Al Young title

In Memoriam | KENN COX

Kenn Cox, pianist-composer


Kenn Cox at the Detroit Jazz Festival, 2007
C. Andrew Hovan

kenny-cox.jpg Courtesy photo

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.
© 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


Read the Detroit Free Press original

kenn-cox-mandi-wright-freep-2002.jpg © Mandi Wright  |  Detroit Free Press

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.

“A lot of people have died for this music,” he said one night a few years ago at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge. “That’s how much this music means to us.”

Cox, an icon of the Detroit jazz scene whose reputation as a musicians’ 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 ’69, “Introducing Kenny Cox and the Contemporary Jazz Quintet” and “Multidirection.” These were progressive albums, rooted in the abstract post-bop of the Miles Davis Quintet. They capture Cox’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 — which featured Charles Moore, Leon Henderson, Ron Brooks and Danny Spencer — became collector’s items, and they created a buzz all over again when Blue Note reissued them in 2007. “The 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 jazz’s old identity as dance music,” wrote New York Times critic Ben Ratliff.

Several of Cox’s tunes eventually found their way into repertoire of other bands; the Jazz Crusaders recorded his “Trance Dance” and “The Latin Bit.” In recent years, Cox showed a predilection for ripe performances of standards, concentrating on gruffly tender emotional truths.

It’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 music’s African roots to the fore. In the ’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 ’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, Cox’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.

“He stood for the highest level of spirituality and creativity in this music,” 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 Detroit’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. Matthew’s and St. Joseph’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 “Trance Dance” as the title track of a CD by his nonet, relayed an e-mail from Cox that summarizes the pianist’s credo. Cox describes the essence of jazz as “adventure, working it out, making that statement at all costs and taking the audience along for the journey … not pandering to them.”

As Kirchner says, “I don’t know of a better definition of artistic integrity than that.”


© 2008 Detroit Free Press



Mary Harris, Al Young, Melba Joyce Boyd at Detroit Institute of Arts, 2007

Melba Joyce Boyd


“A lot of people have died for this music.”
Kenn Cox

black keys
with ivory
like oblique
irony in

Chopin sonatas
confer with
Strayhorn symphonics
Monk disrupts
with tempos
linked like dominoes

this dialogue occurs
with Kenn Cox
composing jazz
suites on piano
without primacy
in Multidirection
or as Guerrilla Jams
engaging a dystrophic

as night falls
on dim streets
blue notes
stud starlight
at high altitudes

Kenn Cox
at the keys
channeling ebony
freely through
the integrity
of well-honed

© 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.


3 Responses to “In Memoriam | KENN COX”

  1. Patricia Says:

    I was a friend of Kenny’s a long time ago. The last time I saw him was in 99. I didn’t know he was ill….I didn’t know he died. I was friend with him and Charles Moore back in the 70’s and often helped out at Strata. Please – where can I contact Charles Moore? Is he still with us. He would remember me for certain – we were all close in those days. I was affectionately called “p-squared” by both. Thank you.

    Patricia Parsons

  2. Al Says:

    Dear Patricia Parsons: Trumpeter and flugelhornist Charles Moore is definitely alive and still artistically active. Moreover, he has earned, since you and I last noticed, the title of Dr. Charles Moore.

    I first became familiar with Moore’s work through Detroit Artists Workshop, the legendary poetry press founded by John Sinclair, who now dwells in Amsterdam. Moore — who composed poems as well as music — first rose to national attention through the Blue Note recordings he made with pianist-bandleader Kenny Cox. As for the current status of his career I refer you to a recent entry I found at Zvents; originally published in the ever-useful All-Music Guide. Just click into the link below:

    Yours in sympathy,
    Al Young

  3. bruce hutchinson Says:


    Two jazz masters, pianist Kenn Cox and saxophonist, Donald Walden will be honored at a CD release party on Sunday, November 8, marking the debut of their live recording, Duet at Kerrytown.

    The event will be held at the Detroit jazz club Cliff Bell’s, located near Comerica Park at 2030 Park Avenue, 4-7 p.m.

    Featured will be a live performance by bassist Marion Hayden’s Detroit Legacy Ensemble.

    $25.00 donations to scholarship funds established in memory of Cox and Walden will be accepted for admittance.

    Reservations and further information are available at the website.

    Duet at Kerrytown was recorded March 12, 1994, at Ann Arbor’s Kerrytown Concert House and is receiving its debut release. The CD will be available for purchase on November 10 at Street Corner Music in Oak Park, Encore Records in Ann Arbor, Flat, Black & Circular in E. Lansing, and online at

    Included on the recording are several works by Thelonious Monk, as well as original works by Cox and Walden.

    Detroit native Kenn Cox was well-known as a pianist, composer and band leader. His 1960s recordings with the Contemporary Jazz Quintet were re-released by Blue Note in 2007. Numerous other recordings from the 1970s were released by the Strata cooperative that Cox helped to found and operate. Performances by his ensembles, the Guerilla Jam Band and Drum, have been mainstays of the Montreux-Detroit and Detroit International Jazz festivals. Cox died in December 2008.

    Donald Walden was noted as a saxophonist, band leader and music educator. Walden formed the Detroit Jazz Orchestra repertory ensemble as a way of teaching jazz literature to young musicians, and later had teaching positions at Oberlin College and the University of Michigan. Now-prominent jazz artists Rodney Whitaker, Geri Allen, Robert Hurst and Regina Carter are among Walden’s former students. Walden died in April 2008.

    The Detroit Legacy Ensemble, featured at the November 8 event, consists of several noted Detroit musicians: Marion Hayden, bass; Henry Gibson, piano; Djallo Djakete Keita, drums; Mubarek Hakim, djembe and percussion; Dwight Adams, trumpet; Vincent Bowens, tenor saxophone, and Cassius Richmond on alto saxophone.

    Visit Kenn and Donald at Facebook.

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