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Arts & Culture

Kenneth Carr: Back Home For The Sunset Jazz Festival

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It’s been eight years since Charlotte-born jazz musician Kenneth "Kenny" Carr last played before a home crowd.

Not familiar with Carr?

Well, let’s start there.

“Charlotte has a lot of great musicians,” Carr said during a phone chat from his home in West New York, N.J. “However, Charlotte is the type of city where they actually grab other artists from someplace else.

“I can go to Europe, I can go to Budapest, I can go all over the world and people love and embrace me,” he continued. “But you go to Charlotte, you can barely get played on the radio.”

If that sounds like a musician who’s down on his home city, it's not that simple. 

Despite calling Charlotte a “really, really, really peculiar market,” Carr said he has nothing but love for the Queen City. And on Saturday, he will bring his trombone, along with his band, The Tigers, to Symphony Park for the annual Charlotte Sunset Jazz Festival.

Carr, who cut his musical teeth here playing shout music at United House of Prayer for All People, said the idea of playing before a home crowd doesn’t bother him at all.

“When we play, we minister unto the Lord, and it’s his job to minister unto the people,” he said. “So it’s no pressure on us.”

Besides, Carr added, “I never get into that kind of situation. I’ve been playing 30-plus years and all over the world. It will be another performance, but it’s going to be special because we’re home.”

Still, one wonders if Carr has completely come to terms with all aspects of his youthful years here. He said he rarely gets home anymore, except to visit his parents. And he severed ties with the church of his youth some 23 years ago because of theological differences. Today he is a member of World Changers Church New York, which is part of the international ministry of the Rev. Creflo Dollar.

As for the United House of Prayer, which for generations had formed a spiritual bedrock for some members of his family, “It wasn’t a tough decision at all for me” to leave, he said.

“I wanted to get more into the word of God, and I saw that that particular practice wasn’ t really leading me on that path,” he said. “Therefore, I started reading the word for myself, and I saw some things (in the church) that were inconsistent with what I was reading. So it helped me to just transition right on out the door. And that’s what happened.”

The one thing Carr did not leave behind was his love for shout music, a brassy sound that originated with the House of Prayer that some now compare to New Orleans jazz or Dixieland.

Carr credits an uncle two generations before him with starting the church’s first shout band. And by the age of 6, Carr himself had taken up the mantle, eventually mastering the sousaphone, bass horn, trombone, baritone, drums, trumpet and the piano. By age 16 he had formed his own band and was taking his music on the road.

“We would actually go from one church to another, sometimes from D.C., to Philadelphia to California, to Midwest to upstate New York,” he said “It gave me a platform to really exercise my gift.”

For the uninitiated, Carr says shout music, when played in its birthplace, the church, serves much the same purpose as modern day praise and worship music.

“It sets the platform for the service,” he said. “It sets it up for the delivery of the word. It gets everything prepared for the preaching of the word. People, once they get into it, and they get into the rhythm of it, the next thing you know they end up shouting or they end up praising God, their hands are lifted up and so forth and so on.”

Carr said shout music is in his DNA, and it continues to be the biggest influence on his work, even today.

“It’s something that’s been a part of my life, my family's life, for many, many years,” he said.

Carr said he got his start in music “hanging around the older guys who were playing” in church. He said his entire family was musically inclined.

The Charlotte-born R&B singer Horace Brown is his first cousin, he said, and the Charlotte brothers who formed the group Jodeci, he said, were like members of his family.

“I really would like to credit my father as the one who started me” in music, he said.” He was like the Joe Jackson of my family, and he would make us practice like every day.

“Some of the kids in the neighborhood, they would be playing football – touch, tag, all that kind of stuff – and we’re looking out the window watching them play while we’re in the house practicing, playing drums,” he added. “So a lot of our childhood, it went by.”

Then Carr paused for just a bit…

“But, you know,” he said, “it definitely paid off, so I have him to thank for that.”

As a professional, Carr has shared the stage with such notable names as Al Green, Shirley Caesar, Tramaine Hawkins, Vickie Winans, John P. Kee, Gladys Knight and Ray Charles, and he has taken his sound, which he describes as soulful jazz, to places far and wide around the globe.

And now, on Saturday, he will be back in Charlotte, the city where it all began.

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  "I’m looking forward to the Sunset Jazz Festival,” he said. “I know my band is. Everybody is excited about it, looking forward to being back in Charlotte again, coming through and reigniting what we have already done there.

"I’m not going to give up on Charlotte,” he added. “Charlotte is my home. I love Charlotte.”

This story was produced as part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance, with support from the Wells Fargo Foundation.