Kenn Cox, pianist, composer, and activist, discusses his relationship to Detroit music and his career in this Community Jazz History Series video interview.
Guerilla Jam Master
Detroiter Kenn Cox (born November 8, 1940) was a jazz pianist, composer, mentor, leader, and performer. In this oral history conducted by journalist Larry Gabriel in 1989, Coxx describes his upbringing in Detroit as a young musician and his then current approach to performance and recording. He cites major influences such as pianists Horace Silver and Hampton Hawes, as well as local pianists Barry Harris and Tommy Flanagan. He describes his career in New York City where he accompanied and was music director for singer Etta Jones in the 1960’s. He describes The Guerilla Jam Band that performed at the Montreux Detroit Jazz Festival featuring musicians Tani Tabbal, Francisco Mora, Vincent Bowens, Phil Lasley, Marion Hayden, Regina Carter and more. He recalls the formation of The Contemporary Jazz Quintet with Ron Brooks, Charles Moore, Leon Henderson, and Danny Spencer. He founded the Societie of the Culturally Concerned with his wife, Barbara Cox, and become an adjunct professor at Wayne State and Michigan State Universities during his career. He was an historian and griot of the Blue Bird Inn. Kenn Cox died on December 19th, 2008 at the age of 68.
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Transcript of Interview with Larry Gabriel (1989)
[Demonstration: Kenn Cox plays piano.]
Kenn Cox [Interviewee]: I find myself going further and further back in terms of learning and drawing from historical references to expand the musical vocabulary. That is to say, I’ve come to, more recently, a deeper appreciation and have new found thirst for knowledge about the elder statesman in the music and what they were doing and even beyond. That beyond being, I have a considerable interest now what is commonly called these days “Third World” musics. Actually that’s in reality the music of the African Diaspora, from a historical sense. As a matter of fact, I had planned to enroll in the University of Michigan this fall, missed registration, for Cultural Anthropology. That’s where my interests are going generally and specifically as it relates to the music. On this year’s Montreux [Jazz Festival] we introduced a new piece that really wasn’t completely orchestrated and some would say not ready to play. It was entitled “Hymn to Obatala.” Obatala being the great Yoruba god of creativity and the cultural protector. That piece was pretty much reflective of where my head is at regarding musical direction now, trying to go back to go forward so to speak.
In the throws of examining different kinds of instrumentation and taking a crash course as it were from Tani Tabbal and picking the minds of some of our locally-based master ‘drumists’ [laughs] and percussionists to learn the actual meanings of various different rhythms and hopefully we’ll be able to incorporate them not in an eclectic sense but in a very deliberate sense in the future compositions.
I am more compositionally oriented than I am performance oriented so to speak. Piano — I have always enjoyed playing the piano. The piano has been my major instrument for some time. But my bent has been not so much as piano as piano, to be a piano soloist extraordinaire, as it has been to be an accompanist, to be an orchestrator, with that instrument. My concentration is usually on writings and various different elements of that and then of course employing the piano along the way. As opposed to concentrating on the pedagogy and pyrotechnics of what they call ‘contemporary keyboards.’ That kind of belies the fact I guess, in one sense you know, that suppose part of a great dynasty of Detroit pianists, who certainly all of them have been real firebrands and have left great historical marks in terms of their facility at the piano. But you know ever since I was a youngster, I think I’ve been more inclined toward the overall composition of the music, you know. For instance, I’m sure that when I was a kid and we would go to the show, I was probably the only one under twenty-one years of age in the theater who was paying particular attention to the movie scores. I mean it just wasn’t done you know. The scores were there and they were taken for granted. But I knew who Alex Noors [?] was and Dimitri Tiomkin, Max Steiner and all of the studio composers of the ‘40s and ‘50s because the orchestrations were particularly appealing to me. And I think that it was that kind of consciousness that sort of took precedent over actual performance technique as a direction.
The Guerilla Jam Band first of all, personnel wise, is a repertory ensemble. Over the years, I guess basically ten years of its existence, faces have changed considerably. Some of the folks have been holdovers right from the beginning but still numbers of others have changed practically with every performance. I’d like to think the Guerilla’s personnel as being all the available and wonderful talents that reside in this area. And the repertoire has been by and large principally original compositions that I’ve penned although we’ve done and do welcome those of others. We’ve played some of Phil Lasley’s work, we have played some Vincent Bowen’s work, we’ve played some of Francisco Mora’s work. So it’s not exclusively a venue for airing my own compositions but in the main it has been. The repertoire generally is to represent hopefully the variety of different styles or what I’ve come to prefer to call ‘dialects’ that there are in this music. You may hear, you haven’t heard any of that guard as it were yet but that’s only because the band isn’t as well rehearsed as we would like. In order to play music on the cutting edge like that — I feel as though there is a certain degree of infinity that has to be developed amongst the members ‘cause it’s really cosmic. When you get to stratifying rhythms there’s a whole lot of esp going on on the bandstand, especially when you are attempting to play music of that form non form. [laughs]
So this ensemble is so large, meaning you got just that many more personalities that have to interlock, and, as I said, so under rehearsed so to speak, that we haven’t attempted any of that kind of literature — but it may happen yet. But save for that we tried to represent in the repertoire the various different styles, the various different dialects, of this music that is loosely called and I have now got to the point where I pretty much hold the title jazz in disdain. Because it is certainly today, unfortunately, there is not a clear picture of what that music is supposed to represent to the general public. And I don’t know what a better term for it would be. I do kind of take acceptance [exception] you know to everybody being thrown into the same pot because obviously the same amount of discipline and knowledge is not common throughout the jazz personalities and the jazz styles. So that is pretty much what The Guerilla Jam Band is all about.
Guerillas, which is the proper name, guerillas are rebels, they’re generally thought of as revolutionaries, anti-establishment, bush fighters as it were. That was the genesis of the name because I have felt for many years that we are people at risk. I’m talking specifically about the African American now, I am not concerned about the rest of it. I am concerned specifically about the African American. Unfortunately, I feel that we’re and have felt for some time that we are a people at risk. That premise gave birth to the idea of calling the band The Guerilla Jam Band. Sort of a platoon of protectorates of the culture from a musical standpoint. Hopefully nothing we would attempt to play to be meaningless. ‘Just another blues,’ or ‘just another another rhythm.’ But would be entitled and hopefully performed in such as way to create certain images, remind or advance a thought relative specifically to our culture. In the way of entertainment you know if it’s entertaining, if it’s meaningful to someone, beyond that, that’s fine.
The tuba has been mainstay of the band for some time now, at least three years, maybe a little longer. My Son has been playing oboe with us — that’s not necessarily standard instrumentation in itself. But beyond that, I’d like to place percussion ultimately in the upfront positioning in the orchestra — in keeping with some of the older traditions of the music.
We have a resident, we are fortunate to have a Senegalese kora artist resident in the metropolitan area now. Hopefully, we will be able to get him to do some things with The Guerillas. Just employ, start employing some instrumentation that is more authentic relative to the compositions and proper timbre for the compositions that are being conjured up.
I just kinda shudder at the all too common lack of aesthetic consciousness amongst a number of players today. It’s not just the young players either, unfortunately, you know some of my peers are kind of dead heads when it comes to their aesthetic, their musical vision. This is not a profession as it were, where you learn one formula, you learn one particular pedagogy, and then that’s it. You should be constantly growing. Even our elder statesman, every time I listen to them, you know, their style is very distinctive you know, it’s almost emblazoned in stone. Yet everytime I hear them I hear something new. I hear them reaching for something. I’ve never heard Charles V. Moore or Percy Gabriel when they didn’t do something a little bit different you know. Which is, I think, that’s really the soul of you know a real artist, that’s the real mark of an artist. Certainly, John Coltrane was, you know, when he passed away he was still reaching for and you could obviously you could hear it in his playing, he was reaching for other things.
Phil Lasley and I were just talking about it yesterday, again for about the ninety-ninth thousandth time [laughs], because we were blessed. That had to be one of the most, if not the most, fertile period in the Detroit area for growing up — for the music. To be growing up in the midst of that at the time was just — I have related this story in part and told many, many, times and it seems unbelievable to many people, particularly those younger than I, or who might have come up in a different city. But there was music everywhere! There was music to be found everywhere. Every neighborhood had at least one bar — okay, for starters. One bar that had live music in it. It may have been a blues band, it may have been a rhythm and blues band, whatever. It may have been a hackneyed, what you might say, a cabaret style jazz band or whatever. But there was music everywhere! As a youngster, fortunately, I could go into most of those bars. This was all over town. This was all over town, West Side, North Side, you just weren’t hurting for music anywhere. Further, as a youngster, fortunately at the time, all of my peers were into good music, you know. Whether it be rhythm ‘n’ blues or pop like Johnny Mathis and stuff like that, Nat Cole — it was all good music. So subsequently that manifested itself in their musical choices when it came to them with their various different social clubs and little fraternities and what not. When they gave affairs, they would always have live music, and they’d always have the younger jazz musicians as it were play for these dances. So there was a considerable amount of music to listen to and there was a considerable amount of opportunity to play. Further, we had master artists in residence who were the greatest of mentors, in that they threw their homes open, and it was like a daily thing. Not the least of which was Barry Harris. I don’t know how his Wife ever took it because, I can’t recall them ever having a private moment [laughs] because it was always Charles McPherson and Lonnie Hillyer and tons of people, mostly young dudes, streaming in and out of his house. Likewise, Joe Brazil had a home out in Conant Gardens. Every weekend for sure there were session parties out at Joe Brazil’s house. Joe Brazil’s house, in case it’s not on record any place else, Joe Brazil’s house was where John Coltrane would stay when he was in town. That’s where he met his wife, Alice Mcleod Coltrane. The comradery that existed between all ages and all musicians of all disciplines was quite incredible and so all of that in conjunction, that environment — I gotta mention the social environment because that was something else that was very, by contrast, very much different from what we experience today.
The average listener then, you know, they would come out in couples or you know might be a group of ladies that would come out staying as it were you know or might be just the guys hanging out. It always was a mix of that. They would come out and they would genuinely come out not just for the music but for the social experience. A casual look in on the average bar one would, I guess, wonder were actually there for the music, because they had such a good time. It was quite warm, it was like everyone commented about how warm this year’s Montreux Festival went but it was like that in every bar you know all the time.
Yet, all of these folks, to a man, to a woman, were very discerning listeners. They could tell you when you blew a couple notes in the third bar of the second chorus of a blues. That’s what existed then and that certainly was also a great help in developing you know as a young musician because that was as much, as to say not only did you have a place to hear all these wonderful musicians, like The West End Hotel, the scene of my not-so-misspent youth [laughs] and the Blue Bird Inn and Klein’s [Show Bar] and occasionally The Rouge Lounge, The Madison, and Graystone Ballrooms of course. You had all this going, these places to hear people and you also had these neighborhood bars, cabaret parties, and little fraternity dances and what not, where you could learn to play so to speak. And the jam sessions and so forth, so not only did you have all of that, but you also had a social climate which was generally encouraging of the young musician.
Oddly enough — I don’t know if I should even put it that way. No I will put it that way and then I’ll explain the answer. Oddly enough, my first major influence was Horace Silver. I liked Horace because of Horace’s sense of accompaniment, his sense of orchestration. Having been a formally-trained pianist, I recognized the difference between his facility and say that of a Bud Powell and so worth. But yet initially Horace Silver was my absolute favorite pianist. But very quickly of course Barry Harris and Tommy Flanagan became my favorite living, accessible, pianists. I naturally stood in awe of Bud Powell. Art Tatum I just said well hey [laughs]. See because right up until the time I was about fourteen, thirteen or so, you know, I had wanted to play the trumpet — I was playing the trumpet you know and I was a good concert trumpet player. But after I heard Dizzy Gillespie, more specifically after I heard Clifford Brown, well you know I’ll never be able to do that. So I decided to concentrate on piano after that. But you know, I’ve always liked the horns and maybe that again speaks to my predilection for accompaniment as opposed to solo work.
But the earliest idol was Horace and then I liked Hampton Hawes quite a bit. I liked a lot of different pianists for different things. I liked Herbie [Hancock]. Herbie added to the piano entirely different language harmonically and, not that this wasn’t already being done, it was already being done by Bill Evans. But Bill Evans’ sense of swing certainly wasn’t what Herbie’s was. There in was the difference ‘cause it still remains true “It doesn’t mean a thing if i ain’t got that swing.” Everything’s got a pocket to it.
Since this is a historical document, I might as well go on the record about my favorite pianists. I spent a lot of time with Barry Harris. Oddly enough, I didn’t spend that time until I moved to New York in ‘60. I learned an incredible amount and am still learning from Barry. But be that as it may, I’d have to say if you wanted to pin me down to who is my all time favorite pianist, I would have to say it is Tommy Flanagan. I have really stood in awe of Tommy for — I can’t tell you how long. There’s something especially elegant about the way he approaches the piano and that appeals to me. I’ve always said, when I grow up, I want to sound just like him! [laughs] And I still say when I grow up I want to sound just like him!
I was called by Charles Bowles to make an audition with Etta Jones. She was working on the road at the time because she lived in New York. She needed a new pianist to go on the road with her. So I made that audition and was hired. So it was at that point, a young guy just barely twenty years of age, I left and subsequently, I didn’t go to New York immediately. We left here and went on a tour that took me out to, I think in fact we went to California first, and we went all down Cleveland, then down south, then we went out to California, which was always like a three, fourth month, stay whenever we got out there. But then ultimately you know when we finished that tour, I settled in New York. It was a heck of time, it was a great time to be in New York. I’ve had the best of all worlds I think in terms of this music because Birdland was still happening, the Five Spot was still happening. The Half Note — there were a zillion clubs and there was still clubs uptown like the Shalimar, The Prelude and Count Basie’s. Which I think there still paying a kind of money they were paying back then. [laughs] But there was quite a bit happening in New York. Just a collection of Young Turks. Herbie had just arrived not too many months before I got there. He came through with a band that Donald Byrd was heading up. Let me see… McCoy [Tyner], he had left The Jazztet to start working with this tenor player who still considered rather strange in his approach named John Coltrane. [laughs] It was just a great time to be in New York it couldn’t of been a better time for me to go certainly.
But as far as the reason for everybody seemingly leaving at that time. There were great numbers of people that left but everybody didn’t leave. Teddy Harris stayed here, Harold McKinney stayed here, Marcus [Belgrave] was on the road but he ultimately based himself here. There were still a lot guys here but it’s generally thought you know that it was great exodus and a preponderance of young musicians did go to New York at the time. I think basically that was a reason for it not because things had gotten so bad here, although there was a certain decline, but it just represented more opportunities for them to further their career objectives.
I got to say I enjoyed accompanying Etta that was a pleasure. Mainly because she gave me so much room. She gave me room to grow and explore ‘cause she was a stylist see, or is a stylist, and so you know her charts weren’t always that tight. She in fact, when were doing a record, she sometimes complain to producer about you know, “You got this thing too tight! I want to hear this swinging!” You gotta put her in the pocket otherwise she didn’t feel right about it.
I always enjoyed accompanying her but I think other than her, the vocalists that I’d admired the most and sorry I didn’t have a longer period to work with him was Joe Williams. Joe was just… words can’t describe. He is, first of all, one terrific gentleman. He’s not generally thought of that way [laughs] but he is a heck of a gentleman and a very masterful artist. So, that was a particular pleasure. On the occasions that I’d work with Roy Haynes, gee, I might as well have been in the audience. Roy Haynes played such incredibly, incredibly, lyrical drums, that sometimes I could hardly play from listening to what he was doing! [laughs] Just fantastic. So I enjoyed that, I enjoyed every one of those experiences. I can’t think of one negative experience in that regard.
I even enjoyed working with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, which I did several times. It was always a bit of a war. Another memorable gig was right here, at the old Drome Lounge with Wes Montgomery. So music has been very good to me in that regard because you know I’ve been blessed with all of those experiences as a youngster coming up. And, again, my biggest concern now is somehow or another preserving the essence of all of that and hopefully being able to impart some of that to some of the folks that are coming up now.
I didn’t spend enough time in New York. I was out working on the road with a vocalist as her music director-accompanist. You gotta understand that we did not have a full group for one thing. I was it and then we would have to pick up most the rhythm section in most of the places that we went to. That was not particularly musically challenging. That is to say, I was not sustaining, I didn’t feel like I was sustaining, any kind of growth, except for those occasions when we would go to Philly and we would have Sam Dock — I mean [Jimmy] “Spanky” DeBrest or somebody like that, or we would go out to California where we had George Duvivier and Donald Dean as our steadies for a three or four month period. All the rest of it was like pick up groups and sometimes those pick up groups were really, really, very sad. It was all we could do to get them through the show. So, on a personal basis, what I was experiencing was — I felt I was falling way behind in my musical direction and maybe even promise. There was a certain — there was a certain lack of confidence set in. So, I ultimately came home because of that.
Well, when I got here I found a scene that was in big trouble. There was little music going on. Autumn’s Cave [?] was still happening and few places like that. But certainly, it was nothing like it had been five to six years prior to that and there weren’t any touring artists being brought into town during that late ‘60’s period. There was a real dearth of musical activity. But I dealt with whatever there was to be dealt with. I got my first day job and tried to apply the craft in the evenings.
I think it was in ‘67. It was in ‘67 that Stanley Cowell had been working with Ron Brooks in Ann Arbor at the Town Bar and he left to go on the road with Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Ron Brooks called me up there to fill in for Stan. We were playing at the old Town Bar and these two guys Charles Moore — that’s Charles Eugene Moore [laughs] and Leon Henderson, Joe’s Brother, started coming up to the Town Bar to sit in. We developed such an affinity that we started transcribing tunes and rehearsing. We really enjoyed playing together so much that we were actually breaking the curfew during the riots to go back and forth to Ann Arbor to play at the Town Bar. We were running the risk of getting shot or incarcerated just so we could play together. Out of that grouping of course was formed the Contemporary Jazz Quintet. Which I still must say at this point, on balance, has been my ultimate musical experience. That was an incredible, something incredible happened with that band, that never has happened with me in any other musical circumstance.
As a working musician, I work more as side man. In this idiom, I work more as a side man, in concerts and occasional club dates and so forth. Oddly enough, I’ve probably worked more as a band leader doing private parties. They pay well! [laughs] You get a chance to play some matured music. And so as a very practical manner that’s what I’ve been doing musically. So, to keep the hand in and half way keep the chops up and make a ‘dignified dollar’ — as I think all musicians are entitled to a dignified dollar but it’s kinda hard to come by these days.
Transcription by Christopher Simpson, Fall 2019