Master organist Doug Carn speaks

by the People’s Minister of Information JR

Doug-Carn-JR-backstage-after-concert-Freight-Salvage-Berkeley-080913-by-BR, Master organist Doug Carn speaks, Culture Currents
Doug Carn relaxes backstage with JR after a great concert at Freight and Salvage in Berkeley on Friday, Aug. 9. – Photo: Block Report

In the ‘70s, master jazz organist Doug Carn, alongside his then wife Jean Carn, a vocalist, made some legendary “out of the box” genre-bending jazz for the Black Jazz label. Hailing out of Florida, this legendary jazzman, who played keys on Earth, Wind and Fire’s first two albums and lived in the same Hollywood building as Janis Joplin at one time, has been in the music business for about half a century and is a musical pioneer on the organ. He will be playing this Friday, Aug. 9, 8 p.m., at Freight and Salvage, 2020 Addison St. in Berkeley. Read this exclusive Q&A with the legendary Doug Carn …

M.O.I. JR: For the people who know nothing about you, can you tell them a little about your music education and how you got into the record industry?

Doug Carn: Well, one thing is that I am an organist primarily and always have been. I played a lot of piano. Then in the ‘70s when the electric piano, the finderos, the RMI, and before that the Wurlitzer came out and people started using that, and the synthesizers – I used all of that too because a real organist plays a multi-manual instrument, you know?

If you go in churches or classical musical theaters, you’ll see big organs with four or five manuals. So when they started with the MIDI (keyboard) thing, real organists like myself said “come on wit’ it,” because we are used to playing four or five keyboards, you know?

But yeah man, I’ve had records on the charts, but all of that stuff is on YouTube now. If you Google “Doug Carn” or go on YouTube and punch in Doug Carn, you’ll see a lot of my music. I guess some of us were of the fusion people, you know, where we actually put forms of popular music and improvisational music together to create a new product which is different from smooth jazz.

Smooth jazz to me is smooth R&B without lyrics. But fusion stuff like what George Duke was doing, and some of the things I did, and other people, was a different animal, you know?

And like I said earlier, I was on the first Earth, Wind and Fire albums. And they did some very progressive things. As a matter of fact, Maurice White was supposed to be the drummer on “Infant Eyes.” It ended up being Michael Carvin. Calvin Keys, the guitarist, he was also on the Black Jazz label. He and I did a lot of work together in L.A. and Hollywood in the early ‘70s.

Doug-Carn-in-concert-Freight-Salvage-Berkeley-080913-by-BR, Master organist Doug Carn speaks, Culture Currents
Doug Carn in concert at the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse in Berkeley Aug. 9 – Photo: Block Report

This upcoming concert is going to be a fun thing. I didn’t get into the Bay Area that much, so it’s going to be a good night.

M.O.I. JR: Let’s back up and talk about the Earth, Wind and Fire years, because now that you say that, I can definitely hear a similarity between the type of music you do and the music that they do, although it’s two different genres. They call what you do jazz and what Earth, Wind and Fire does R&B. Can you talk a little about that relationship and about the apartment building in Hollywood that you both lived in when you met?

Doug Carn: Yeah, I moved in this building called the Landmark – it’s on Franklin Avenue between Highland and La Brea – and I met these guys who called themselves Earth, Wind and Fire. And they had some nice music and so when they found out that I could play, they used me on their first two albums.

They were very aware of all kinds of music, you know? They knew a lot about jazz and could play a good amount of jazz. But everybody has their own idea and plan about how to bridge the gap so they could include as many people as possible with the underlying message in the music, which is mind expansion, cultural liberation and awareness, you know?

M.O.I. JR: Can you tell us a little bit about how you met your former wife, Jean Carn, who you recorded a lot of your classic material with? And how did not being together affect both of your careers?

Doug Carn: Well, we’re working back together now; we’ve been working back together for three years. As a matter of fact, we have a show tomorrow night in Camden, New Jersey. When I met her, she was a secretary or more like a receptionist at a booking agency in Atlanta, and I was in Atlanta at the time, doing lead sheets for their artists. They had R&B people like Major Lance and The Tams.

Doug-Carn, Master organist Doug Carn speaks, Culture Currents
Doug Carn
A lot of the West Coast might not know them, and a lot of young people may not know them either, but I was writing music for their bands. And when I would come into work every day, she would be singing or humming along with the radio. I noticed she had a great voice and it went from there.

M.O.I. JR: How did having a relationship help your music?

Doug Carn: Well, it gave me an outlet because this girl had a tremendous range and good intonation, and she could sing anything, which meant that if I came up with it or wrote it, she could sing it, and that would give me the freedom and flexibility to have vocal music on a more advanced level than previously had been done in many circumstances.

King Pleasure and Eddie Jefferson and people like that put lyrics to the solos of these guys. So did John Hendrix, you know? But they didn’t keep going after the late ‘50s; it seems like they kind of stopped right there. So I sort of took over where they left off and pushed it forward. I still got some stuff yet to be done, you know?

M.O.I. JR: Let’s talk a little bit about the Black Jazz label. When did you hook up with that label – or is that your label?

Doug Carn: No. People just felt like it was my label because my music sort of dominated it, you know? And it was synonymous. Black Jazz belonged to Ovation Records; it was their subsidiary. Ovation had Joe Murillo, Gary Burton and a few other acts. And they had Willie Dixon, the Blues act.

They’re actually a Chicago label based in Glen View, Illinois. And the owner of the label was friends with Gene Russell and somehow they came up with this idea of Black Jazz. After I had exhausted all of my efforts of trying to get CBS, MCA, and Impulse, Milestones – I took it all to major labels and they weren’t interested.

Doug-and-Jean-Carn, Master organist Doug Carn speaks, Culture Currents
Doug and Jean Carn

See, that album, “Infant Eyes,” is actually a demo. To me, it wasn’t a finished product. I just thought that if the big boys saw what I could do, they would invest some money and let me really stretch out. But they weren’t interested and most people thought that album was fine the way it was. That is because of the limited view and expectations they had about jazz in the first place. But in a way, it was fine the way that it was but I could have done a lot more with it.

M.O.I. JR: Yes, sir. How did you affect jazz? When you look back over your career over the decades, what do you think that you added? Herbie Hancock added this, Miles Davis added that, John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders …

Doug Carn: See, that would be for other people to say, you know what I mean? In all fairness that would be for other people to say, but I will say that it shows that it ain’t over yet – that there is always something else that can be done in new territory to explore. But whatever my contribution was would be for other people to say.

M.O.I. JR: Who do you listen to? When you sit back and listen to music, who do you listen to besides yourself?

Doug Carn: I listen to everybody. I don’t listen to myself too much after I play it (laughing). That’s it; I play myself, you know? But I listen to all of it, including the R&B, Rap, Hip Hop and the Blues. I listen to some of the white bands. I love Steely Dan, I don’t know if you could call that a white band. I like the Doobie Brothers, you know? I listen to all of it.

I listen to classical music. Sometimes, I can’t wait to get out of the club and get in the car and put it on public radio so I can listen to some classical music, you know? Classical music is always in tune. It’s always serious. There’s not people making noise in the background. It’s kinda like therapy, you know?

M.O.I. JR: With you being from Florida, how do you see the Trayvon Martin case and all of these police and vigilante killings that are going on against Black people, particularly in Florida?

Doug Carn: It’s kind of disturbing. You go through a couple of stages in your life. It’s like when you are kind of young, you don’t worry about it too much. Then when you get a little older, you worry about it. Then you get a little older again and you stop worrying about it again and then when you get a little older you start back worrying about it again.

Doug-Carn-Infant-Eyes, Master organist Doug Carn speaks, Culture Currents They just shot another guy, in Pensacola in his own yard, and he was just looking for his cigarettes, you know? And the cops came up and shot him and said they were looking for somebody who had stolen a car. But they didn’t say what the description of the guy was, where the car was stolen, or what time it was stolen or what kind of car it was. And they supposedly told the guy to hold up his hands, and the guy, from his hospital bed, said he held up his hands and they shot him anyway. They say that he lunged at the police.

And the thing is that I don’t want them shooting me in my yard because I come home at 2 or 3 in the morning sometimes, you know? Musicians are kind of nocturnal. I might just decide to get up and go out of the house to the convenience store and get something.

It’s just scary to think of the climate that they are creating, because I don’t know if they know it or not, but as a Black man just about every time I go somewhere, I’m afraid. And they say, but if you’re afraid, you can stand your ground and shoot them. But every time a cop gets behind me and I’m driving my car, I say, “Oh Lord, I hope this guy doesn’t pull me over for no reason.”

And since we’re talking about it, and you’re broadcasting it on the radio, I have to say this: Most white people realize that their race of people has mistreated Black people, and so in their minds Black people, especially the men, will take any opportunity for revenge.

So this is why they lock their doors or become apprehensive every time they see us, because they’re wondering if we’re going to try to pay them back for what their relatives and ancestors and fellow countrymen have done to us, you know? But most of us are like that, and the ones that aren’t like that are too scared to do anything about it.

Most white people realize that their race of people has mistreated Black people, and so in their minds Black people, especially the men, will take any opportunity for revenge. So this is why they lock their doors or become apprehensive every time they see us, because they’re wondering if we’re going to try to pay them back.

People need to just stop and give it a break but, on the other hand, people who just think that minorities are a threat, that we’re going to overpower them genetically, got a vested interest in keeping us down.

The People’s Minister of Information JR is associate editor of the Bay View, author of “Block Reportin’” and filmmaker of “Operation Small Axe” and “Block Reportin’ 101,” available, along with many more interviews, He also hosts two weekly shows on KPFA 94.1 FM and The Morning Mix every Wednesday, 8-9 a.m., and The Block Report every other Friday night-Saturday morning, midnight-2 a.m. He can be reached at