For decades, the voice of Jean Carne has been a crucial part of the American musical landscape, tying together generations of Jazz, Gospel, and R&B artists. As a solo artist, backing vocalist, and vocal coach, she has contributed to and collaborated with the likes of Norman Connors, Doug Carn, Dexter Wansel, Phyllis Hyman, Lonnie Liston Smith, Michael Jackson, and many more. At 74, she shows no signs of slowing down.
Many will recognize Carne from her output in the early 1970s, alongside her then-husband Doug Carn, for the lauded Black Jazz label. During this era of afrocentric creativity, the duo’s output found themselves at the nexus of jazz’s tectonic past decade and the fertile ground ahead. Without the constraints of genre or structure, artists such as Carne, on her Black Jazz output as well as on the saxophonist Azar Lawrence’s “Bridge Into The New Age” and percussionist Mtume’s “Rebirth Cycle”, began to explore and re-interpolate, continuing the tradition of jazz music as a mode of reinvention, repurposing, and reimagining.
That same imaginative thinking can be followed into Carne’s solo output, where, beginning in the late 1970s, she would release a series of albums that invited fans of Disco, Soul, & Jazz to revel and find release in her acerbic declarations of faith, loss, and love on the dancefloor. It is hard to imagine a future with Barbara Tucker’s “Beautiful People”, or Rosie S’ “Show Me Love” without Carne’s anthemic vocals. Her work with iconic arrangers such as Dexter Wansel and Norman Connors saw her expand the Philly Sound with her blend of Jazz and Gospel singing, a sound that would be carried on by one of the many singers that trained under her, Phyllis Hyman, as well as Natalie Cole, Patrice Rushen, and Chaka Khan. Her vocal abilities have remained the standard by her peers for decades.
It is hard to capture in so few words the brilliance that was inspired by Jean Carne. “Free Love”, the opener on her debut album, was a favorite of House maestro Ron Hardy, who frequently spun his remix of the track at the Music Box in Chicago. In addition, she has been sampled by artists such as Brand Nubian, Ari Lennox, Madlib, & Larry June. While living in LA as a young newlywed, she befriended and sang on the first Earth, Wind & Fire record. In addition, she was a vocal coach to a young Michael Jackson. Her 1990 collaboration with Lonnie Liston Smith, “Star Flower”, became a staple of the Jazzdance scene in the UK. Contemporary jazz singers, such as Cecile McLorin-Salvant, come from the same tradition of mixing and intertwining Jazz and Gospel. As she prepares to release her entry in the Jazz Is Dead series, Carne’s legacy as an musical icon and impresario is a testament to the power of collaboration, to the influence of Black American musical traditions on pop culture at large, and to the ability of Jazz to be a communal energy.