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Kenn Cox Remembered


Pianist/composer/arranger Kenny Cox died December 19, 2008, after a battle against lung cancer. Born in Detroit on November 8, 1940, Cox was a product of Cass Tech, Wayne State University (business major), and various Detroit music schools. He studied trumpet in his teens — visions of Clifford Brown danced in his head — but his mother insisted that he learn piano, too. So Kenn studied piano, and became proficient enough to gig on both instruments. After a couple of years most of the calls were for piano, so he reluctantly put the trumpet aside. Decades later, he'd sometimes refer to himself as a "failed trumpeter!"

Kenny CoxCox loved music of all types and descriptions, but during the early sixties he was influenced by Miles and Coltrane both in his playing and composing — his material has been recorded by many bands.

One early band featuring Cox was the Bohannon-Fields Quintet, a Coltrane-influenced group that recorded under drummer Bert Myrick's name. Their tenor/trombone front line created an interesting blend. Members of the Jazz Crusaders were in Detroit frequently at the time (1962) and listened attentively to Bohannon-Fields. The Crusaders later recorded two of Cox's compositions.

Cox also worked frequently with percussionist Francisco Ali Mora in a Latin flavored quintet which really cooked. He led his Guerilla Jam Band at many spots around town and in Europe during the 1980s.Cox also worked with Yusef Lateef and Kenny Burrell among many others. His first records were made with vocalist Etta Jones in the early 1960s, but his major contribution was as a leader of the Contemporary Jazz Quintet (CJQ). The powerhouse group recorded two LPs for Blue Note in 1968, which were released last year as a double-CD (reviewed in our January 2008 issue).

Cox was politically active, and dubbed himself a "Cultural Warrior" who pushed for recognition of many forgotten Detroit music legends. His widow, Barbara, was president of the Societe of the Culturally Concerned, a group which most recently honored pioneer ragtime composer/pianist Harry P. Guy.

I met Cox some thirty-six years ago when I began working at WDET-FM. He hosted "Kaleidephone" on Saturday afternoons. I was a neophyte jazz host, and Cox offered many useful and practical tips on producing/hosting jazz radio programs. He was the first Detroit musician who "let me in," accepted me as a friend. Our friendship was my entree into the jazz scene. I spent many Saturdays in his company and our relationship went from colleagues to friends.

Lately, Cox could be heard at Baker's semi-regularly in a trio setting. He loved show tunes, and these would pour forth from the piano balanced by a healthy dose of Ellington and other American and Latin composers.

Stylistically, Cox exemplified the Detroit piano tradition: a lyrical approach infused with the blues. And make no mistake about it, he was a blues master. His love of Strayhorn, James P. Johnson, and Jelly Roll Morton was never far away during his improvisations.

Cox spent most of his life in Detroit, performing, teaching, observing. Barbara, his wife of forty-two years, loved his playing and loved him. Cox was eloquent and witty, a man with many thoughts and opinions whose words were as clear, crisp and lyrical as his pianoflage; he was a Griot, a Music Master. He was a humanitarian, an "American-African," who viewed people as individuals not as part of a group. One is reminded of the saying, "A city's reputation is established by those musicians who leave, but sustained by those who stay". We are fortunate to have had the wonderful Mr. Cox with us for so long.

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