DOUG & JEAN CARN / “Infant Eyes”
“Most of us know that this music is profound; even apocalyptic at times. However, it is so often approached on such a casual social and commercial level, we tend to ignore and overlook the stirrings within our souls and the voices of our ancestral ‘spirits’ that remind us of the fact, that there is a revelation of certain prophetic dimensions inherent in this music.”
This is a songbook definition of classic. Uno: the whole album is great. Two: Doug Carn’s arrangement and the musicianship are first rate. Tatu: the lyrics are poetry. Yet, all of that great goodness is surpassed by the job that Jean Carn does as the featured vocalist.
In the Fifties, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Carmen McRae, Ella, and others following in their wake, mostly re-interpreted popular American songs: Tin Pan Alley, Broadway show tunes, and movie music. By the force of their creativity, they turned otherwise second-rate songs into standards. In fact, jazz musicians created the ‘standard.’
Then came the Sixties. A revolution. And of course the music was a hip reflector of the politics. Self determination. Jazz musicians wrote their own songs, not just new melodies fitted on top of pre-existing chord changes, as was the case with bebop and the morph from, for example, “Cherokee” to “Ko-Ko.” Under the influence of Trane, the object was not just to cover “My Favorite Things” but rather to express our own Love Supremes. By the Seventies, we were bequeathed a body of original jazz music. Doug Carn’s genius was fitting lyrics to this new music.
Additionally, this music was issued on the Black Jazz label, a self-determination effort of Black musicians to own and distribute their own music and not be dependent on the entertainment industry for production and distribution. The mid-Seventies were the high point of this social and musical movement.
In the late Seventies and on into the early Eighties, Jean had a moderately successful career as a pop vocalist, but most of her subsequent recorded solo work is forgettable. And Doug never did come up with another vocalist to do what Jean does with his lyrics and arrangements. They needed each other to complete each other. Even though they both were talented, together they were exquisite. Elegant. But you know, disco wasn’t hearing none of that. Anyway, it’s the combination of Doug’s lyrics and Jean’s vocals that makes this iconic early Seventies jazz record so moving.
On the title cut, Jean’s breath control and dynamic range are astounding. So rich, so supple, this is the art of the jazz ballad: from expertly hit high notes to a hushed closing that is so tenderly voiced it could well be the last words of a mother who has just put her child to sleep.
“Infant Eyes,” now a staple jazz ballad, is a Wayne Shorter composition. There are hundreds of recorded versions of “Infant Eyes,” however Doug and Jean Carn outshine them all. Listen. Just listen. And if you can get to the album, listen to everything (especially Michael Carvin’s drumming and George Harper’s tenor and flute work). On Coltrane’s “Acknowledgement” (the first movement of the “A Love Supreme” suite), hear Jean Carn when she sings: “I’m warning you. I’m advising you that you had better get hip to a Love Supreme.”
—Kalamu ya Salaam
P.S. All of the Black Jazz recordings (including the three Doug & Jean Carn albums: Infant Eyes, Spirit of the New Land, Revelation) are now back in circulation available from the Black Jazz website: http://www.blackjazz.com
The mistaken impression
Before hearing this record, I was under the mistaken impression that Jean Carn was a pop singer, and a one-hit wonder at that. The only thing I knew by her was the monster jam “Don’t Let It Go To Your Head.” So it was a huge surprise to learn that Jean went on to record such intense and moving music with her husband, Doug. (Whom I also knew nothing about.)
Just as the initial surprise was settling in, I took a closer look at Kalamu’s header and realized that Jean didn’t ‘go on’ to record “Infant Eyes” after all. She actually recorded “Don’t Let It Go” six years AFTER she cut “Infant Eyes.” At first, I was mystified. How does an artist go from “Infant Eyes” and “Love Supreme: Acknowledgment” to “Don’t Let It Go”? (Not that there’s anything ‘wrong’ with “Don’t Let It Go”—it’s actually one of my favorite late-Seventies pop tunes, but still….) Then I started thinking about some of the iconic R&B artists from the late Sixties and early Seventies who continued recording into the Eighties: The Isley Bros., Earth Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, etc. One thing they all have in common is they recorded profound, relevant and deeply meaningful music when the people and the times called for it, but eventually recorded relatively meaningless pop when the times stopped calling for meaning.
I know all of that, so the arc of Jean’s career shouldn’t have been such a surprise, but really — “I’m warning you / I’m advising you / That you had better get hip to a Love Supreme” to “Ooh whee! / Don’t let it go to your head / ‘Cause if you’re playing games / It would be a shame.” Hard to understand that.
—Mtume ya Salaam
How Africans became Negroes
I’m fumbling with an effort to be both concise and precise — to let you know how hard the Eighties were for many of us and why those were such hard times, and at the same time accurately show how all that pain is revealed in our music.
If you think back a minute, you remember when our family broke up, when I left the marriage. Look at that cover, that iconic family: father, mother, child (a kind of ‘true’ holy trinity: Madonna and child with father by their side). Look at the picture they make, the statement they make. I wonder what their child is doing today? How many contemporary artists picture themselves with child and spouse on the cover of their releases?
That album cover has all our dreams tied up in it. We imagined the new Afrikan family as the center of our then (or so we thought) emerging Afrikan nation. And then all the breakups came. The divorces. The splits. In retrospect I recognize that we cracked under the immense counter-revolutionary pressure of the American State with its hard, hard economic and political repression. Doug and Jean broke up too.
I don’t know the particulars of their separation, don’t need to know, and have no desire to speculate about the details, but what I do know is that just as their union was representative of our dreams, their breakup was representative of our defeats. And today our children wonder: what the hell happened, how could you go from a love supreme to a disco ball?
Well, survival is a mean and totally unsentimental task master. I know, I know, none of this seems to have anything to do with the music — but it does. The trajectory of dreams shot down is precisely a map of the descent of our music into the meaninglessness that is so endemic today. After America RE-defeated us (at least for the moment, we will rise again, but that, of course, is another story), anyway, where was I at? Oh yeah, after the fall, the capitalists moved in, indoctrinated us, and now, well now, everything is for sale, including how to become spiritual in a mega-church for $79.95 with an interactive CD-ROM.
If I sound bitter, it’s just me wiping away the blood. I almost wrote: you have no idea how much songs like “Infant Eyes” mean to your parents, but then I realized, to say that, is in truth to say, to very precisely say: we failed to communicate to our children and grandchildren the story of our dreams and realities, the sweetness of our momentary victories and the intense bile of our failures.
“Infant Eyes.” Listen to the lyrics again, which (need I remind you?) Doug wrote and Jean sang.
You never heard of Doug Carn, huh? Yeah, there are so many, so very many talented Black men we have never heard of, Black men the Seventies offered an opportunity to shine and the Eighties covered in the slime of commercialism. (See, there I go sounding bitter again.) Click here to read a Doug Carn bio: http://www.blackjazz.com/carn.html
I’m ‘a stop, but before I do, I just got to say: this is not simply the music of my youth, this is not just some nostalgic remembrance of ‘the good ol’ days’ (shit, someday, for some folk, 2005 will be the good ol’ days). No, we are talking something at a qualitatively different level, which, I guess, is what you are reacting to Mtume when you wonder in utter and honest amazement: how can one go from the beauty of “Infant Eyes” to disco. Well, it’s an old, old history story redux. How Africans became Negroes. How new Afrikans became New Jacks became… what we are today, whatever the hell that is.
Excuse me, I’m going to listen to “Infant Eyes” one more time.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
Ok, so there’s more
I had not planned to go into this so deeply but now that I’ve started, I’ve got to go a little further. Doug Carn has a new album that is available on the Black Jazz label. But it’s Jean I want to follow for a moment. Click here for a profile of Sarah Jean Parker, aka Jean Carn: http://www.discomuseum.com/JeanCarn.html
After the couple broke up, Jean continued to work the jazz field, including a brief stint with the Ellington Orchestra (that’s right, THE Duke Ellington Orchestra — Jean was the last female vocalist Duke had in the orchestra before Ellington died) and earlier she had had a couple of moments singing backup with Earth, Wind & Fire (she’s on their first two albums). She then landed the gig with Norman Connors, whom I first heard as a drummer with Pharoah Sanders. Norman had an eye to produce pop-jazz and he did so, successfully bringing us Jean Carn, Michael Henderson, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Phyllis Hyman, as well as eventually producing Pharoah Sander’s only pop album.
Listening now, we can place Norman Connors as the pop side of the pop-jazz formula and Doug Carn as the jazz side (that’s simplifying, but relatively accurate). On Norman Connors’ Saturday Night Special (Buddah, 1975), Jean recorded “Dindi” and “Valentine Love” — “Valentine” was a breakthrough for Norman and led to a string of increasingly pop (or some would say pop-jazz) oriented recordings. One look at the cover of Saturday Night Special made clear what direction Norman was headed (he was high-class pop-jazz, ‘blinging’ long before the hip-hop term was coined). In other words, Norman decided to go commercial and Jean followed suit.
‘Followed suit’ is also a simplification but for the purposes of this brief overview we’ll let it stand as long as folk recognize that I’m skipping a lot of stuff and I’m not making a negative assessment of either Norman or Jean’s musical abilities and choices, rather I am trying to place them stylistically within the musical spectrum. Listen to the tail end of “Dindi” (by the way that’s Gary Bartz soloing on saxophone) and you will hear Jean unleash some powerful vocal pyrotechnics that are nearly smothered with a vocal chorus and a long fade out. Also note that “Valentine Love” was the hit off the album although jazz heads dug “Dindi.”
After working with Norman Connors, Jean signed with the Gamble & Huff-led Philly International, a team that successfully elevated pop towards meaningful messages and not just mindless dancing. They tried mightily to make a ‘success’ with Jean — they even re-recorded a short, two-song medley of strong Doug Carn songs: “Revelation/Infant Eyes.” One listen and you could hear there was no comparison musically. The high point of the Philly efforts was “Don’t Let It Go To Your Head.” After Jean left Philly, then came the out-and-out disco work. I’ll leave that to those who like it to talk about it.
In 1998, Jean released Love Lessons on the independent Place One label, it was half & half smooth jazz (including a duet with Billy Paul) and reworkings of standards such as “Misty” and “Someone To Watch Over Me.” In 2003, Expansions (a small British label) released Collaborations, a compilation of duets composed mostly of Jean’s guest spots on previously recorded albums by other artists.
You can see the arc: less and less musical exploration, more and more musical formula. Some older jazz heads harp on the absence of serious female singers who could compare to Ella, Sarah and Billie. However, what some folk don’t/won’t (refuse to) recognize is that singers such as Nancy Wilson, Jean Carn and Phyllis Hyman unfortunately did not come up in an era when a career as a jazz singer was even a commercial possibility. They might start off in jazz, but the industry pushed them into pop.
The recorded evidence reveals that Jean Carn had the chops, the sensibility, and the inclination to be a serious jazz singer, but the industry opportunities were not there, indeed, the industry was bum-rushing singers in the opposite direction. I would even go so far as to assert: if Sarah Vaughan were coming along today, there would never be a Sarah Vaughan the jazz singer. Indeed, can you imagine Charlie Parker coming along today? Can you say Kentucky Fried Chicken? (And if you don’t get the joke, don’t worry about it.)
Mtume, we both know the story, we know how the industry works, or should I say ‘exploits’ (and wrecks) Black song. What we sometimes forget is that the singers of these songs are human beings struggling to survive and at the same time struggling to remain true to their internal spirits. But, you see, America doesn’t give a damn about spirituality—it’s all about the money and ain’t a damn thing funny. In the face of all of this, what does a sensitive soul do? What can anyone do?
—Kalamu ya Salaam
P.S. as a final trivia note, Jean Carn was born 15 March 1947. Kalamu was born 24 March 1947.
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