-old singer Jean Carne uprooted her life in Atlanta, Georgia, to flee to Hollywood with jazz pianist Doug Carn. It was 1969, and like so many American kids of the flower-power years, Carne was moving west to try his luck in the world of entertainment.
When most of her generation would have retired, Carne found herself living in an apartment building with members of a new Chicago funk collective. These vegetarian men, who expounded on the benefits of clean living and astrology, called themselves Earth, Wind & Fire. Doug and Jean hit it off quickly with the band, recording backing vocals and keyboards on their first two albums, and even embracing their vegetarianism. The group went on to sell over 90 million records, becoming one of the best-selling pop groups of all time.
Over the next five decades, Carne honed his five-octave vocal range to perform with a roll call of the best American singers of the 20th century. Her highlights include being the last singer to perform with jazz great Duke Ellington, performing with Stevie Wonder, Minnie Riperton and the Temptations, coaching the vocals of a young Michael Jackson and appearing on albums by jazz fusion luminaries including Grover Washington Jr and Roy Ayers. She also produced solo hits, including the rare 1978 groove classic Don’t Let It Go to Your Head and the 1986 R&B ballad Closer Than Close.
More than 25 years after the release of his last album of original compositions, Carne is back with a new record, produced by Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest and composer Adrian Younge. Even so, she still looks back on the joys of being in Hollywood in her twenties.
“We didn’t tell anyone we were leaving when we ran away,” she laughs at a call from her home in Philadelphia. “Fortunately, my parents were on board when they found out, even though they had bet on the length of the marriage! It turned out to be a wonderful time that provided me with everything I needed. The Chambers Brothers lived there, as well as [manager to Roberta Flack and Herbie Hancock] John Levy; Janis Joplin would even pass. It was the best way to start.
This debut included recording a series of albums with her husband (Carne adopted the extra “E” in his name midway through his career) which added lyrics to instrumental jazz classics such as A Love Supreme by John Coltrane and Peace by Horace Silver. “We knew that the jazz genre had an exclusive and very small audience and that not all music lovers could capture the message from the instrumental line alone,” says Carne. “We wanted to broaden the audience for these jazz classics and no one else was doing anything similar at the time; we were alone.
The resulting records – 1971’s Infant Eyes, 1972’s Spirit of the New Land and 1973’s Revelation – went on to achieve cult status among crate diggers, with some tracks compiled by Detroit house producer Theo Parrish in 2013 on his album Black Jazz Signature. “We were also making a social statement,” says Carne. “They were all released on the Black Jazz label – one of the only black-owned jazz companies at the time – and, especially after the death of Dr King a few years earlier, we were promoting a message of ‘unity.”
For a genre usually so attached to the concept of tradition, Carne’s interventions were met with surprising approval, especially from big band pioneer Ellington, who asked Carne to audition for him in 1974. He sat at the piano and my knees were shaking so much I thought I would pass out,” she says. “As I approached him, he exclaimed, ‘Ah, Miss Carne, I’m a huge fan,’ and I was immediately put at ease.”
She went on to star in Ellington’s later spiritual work and toured with him for a month, his last releases before his death in May of that year. “He was sick at the time, but he was a wonderful gentleman and grandfather,” she says. “Between shows, he would rest in the dressing room and ask me to sing for him. He showed me the ability to sing very high and very soft and always told his philosophies on life; I wouldn’t take a million dollars to recapture those moments.
The church setting is familiar to Carne. His mother sang in the choir and by the age of four Carne was taking up his own solos. At 12, she was playing the piano and arranging music for services. As part of the arrangement work, Carne coached the choir and found she had a knack for guiding other voices. It’s a skill that led her to work with The Supremes’ Mary Wilson and 18-year-old Michael Jackson.
The couple met in the mid-1970s after the Jackson 5 left Motown and worked with producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. Carne was going through her own transitional phase, having recently divorced her husband, and finding her footing as a solo act working with Gamble and Huff. Together they formulated what became known as his “Philly soul”, alongside Teddy Pendergrass and Lou Rawls.
For Carne’s latest project, on Muhammad and Younge’s Jazz Is Dead label – which has also released new work by longtime collaborator Lonnie Liston Smith as well as ex-husband Carn – she returns to those Philly days. soul by recording only on analog tape. “It was like being in the 70s with the gear,” she says. “It was a very unusual situation. Adrian and Ali had not sent me any songs. I just arrived at the studio, they started playing piano chords, then I found all the lyrics and melodies on the spot It added pressure, but it was also so freeing.
The resulting seven tracks feature Carne’s vocals in peak form. Opener Come as you are sets its soaring falsetto over a driving funk beat, while the Black Jazz era of cosmic social consciousness is represented on tracks such as the euphoric People of the Sun and the scat-heavy Black Love.
After spending her early career being featured as a featured singer alongside her ex-husband or for bands such as Earth, Wind & Fire, it all feels like an unexpected second coming for Carne, a career-ending moment at the sun. “I had no problem with others in the limelight,” she says, “but I feel like it’s my turn now.”
Jean Carne JID012 by Adrian Younge, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jean Carne is out May 29 on Jazz Is Dead.