Kenn Cox, pianist-composer
Kenn Cox at the Detroit Jazz Festival, 2007
Â© C. Andrew Hovan
Kenn back when we knew him as “Kenny” Cox
Kenn Cox at piano, bassist Edwin Livingston, and poet Al Young in concert at California Institute of Arts, 2006. As a distinguished visiting jazz faculty member, Kenn taught summers at CalArts.
Â© Harris Hartsfield
“Not only was Kenn sensitive to poetry, he was sensitive to everything that went on all around him. To hear his takes on such subtle realities you had to listen to what he played and composed. It was my honor and pleasure to work and collaborate with him in his last years. I’ll never forget the his on-stage pianistic response to a poem passage I voiced one night. The audience, feeling Kenn’s power and the truth of his joy, broke into applause. Thankfully, the sound of that moment got recorded. At a well-attended poetry & jazz performance he shared with me and poet Geoffrey Jacques at Wayne State University in Detroit 2007, I watched him conquer a bad piano. ‘Oh, no, you don’t!’ he shouted at the wayward instrument. Comtemplative, earthy, playful and always alive — Kenn Cox’s spirit spread itself continuously. I suspect he cared about the world, his family and friends more than he cared for himself. He loved music in general; jazz in particular. At every opportunity, onstage or off, he readily expressed this love. Going all the way back to the soulful days and nights of his early albums on Blue Note, I knew Kenny Cox, for all his exploration and derring-do, would be a lifelong presence and friend. He listened and watched, thought and reflected, then played backwith passion and concern his precious findings.” — Al Young
Jazz Pianist Loyal to City
By Mark Stryker, Free Press music writer
December 23, 2008
Whenever you heard pianist and composer Kenn Cox perform, you not only got a dose of brilliant musicianship but were likely to get a lecture too. Fiercely proud of his heritage as a jazz musician and the contributions of his hometown of Detroit, Cox often would take a moment between songs to ruminate on the glory of a particular composer or musician or the vagaries of the jazz life.
â€śA lot of people have died for this music,â€ť he said one night a few years ago at Bakerâ€™s Keyboard Lounge. â€śThatâ€™s how much this music means to us.â€ť
Cox, an icon of the Detroit jazz scene whose reputation as a musiciansâ€™ musician made him a cult favorite among jazz insiders everywhere, died of lung cancer Friday at his Detroit home. He was 68.
Though Cox spent most of his career in Detroit, he was known nationally for the two LPs he and his group of young Detroit firebrands recorded for Blue Note in 1968 and â€™69, â€śIntroducing Kenny Cox and the Contemporary Jazz Quintetâ€ť and â€śMultidirection.â€ť These were progressive albums, rooted in the abstract post-bop of the Miles Davis Quintet. They capture Coxâ€™s fleet right hand, his gift for adventurous improvisation and sophisticated rhythmic interplay and a compositional aesthetic defined by zigzag melodies, strong bass lines and zephyr-like harmony.
The CJQ records â€” which featured Charles Moore, Leon Henderson, Ron Brooks and Danny Spencer â€” became collectorâ€™s items, and they created a buzz all over again when Blue Note reissued them in 2007. â€śThe pieces switch among rhythms in uneven lengths, as if trying to throw you off the scent, but there are swing and boogaloo stretches too, evidence of jazzâ€™s old identity as dance music,â€ť wrote New York Times critic Ben Ratliff.
Several of Coxâ€™s tunes eventually found their way into repertoire of other bands; the Jazz Crusaders recorded his â€śTrance Danceâ€ť and â€śThe Latin Bit.â€ť In recent years, Cox showed a predilection for ripe performances of standards, concentrating on gruffly tender emotional truths.
Itâ€™s the curse of so-called local jazz musicians that so much of their creative life goes unnoticed and unrewarded, and even in Detroit, Cox sometimes slipped underground. But his contributions were immense. Beyond the CJQ, he led a series of inventive bands, from lean trios to an expansive percussion-dominated ensemble that brought the musicâ€™s African roots to the fore. In the â€™80s, his Guerilla Jam Band nurtured a gaggle of young Detroiters who graduated to the national scene, among them Regina Carter, Rodney Whitaker and James Carter.
As a composer, Cox spread his wings. He wrote a jazz choral mass and a work for woodwind octet and jazz quartet commissioned by the Detroit Chamber Winds and Strings. In the â€™70s, he played a lead role in the Strata Corp., an exercise in self-reliance that had a record label and performance spaces.
Like saxophonist Donald Walden, Coxâ€™s friend who died in April, Cox was a beacon of integrity, a mentor and a direct link to the hard-knock wisdom and raw-yet-refined expression of the golden era of Detroit jazz.
â€śHe stood for the highest level of spirituality and creativity in this music,â€ť said bassist Marion Hayden.
Born Kenneth L. Cox II on Nov. 8, 1940, Cox graduated from Cass Tech. He studied piano at the Detroit Conservatory of Music and Detroit Institute of Musical Arts. Initially inspired by Detroitâ€™s bebop heroes, he was later deeply influenced by Herbie Hancock.
Cox moved to New York in 1961, working and recording with singer Etta Jones for five years. Cox also worked with Wes Montgomery, Kenny Dorham, Jackie McLean, Philly Joe Jones, Joe Williams, Helen Humes and others. He returned to Detroit in 1966.
In later years, Cox taught briefly at Michigan State University and was a regular instructor at the California State Summer School for the Arts. This fall he began a one-year post as King, Chavez, Parks Visiting Professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.
Cox is survived by his wife, Barbara; son, Philip Cox and stepdaughter Angela Washington. Services will be at 10 a.m. Saturday at St. Matthewâ€™s and St. Josephâ€™s Episcopal Church, 8850 Woodward, Detroit.
While fame proved elusive, Cox took solace in the respect he commanded and his role in the jazz continuum. East Coast saxophonist Bill Kirchner, who used â€śTrance Danceâ€ť as the title track of a CD by his nonet, relayed an e-mail from Cox that summarizes the pianistâ€™s credo. Cox describes the essence of jazz as â€śadventure, working it out, making that statement at all costs and taking the audience along for the journey â€¦ not pandering to them.â€ť
As Kirchner says, â€śI donâ€™t know of a better definition of artistic integrity than that.â€ť
Contact MARK STRYKER at email@example.com
Â© 2008 Detroit Free Press
Mary Harris, Al Young, Melba Joyce Boyd at Detroit Institute of Arts, 2007
WORKING IT OUT
“A lot of people have died for this music.â€ť
— Kenn Cox
linked like dominoes
this dialogue occurs
with Kenn Cox
suites on piano
or as Guerrilla Jams
engaging a dystrophic
as night falls
on dim streets
at high altitudes
at the keys
Â© 2008 by Melba Joyce Boyd
INTRODUCING KENNY COX and the Contemporary Jazz Quintet, the 1968 Blue Note album that launched the pianist-composer’s career. Recorded in Detroit, the Quintet also featured Charles Moore, trumpet; Leon Henderson (Joe Henderson’s little brother) tenor saxophone; Ron Brooks, bass; Danny Spencer, drums.