Jazz musician

Born: December 7, 1937;

Died: September 22, 2017

MIKE Carr, who has died aged 79, was one of the world’s leading jazz organists. Although not a household name, he was admired by many, much more famous musicians, including Oscar Peterson, and was involved in the early careers of a number of players who went on to make a major impact.

The bass player in Carr’s first group in Newcastle, Malcolm Cecil, became one half of electronic music duo Tonto’s Expanding Head Band and was a key contributor to Stevie Wonder’s 1970s albums, and the guitarist in Carr’s London trio in the 1960s, John McLaughlin, went on to global stardom.

Carr was born in South Shields into a family that had moved from Dumfries, where his older brother, Ian, the trumpeter and Miles Davis biographer, had been born four years earlier. The boys grew up in rural County Durham and attended Barnard Castle School, where Mike developed the piano skills that found the teenager sitting in for the house pianist during a recording of the BBC’s Jazz Club programme while on a trip to London with their father.

Ian and Mike learned to play jazz from records and caught as many of the bands visiting the area as they could. When Ian went to study literature at King’s College in Newcastle, Mike contrived to be around and despite not being a student, he joined the college jazz band that entered the 1954 inter-university jazz competition.

Following his national service with the RAF in Cyprus, where he spent as much time as possible practising and playing jazz with fellow conscripts, Mike returned to Newcastle in 1958 and got a job as a sales rep, selling Mars Bars and other confectionery. The following year his van came in handy for transporting the set of vibes he had acquired to gigs with the quartet he had formed, the EmCee Four.

When Ian returned from a sojourn as an itinerant would-be writer, the quartet became the EmCee Five. Playing mostly original music in the style of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers the group quickly developed a reputation that spread to London, when the John Dankworth Band heard them in their late night residency at the Marimba Club. There was also a session when members of the Count Basie Band sat in with the quintet at Jeffery’s Down Beat club following a concert at Newcastle City Hall and left singing their praises.

Playing with top Americans would become routine for Mike Carr. Having recorded two now very collectable EmCee Five albums, shortly after moving to London he accompanied saxophone legend Coleman Hawkins on piano, having opened the concert on Hammond organ in his duo with drummer Tony Crombie. He worked with American soul-blues singer Herbie Goins’ Night-timers, luring their guitarist, John McLaughlin into his own trio, and toured with Screaming Jay Hawkins before becoming a regular at Ronnie Scott’s club, going on to join the Scott band that appeared at Carnegie Hall in New York.

Trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Art Farmer, saxophonists Illinois Jacquet, Eddie Lockjaw Davis, Benny Waters and Johnny Griffin and singer Jimmy Witherspoon are just some of the American musicians Carr worked with in a career that took him all over the world. He also played with Glasgow-born guitarist Jim Mullen over a long period and in 2010 they recorded a duo album, That’s Entertainment, with Carr on piano rather than organ, that showed both musicians in typically world class form.

Away from the bandstand, Carr gave masterclasses on piano and vibes and composed and produced music for advertising commercials that will have been heard by many more people than the recordings that featured his swinging, four-limbed (he was a master of the Hammond’s bass pedals) organ playing. He will be missed for his superb musicianship and for a pithy sense of humour that made him as warmly appreciated by his fellow musicians offstage as on.