Garnett was born on December 1, 1938, in Red Tank, Panama Canal Zone. He became interested in jazz music after hearing Louis Jordan's and James Moody's music in film shorts. He taught himself to play the saxophone as a teenager and played with soldiers from the nearby United States Army base. In 1957 he started playing in calypso and Latin music groups.
After moving to New York in 1962 Garnett played in a rock 'n' roll group led by Leo Price. Around this time he also started learning music theory, being self-taught and having always played by ear. Jazz trumpeter Freddie Hubbard hired Garnett in 1968 and introduced him to many New York musicians. Garnett's first recording was Hubbard's 1969 album A Soul Experiment, which contained two original compositions by him.
In the late 1960s and early 1970 Garnett also played with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, Charles Mingus and Miles Davis. He also led his own group called the Universal Black Force. His group recorded five albums between 1974 and 1977. In 1982 Garnett, suffering from depression and drug abuse, experienced a spiritual awakening and stopped playing music for years. He began performing again in 1991 and released the albums Fuego en mi alma (1996), Under Nubian Skies (1999) and Moon Shadow (2001). In 2000 he moved back to Panama, where he continues to perform actively.
Garnett has assumed the role of Maestro, "Teacher", to pass on to the next generation of young musicians in Panama, the music of jazz. As he continues to perform, he has performed at three (3) editions of the annual Panama Jazz Festival. The 9th Annual Panama Jazz Festival in 2012, organized by Panamanian pianist Danilo Perez, was dedicated to Carlos Garnett in recognition of his contribution to music.
He has been invited to perform in Japan, where they were interested in his earlier "funk" music, and in Austria twice. His latest CD is titled after his daughter, Shekina's Smile. It also features "Sunset Dream" inspired by the peaceful and beautiful property owned by friends in the mountains of Chame, Panama.
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- 1974: Black Love with Mtume, Billy Hart, Onaje Allan Gumbs, Charles Sullivan, Reggie Lucas, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Norman Connors, Guilherme Franco, Ayodele Jenkins, Mauricio Smith, Buster Williams, Carlos Chambers, Onaje Allan Gumbs Engineered and Co-Produced by John Battiloro at Minot Sound Studio's in White Plains, New York
- 1974: Journey to Enlightenment with Charles Pulliam, Neil Clarke, Howard King, Recorded at Minot Sound in White Plains, NY Engineered and Co-Produced by John Battiloro
- 1974: Fire with Kenny Kirkland, Reggie Lucas, Neil Clark, Wayne Cobham, Angel Fernandez * 1976: Cosmos Nucleus fourth album on Muse Records. Anthony Jackson, Howard King, Charles Pulliam
- 1996: Fuego En Mi Alma with Neil Clarke, Brad Jones, Carlton Holmes, Shingo Okudaira
- 1999: Under Nubian Skies with Carlton Holmes, Russell Gunn, Shingo Okudaira
- 2001: Moon Shadow with Robert Trowers, Neil Clarke, Alvin Flythe, Derrick Gardner, Carlton Holmes, Shingo Okudaira
- 2013: Shekina's Smile
With Art Blakey
- Jazz Messengers '70 (Catalyst, 1970)
With Andrew Hill
With Miles Davis
- In Concert: Live at Philharmonic Hall (Columbia, 1972)
- On the Corner (Columbia, 1972)
- Big Fun (Columbia, 1974)
- Get Up with It (Columbia, 1974)
With Freddie Hubbard
- A Soul Experiment (Atlantic, 1969)
With Norman Connors
- Love from the Sun (Buddah, 1974)
With Pharoah Sanders
- Live at the East (Impulse!, 1972)
- Such, David G. (2002). "Garnett, Carlos". In Barry Kernfeld. The new Grove dictionary of jazz, vol. 2 (2nd ed.). New York: Grove's Dictionaries Inc. p. 16. ISBN 1-56159-284-6.
- Carr, Ian; Fairweather, Digby; Priestley, Brian (2004). The Rough Guide to Jazz. Rough Guides. p. 283. ISBN 1-84353-256-5.
- Yanow, Scott. "Carlos Garnett Biography". Allmusic. Retrieved 4 April 2010.
- Musto, Russ (6 July 2008). "Carlos Garnett". All About Jazz. Retrieved 4 April 2010.
- "Carlos Garnett Biography". Oldies.com. Retrieved 4 April 2010.
- "Carlos Garnett at All About Jazz". Retrieved 4 April 2010.