Tight, tough and taut with tension — the late 1960s energy of the Contemporary Jazz Quintet, led by Detroit pianist Kenn Cox, lit a little-known brushfire in jazz history that is worth rekindling.
“You never got a chance to rest, mentally or spiritually, with that group,” bassist Ron Brooks recalled. “I felt like I was being pulled along by a train with lots of engines in it. It kept me on my toes and it was great.”
Brooks, a mainstay of the Detroit jazz scene for decades, is just the man to strike the match. He is one of two surviving members of the quintet, along with drummer Danny Spencer, who now lives in California.
Brooks assembled his “Trio +2” for the 2016 Detroit Jazz Festival as part of a tribute to Cox, thinking that it would be a one-shot. But the hard-driving, intricate music — all of it original to the group — was a revelation to a new generation of Detroit jazz lovers.
“The music was so challenging, it seemed like every time we played it, it was different,” Brooks said. “It’s like driving a car you know that’s got more in it than the last time you drove it.”
Cox’s group, with Brooks on bass, made two recordings for Blue Note Records in 1968 and 1969 that are worth seeking out. Leading critic Leonard Feather predicted that the group would leave “as firm a mark in jazz territory as did the Miles Davis Quintet a decade ago.” Feather also joked that Brooks, then 33, was the “elder statesman” of the group.
Although Cox was a brilliant pianist and Detroit legend, he never broke through to national recognition before his death in 2008. Brooks is among many who cherish the music the quintet left behind.
“I was overwhelmed at the time, but as I look back, it was a great personal growth experience,” he said. “They cut a new path through a forest of inventive and contemporary music.”
Brooks studied at the University of Michigan and got his first big break as a member of Bob James Trio. In the late 1960s, he toured with Duke Ellington in Europe, and played with Sarah Vaughan, Mel Tormé and Sonny Stitt.
Many Michiganders know Brooks as the owner and guiding spirit of Ann Arbor’s fabled Bird of Paradise jazz club.
In its 18-year run from 1985 to 2004, dozens of jazz icons were heard in an intimate club setting.
“It was one of the great listening rooms, besides the Village Vanguard,” he proudly recalled.
Alert ears, a soft-spoken humility and receptiveness to the moment serve Brooks well in his current day gig, training people in restorative justice mediation.
“It takes a good listener to play good music and it takes a good listener to help with conflict mediation,” he said.
Every day, he runs into people who stop him to reminisce about the Bird of Paradise’s glory days.
“I miss the club,” he admitted. “But I don’t miss the business.”
Ron Brooks Trio + 2 6:45-8:15 Friday, Aug. 4, Lansing Jazz Fest, South Stage