Detroit native Kenny Cox (who preferred Kenn to Kenny) was born on November 8, 1940. He began playing music on trumpet, and studied at the Detroit Conservatory of Music from 1949-1958, but had given up the horn for the piano as a freshman at Cass Tech High School in 1956, where he started with the piano. Upon graduation from Cass Tech in 1958, he attended the Detroit Conservatory of Music from 1949-1958 and the Detroit Institute of Music Arts from 1959-1961. Cox then left for New York City, where he connected with Etta Jones and was her accompanist and music director until 1966, also working on occasion with Helen Humes and Ernestine Anderson. He returned to Detroit and joined a legendary hard bop quintet led by trombonist George Bohannon. Emerging as a modern jazz composer inspired by the music of the '60s and the political and cultural landscape of Detroit, Cox also produced a weekly radio program, Kaleidophone, on WDET, and was the station's director of community access programming.
In 1967 he had written enough material to record two albums for the Blue Note label, and formed the Contemporary Jazz Quintet with Ron Brooks, Charles Moore, Leon Henderson, and Danny Spencer. It was a breakthrough ensemble in modern jazz, in many ways paralleling the work of Miles Davis. In addition, the trip to New York allowed him opportunities to perform with the likes of Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Eddie Harris, Jackie McLean, Roy Haynes, Ben Webster, Wes Montgomery, Kenny Dorham, Joe Williams, Philly Joe Jones, and fellow Detroiters Kenny Burrell, Donald Byrd, Roy Brooks, Charles McPherson, and Curtis Fuller. CJQ changed with the times in the electronic-infused '70s, adding second drummer Bud Spangler, guitarist Ron English, keyboardist Phil Mendelson, and others in what was dubbed an "infinite Q." Cox and a group of self-determining musicians formed the Strata co-operative, produced a line of albums, publications, and performance opportunities from 1970-1977. Cox remained active, but remained nationally obscure in the '80s; he played in the metropolitan Detroit area, and appeared with his Guerilla Jam Band, at times featuring Regina Carter, James Carter, Marion Hayden, Rodney Whitaker, Ange Smith, Shahida Nurullah, Fred Johnson, Tani Tabbal, Jaribu Shahid, Craig Taborn, Alex Harding, Cassius Richmond, Francisco Mora, Ralph Jones, Phil Lasley, Vincent Bowens, and Donald Walden, performing at several Montreux-Detroit Jazz Festivals. He also had select compositions covered by the Jazz Crusaders, Rodney Whitaker, Eldee Young, Marshall Vente, and Norman Connors, among others.
He formed the Societie of the Culturally Concerned, became an adjunct professor at Wayne State and Michigan State Universities, lived in Las Vegas teaching for a brief stint, and was an instructor for the Cal State Summer Arts program. In Detroit he led a trio featuring Bert Myrick and Marion Hayden and the percussion-oriented larger ensemble Drum with Djallo Djakate Keita, Mahindi Masai, Igbo, and Greg Cook. In addition, he published a book of compositions, And Then I Wrote...The Music World of Kenn Cox, composed a jazz mass, and collaborated with the band Eternal Wind, featuring former CJQ member Charles Moore and percussionist Adam Rudolph, who had worked with Yusef Lateef. Blue Note reissued the recordings Introducing Kenny Cox and Multidirection on CD in 2007. In the spring of 2008, Cox was given a lifetime achievement award by the Southeastern Michigan Jazz Association. He died of lung cancer at his home in Detroit on December 19, 2008 at the age of 68. ~ Michael G. Nastos, Rovi