Saturday, April 9, 2011


The late pianist Kenn Cox
 I found a letter you wrote to me in 2004. Kenn, I forgot I kept the letter. I stuffed it inside my copy of Time magazine with Thelonious Monk on the cover. I wrote in a Metrotimes article trumpeter Marcus Belgrave mentored James Carter. The factoid was wrong, and it upset you. You expressed your outrage. You ended the letter demanding I apologize to Detroit’s jazz community. I made a careless mistake. Your response was over the top. The editor published the letter and a correction.

That was the only time I upset a jazz musician of your standing. We never met face to face. In 2006, we finally met. I interviewed you for a Metrotimes story. You were the smartest jazz musician I ever met.

Lately, Kenn, I’ve been thinking about Detroit jazz musicians who died not long ago. I can’t explain why. I recently dreamt about saxophonist Donald Walden. Last week, something triggered a memory about pianist Harold McKinney. I used to hang out at his weekly jazz workshop at the former SereNgeti Ballroom on Woodward Ave, and I thought about the first time I talked to him. Today, you’re on my mind. Physically, you all have moved on, but you all spirit and music is alive.

Rereading your letter made me look back on the first time we met. We drank Budweiser beer in your den, and you talked about studying under Alice Coltrane, and working with jazz singer Etta Jones. You said the downside to working a long time with singers is your chops get weak. You had to woodshed after you left Jones’ band. You could hardly swing like you used to.In December, I interviewed pianist Johnny O’Neal. He believes backing a singer is a good way for a jazz piano player to stay sharp.

Months before we met, Blue Note records reissued “Introducing Kenny Cox and the Contemporary Jazz Quintet” and “Multidirection” on a single disc. They are my favorite Blue Note recordings. The quintet was tough with you and drummer Danny Spencer holding down the rhythm section, and trumpeter Charles Moore and saxophonist Leon Henderson on the front line. I’m playing the album right now. Moore is soloing on Henderson’s original “Diahnn”.

During the interview, you said he was a better saxophonist than his big brother Joe. I found that hard to believe. Joe Henderson was one of Blue Note’s top artist. He made some terrific albums for the label “Inner Urge,” “Page One,” and Our Thing”.Joe was well known. I wonder if jazz fans outside Detroit are hip to Leon, and if other Detroit jazz musicians felt he was better. I asked several of them. They agreed Leon was stronger.
But neither knew what happened to Leon. I discovered he played with trumpeter Ed Nuccilli’s orchestra after the Contemporary Jazz Quintet split. Nuccilli fired him. The orchestra had a dress code. Leon refused to follow it. Surprisingly, no one seemed to care if Leon was dead or alive.

Kenn, the article I wrote about you “Reintroducing Kenn Cox" turned out better than I hoped. The Association of Alternative Newspaper’s wire service circulated the article. I began listening to your music in earnest. My editor W. Kim Heron loaned me some live recordings of your Gorilla Jam Band, and Kenn Cox and Drum band. I wanted to keep those recordings, but Kim wouldn’t let me. You made some wonderful music,

Kenn, James Carter is my favorite jazz musician. I listen to Carter’s music all the time, particularly “Live at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge”. I was at Baker’s when Atlantic recorded that album. I listened to your solo on Leonard Feather’s ballad “Low Flame” a million times. I always get emotional. My admiration for you grew every time I heard you perform. I was bummed out for a long time after you died.

I missed your funeral. I cannot recall why. Kenn, I will never know why my incorrectly crediting Marcus Belgrave as one of James Carter’s mentors upset you so much, but I’m sorry it did.
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