Interview with Anthony Cox

(This interview was done in January 2022 at Anthony Cox’s house.)


Anthony Cox: I was born in Ardmore, Oklahoma in 1954. My father was finishing his graduate degree at the University of Minnesota. He was given a job offer at Anoka State Hospital for the mentally ill. He took the job and drove back to Muskogee where my mother and I lived with my father’s parents. All I remember was leaving early in the morning headed to Minnesota. I was four years old going on five, and to this day I remember having these mixed feelings about leaving Oklahoma.

My father was an avid jazz fan, his tastes were all over the map. He was a DJ at the Airforce base in Fort Lawton Oklahoma near Ardmore. He spun records and my mother did secretarial work at the base. Being a DJ gave my father an outlet to showcase all the jazz and blues records he owned. Music was always playing in our house, all types of music. I remember African drum music, Josh White folk albums and Bo Diddley rock albums. As a 4-year-old those records were just sound that washed over me. I had no judgement of it, it was just sound.  Dad had old 45s and 78s, then later, LPs ranging from Dizzy Gillespie, B.B. King, to Ruth Brown. I also remember distinctly looking at the cover of Charles Mingus’s The Clown and Dave Brubeck Goes to College. Growing up with music in the house playing all the time absolutely influenced me. 

Ethan Iverson: How’d you get to playing the bass?

AC: My dad wanted to be a musician and specifically a guitarist. I remember an old picture of him that looked like a publicity shot from the 1950s.  He was holding a guitar, a Kay Arch top. The picture looked like  a T-Bone Walker publicity poster. I was three or four years old at the time, and I was awash in sounds and images of record covers. I remember I saw a Bill Doggett album that creeped me out. The cover of the album was that ’50s monochrome blue with circles representing sound transmission emanating from Bill Doggett’s body. 

I ended up taking guitar lessons at a music store around the age of ten, or eleven. My first music teacher   dressed in skinny ties and tight pants. He looked like he was in the Dave Clark Five. He didn’t really teach me anything. I mean he would take my guitar tune it play some riffs I would play my lesson and by then the lesson was over. The only thing he ever said to me was I was going to be the next Chuck Berry. I kind’ve liked that but I really lost interest. Two years later I took lessons from a wonderful woman named Mrs. Schmidt. Mrs. Schmidt taught me how to read music, understand chord shapes and so on. I was at that time using my father’s Martin classical guitar. Mrs. Schmidt had all the students play a recital in her living room. We got to decide what we wanted to play. My choice was “Yesterday” by the Beatles. Because of all the music in our house floating around influencing me, I decided to play it Wes Montgomery style. I crossed my legs and I started playing octaves on the melody and started to solo a bit on the tune. It blew everybody’s mind in the recital. She made me play it again just to see if she wasn’t hallucinating.

I grew up through that whole development of popular music during the ’60s. I remember when I was eight years old and saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, I loved it. I went crazy watching it and hearing it. The next day in school all of us went crazy holding air guitars and trying to mimic our favorite member of the band. The teacher couldn’t control us and started yelling, “That’s enough Beatles!” 

That Sunday night on Ed Sullivan transformed me, because suddenly I could relate to the music. Before that time like I said before, music was sound washing over me and I thought of it as adult music. Watching the Beatles perform that night planted the seeds for me to be a musician. I had the same experience when I heard all the Motown recordings and James Brown. There was a station KUXL in Minneapolis hosted by “Dapper” Dan Poshay. Dapper Dan played all the soul hits of the time, and I just devoured the music. One day I heard “Reflections” by the Supremes on the radio. I was mesmerized by the sound of the music and especially the bass. That was the very first time I felt that connection with the instrument. I think that song put me on the trajectory towards playing the bass.

I think the second impact on me being drawn to the bass was when my guitar teacher saw me staring at this hand-painted gray electric bass, with pearl tuning keys like a classical guitar. My teacher (Mrs. Schmidt of course), asked me if I wanted to take it home and play with it for a while. 

I took it home and plugged it into a little Sears Silvertone amp started playing along with the radio. The Grateful Dead song, “Truckin” was on and I began to play along right away. It made me feel, I don’t know, free. The bass fit my personality. I was very shy by nature, and I liked the notion of not having to be the center of attention. 

Strange story: Decades later I was studying with Dave Holland. I looked in the corner of the room and I saw that Dave had that same hand-painted gray electric bass with pearl tuning keys. He smiled at me, and I smiled back. We didn’t acknowledge the bass at all I just kept staring at it convinced it was the one I played on when I was 15 years old. 

I gave up playing the guitar and about the time I graduated from high school. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do.  I for some reason was drawn to the upright. It looked elegant and cool. So, I spent my summer thinking about it while being fried to death in the sun flagging cars and filling potholes for the county highway department. It was summer where I saw all these great bass players.  I saw Return to Forever with Stanley Clark, I saw Weather Report with Miroslav Vitous, and I saw McCoy Tyner with Juney Booth — but I got very serious about the upright when I saw Charles Mingus’s group with George Adams, Don Pullen, and Doug Hammond. 

After I saw the Mingus concert at the Guthrie theatre, I was converted. I remember sitting right behind Don Pullen and just being impressed seeing all this music. Plus, the band looked cool. When the musicians walked out they literally had three music stands for each member. The charts unfolded for like four or five pages. When they started and it was like BOOM!  It was so intense and focused. The music was structured yet free. Mingus was the anchor you could feel it. I was blown away by the first note the band played. It just hit me like that: I said, That’s it!  Mingus did a duo with Hammond, a solo at first, but then they exchanged eights and fours. And I just said to myself man, this is the shit. Fuck everything else, this is the kind of music and instrument I want to play.

I decided to get serious about the bass and I started to study the bass formally. By the time I went to college James Clute of the Minnesota Orchestra was I would say my primary teacher on bass. James Clute truly started me on the bass journey in terms of technique and bowing. I wasn’t taking any jazz bass lessons. The Jazz program was the model of the lab band playing and reading charts. That’s it no real improvising or study of improvising. There were no classes in jazz harmony or jazz bass, or jazz history or jazz anything at Eau Claire. That was what jazz education was in the 1970s. There were only a few schools that had an extensive jazz curriculum that I knew of such as Berklee, North Texas, and U Madison. It’s funny because people said, “why didn’t you go to Madison?” because Richard Davis taught there. I thought about transferring to Madison. It’s just that I felt I had a great relationship with my teacher. The other factor was I received a partial scholarship to go to Eau Claire so in ways I felt obligated.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved Richard Davis’s playing. Richard Davis was a role model for me. When reading Downbeat in the library, I’d see a picture of Richard Davis and I saw that he was playing in NBC orchestra in the 60’s. I loved Richard on Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch, and Pat Martino’s The Visit. I said, yeah, I want to be like him.  In fact, I even started dressing like Richard Davis, with big, mirrored aviators and denim jackets.

So that’s when I really started to get my stuff together at college. I was in the lab band, the chamber orchestra, the symphony orchestra.  play big band charts, and with the orchestra, and then totally free improvisation with other like-minded students meaning one or two.

Later, I got into Dave Holland, because Dave seemed so versatile and fluid. I loved Circle Paris Concert, and Conference of the Birds. But then also Scott LaFaro, the way he played with Bill Evans and Ornette, that counterpoint and sometimes wicked technique. I loved Jimmy Garrison also, especially on the album Impressions. And finally, Ron Carter his tone and rhythmic concept especially with the Miles Quintet. Oh, and one more, Gary Peacock, especially with Paul Bley.

EI:  Your first record is with a legendary underground improviser, Milo Fine.

AC:  Yeah, Milo was primarily a drummer when I first met him. But he was developing as a serious pianist, organ player and clarinetist He’s the son of the late Elliot Fine, who was a percussionist in the Minnesota Orchestra and co-author of the book 4-way Coordination with Marv Dahlgren (also a percussionist in the Minnesota Orchestra). 

The first time I heard Milo, he was in a band called Blue Freedom. The band reminded me a little of Miles Davis Live at the Fillmore. And then later when I met him, Milo was in more of an acoustic setting. I think I just introduced myself, and we became friends and we started to play together. Milo had an extensive library of music. It was a library of American and European artists. I would come to his apartment, and we would listen while I was asking all the time who’s this, who’s this? Han Bennik, Peter Brotzman, Dereck Bailey as well as Albert Ayler, Sonny Simmons, Patty White, etc. 

We listened to everything, and we began performing and rehearsing along with this great guitarist Mark Maistrovich.  I wish I could find some of those tapes. This was a very important phase for me. I was developing my ears.

A few players were creative types. Along with Milo in those early years I played a bit with pianist Carei Thomas, who was connected to the AACM in Chicago, and Sam Favors, the clarinetist who was also Malachi Favors’s brother. 

But it just seemed that the scene seemed to close in on me. I wanted to get to New York. In the spring of 1980, I spent a week there staying with my second cousin. He had an apt. on 7th and Christopher. 

I moved to New York in the spring of ’81 and had the good fortune to stay with my cousin again at his apartment. After a couple of months, I moved out and was introduced to sublet hell for two or three years. At that time being New York was an adventure. Still, I told myself, if it felt like it was a dead end I’m out. I knew people that moved to New York and before they knew it, they were stuck.

I just became a sponge soaking up music. My favorite place to go was Bradley’s to hear all the great pianists and bassists. Plus, my broke ass could afford it. I would nurse a couple of beers and take in the music. It was like going to school for me. I would listen to everything bassists played and observe everything the piano and bass were playing.  I listened to Buster Williams, Ron Carter, George Mraz, Rufus Reid and Ray Drummond. On piano you would hear Tommy Flannigan Cedar Walton, Hank Jones, Kirk Lightsey, Fred Hersch etc. 

EI: So, who’d you first start gigging with?

AC:  Sadik Hakim. We played a little dinner place. That was my first gig.

EI: That’s unbelievable! Sadik Hakim. That’s the real deal! Charlie Parker’s piano player. You move to New York to play with Bird’s piano player in a dive somewhere. That’s awesome.

AC: That’s the truth. That’s my first gig. He saw me at a jam session. And he said, “Hey, you know I got a gig for you.” So, it was down in the Meatpacking District, you know. Little place, little dive. Free dinner, you know what I mean? I mean, I knew who he was. We played together a few times at that little place.

EI:  He was playing the right voicings. That’s for sure.

AC:  I started to meet people, peers and elders both. Drummers were always my best friend. I played a gig with Victor Lewis, he kind of co-signed me, he called Billy Hart on break and then told me who he was talking to. Then he said to me, “I told Billy and told him you were a bad motherfucker” That’s what Victor told me, anyway. It just grew slowly like that, mainly word of mouth and jam sessions. It’s true that you never know who’s in the audience, because one time Ray Drummond told me that he had been watching me, checking me out for a while and spreading the word about me.

EI: How’d you start studying with Dave Holland?

AC: First I asked George Mraz.  I kept bugging him at Knickerbockers and Bradley’s He realized I was serious but said that he wasn’t into teaching and gave me Ron Carter’s number. I love Ron, but I kept putting off calling him because I was afraid, basically. Someone else said they took a lesson with Dave Holland and said it was great and he learned a lot. Dave was one of my heroes, I loved him with Sam Rivers and Circle, Miles, basically everything he was on. I called Dave up and he said, come up to Saugerties NY. I took the train up and his wife Claire was there to pick me up. Both Dave and Claire were so nice to me. His music room had big picture of that band with Miles, Wayne, Chick, and Jack DeJohnette playing in Berlin. Dave was very relaxed and smoked a pipe while I played for a while. He said that I had a good technique and nice string connection. After that he asked what I wanted to know.

Now was my chance to ask him in person: “How do you cross strings with so much ease? I you have this fluidity in your phrasing. I can hear it in in your fingers, it’s almost guitar-like.” 

He lit up and said, “Oh yeah!” And he showed me exactly what it was, mainly working out of a book that was really for bow crossing by Fred Zimmermann, A Contemporary Concept of Bowing Technique for the Double Bass. These patterns, if you did them pizzicato, were almost like learning rudiments on a drum. Dave used those Zimmermann exercises to get this independence with two fingers.

I took a few lessons, and I was really into it and, and it was very relaxed and open, I would just be up there for hours. He gave me so much information in this short period of time. Eventually through time we became friends, and I would hang out and play with him at his house. Once we both were playing at the Paris Jazz festival, and we went to my room and played duets. Later Dave, Steve Coleman and I went out to eat Indian food. 

This was the early ‘80s. It was so dense then! I was working on what Dave showed me and everything else and developing my own style, really. And during all this time, I was broadening my network.

EI: There was a collective with Ronnie Burrage and John Purcell?

AC: Third Kind of Blue. Ronnie heard me playing with John Faddis, and I had heard Ronnie playing with his own band, The Burrage Ensemble, which at the time had Avery Sharpe, Wynton and Branford, and Kenny Kirkland. The band played at Seventh Avenue South; a club owned by the Brecker Brothers for a while. I loved the band and Ronnie conception of time was the way I like to play.

I met Purcell in one of the rehearsal bands, maybe it was Charlie Persip’s big band. A lot of musicians would come through and sub. That’s how I met Jack Walrath and that’s how I met Craig Harris. Because of my interest in so many kinds of music, I started to just float around in different circles.

EI: It seems to me that Third Kind of Blue was trying to play all kinds of styles.

AC:  Yeah, exactly. John played oboe, alto, tenor, and English horn, and Ronnie played drums, a little bit of percussion, keyboard and vocals. There were a lot of sonic possibilities. The band was open to anything, and because of the vast array of instruments, we produced a lot of sound for three people. 

Ronnie and John were always trying to get me to play electric bass. Now I wish I would have then — I play now — but that was a period where I was working so hard to get the upright together, I didn’t want to touch any other instrument. Sometimes I think of what we could have done if we stayed together. I left the band because I felt at that time John and Ronnie wanted to go a more electric route. 

EI:  The Third Kind of Blue album was on Minor Music, which also recorded Geri Allen’s album The Printmakers with yourself and Andrew Cyrille. 

AC: We were James Newton’s rhythm section and stayed on to record in Europe after a tour. 

James Newton quartet on tour in Europe: Andrew Cyrille, Anthony Cox, James Newton, Geri Allen (photographer unknown)

Geri Allen called me up one day. She came over with an armful of music and after that we met often working on the music just the two of us. It was challenging technically and conceptually.  I understood what she was going for, what she was hearing. I even watched her foot sometimes to see how she interpreted time.  Geri’s music was very hybrid to me. I loved working on it, and she influenced me a great deal. I think it was interesting that she told me something after a couple rehearsals. Geri said she was about to give up on using acoustic bass and Geri said she was about to ask Anthony Jackson to do it. That even gave insight on what her sound ideal was for the bass. Geri said to me after a few rehearsals “Finally I found a bass player to play my music.” And so, we started to just rehearse together, and Andrew rounded it off beautifully. He’s such a beautiful player.

EI: The Printmakers is incredibly strong, a truly classic record in my opinion, but I also saw a trio gig at the Walker Art Center here in Minneapolis with Geri, you, and Pheeroan akLaff that was just as great. I think 1990. 

AC:  You were there? That was a great night. Pheeroan was another nice phase of that trio. He added so much he made things sound circular.  

Geri’s writing grew exponentially, and that trio with Pheeroan had a unique sound. We started practicing at her place and we were acting as if we were in a lab.

Some of where Geri was coming from was Herbie Nichols, those kinds of chord progressions. But Pheeroan wasn’t a player that was straight ahead, locked in just ting-ting-a-ling. I sat in the middle and figured it out. I like to help make a concept jell. McCoy Tyner came and saw that trio; he shook my hand after and said we were on to something.

EI:  Was Geri easy to work with? 

AC:  Oh, yeah. We became close friends. We always were ever since we were with James Newton. Pheeroan told me something nice not too long ago: “Geri really loved you, because you just played. You didn’t come in with a preconceived notion.”

I said, “Well, that’s what I always was working on. That’s the kind of musician I wanted to be.”

EI: The concert at the Walker made a big impression on me. For a long time, I thought it was the greatest concert I’d ever been to.  But, also, the three of you did a Q&A beforehand that I still remember. Among other things, somebody asked about “M-base” and you said, “I am not part of M-base” in a direct way.

AC: I remember talking but I didn’t know it was so direct. I was never a member of M-Base, but I knew and played with a lot of people that were in it. But I was playing with many people in M-base: Smitty Smith, Steve Coleman, Greg Osby. Geri Allen was in in fact that trio music I played with her was full of M-base or Steve Coleman style rhythmic concepts, especially mirroring. It would be like 6-5, 5-6, 6-5, 5-6. Odd meters — but the phrases didn’t sound like odd meters, since they went backwards and forward and the way we played with the phrases made it even more liquid.

M-base started as a black musician’s referral service in Brooklyn called M.R.A.: Moving Right Along. This was supposed to be a network where we could play to our strengths and help each other out. Some people were arrangers, some people were multi- instrumentalist’s. I went to a few meetings because I thought it was a great idea. And then there was one meeting I missed, and it was a guy that came there to demonstrate Dr. T’s sequencers on the Commodore 64.  I missed that meeting. But Smitty later told me that when that guy came, it just blew up. M.R.A. turned into a computer group, where everybody was working with the technology of the day the Commodore and Dr. T’s sequencers.

EI: Not exactly a powerful computer by today’s standards.

AC:  Even I got one, you know, and was fooling around with the Dr. T sequencer. 

Steve Coleman and Greg Osby came out of that and started M-Base. M-base grew up and blew up. It got so big that in 1987 the Village Voice had this major article in their Jazz Supplement called “Brooklyn’s Finest.” It was the first time the movement was officially noticed in print. 

EI: There’s that nice Michele Rosewoman album with both Steve and Greg and Terri Lynne Carrington. Lotta good youthful energy there.

AC: Quintessence. In fact, Gary Thomas told me he heard me on that very Michele Rosewoman album, Quintessence, and said to himself, “I want to play with this bassist.”  So, I got a call for a record date, Gary’s first album, Seventh Quadrant. We did several records after that and many tours. The last time I toured with Gary was trio with Gene Jackson in Europe and that was great. 

There’s one Gary Thomas tune with Mulgrew Miller that has a great piano solo that featured him. Mulgrew really stretches over wild accompaniment from Dennis Chambers and me. I was blown away by Mulgrew’s playing and especially that piece. I had known Mulgrew for a while and he was just a beautiful person. 

EI:  Gary Thomas is such a great player and composer. I wish he was a little more visible today.

AC: Gary is great, and we talk frequently. Gary’s doing fine playing and teaching and concentrating heavy on the flute.

EI: You’re saying that the M-Base Village Voice Jazz Supplement blew up, but the Wynton Marsalis/Young Lions story was also a big part of the critical discourse. 

AC:  Of course! That was right when I moved to New York, and It seemed in my opinion to take everybody by storm. There was a feeling by so many that Wynton would save jazz and put it in the forefront again. My opinion was that the experimentation in the 70s by such people as Sam Rivers, Henry Threadgill, Air as well as Anthony Braxton, Douglas Ewart, The Art Ensemble, Muhal Richard Abrams, George Lewis etc., wasn’t giving the recording labels the returns they expected. Plus, Miles Davis was exploring with funk and electronics. Maybe enough was enough so they were looking for something that would truly appeal to a broader base. And fit the times. This was the beginning of the Regan Era deregulation, trickle- down theory, and baby boomers no longer wanting to be hippies. Now they were aspiring to a wealthy and lavish lifestyle.  Soo I think the labels looked to create a new product to accommodate their lifestyle.

But someone like Sam Rivers was less visible after the young lions got to town. People like Henry Threadgill, Arthur Blythe and James Newton were in the forefront of the discourse, and then they got pushed to the side when the young lions took over the media. A lot of the loft scene died out, and literally everybody started wearing suits. 

“Tradition” became a buzzword, and the other buzzword was “Avant-gutbucket.” It was just like when they invented the word “jazz.”

People were starting to conform to these musical ideologies. Interactive open playing was almost starting to be taboo.

EI:  You are talking about the divergences, and some of the problems, but it was also all happening on a well-lit stage — or, at least, I could get all these records in high school: The Threadgill records, the Wynton records, the Steve Coleman records, Michele Rosewoman’s Quintessence.  And you were in the mix of this moment — which in retrospect, I think was a very cool moment.

AC:  Some of it was thanks to like the European labels like Enja, Minor Music, and JMT. And, of course, ECM. People were getting exposed. And finally, there was a critical mass by the late ’80s where now these musicians were performing in the clubs. I remember when Bill Frisell first played the Village Vanguard — which by the way, I believe my wife Barbara had a lot to do with when she spread the word on radio. It reinforced my belief of the power of radio. When quality music is given exposure, people will listen and be informed and support the music. Barb has a lot of experience on radio. She worked at KJAZ in San Fransico which was a jazz station much like WBGO in terms of programming.  I don’t know, but I would hear her blend the classics with the new, and create a logical soundscape for listeners. Preparing them to hearing something new that they haven’t been exposed to. Musicians loved her because Barbara  played their albums! 

As an example, Barb would play Muhal Richard Abrams piece that was percussion and chimes, and then follow it with Duke Ellington’s “House Party.” I thought that was brilliant in terms of programming, and I saw how in three months Barbara helped transform the  music scene over the summer in New York.

EI:  I heard you also played with Stan Getz.

AC: I did for about 3 years. Kenny Barron, Jim McNeely, and my old friend Peter Madsen were on piano, while Victor Lewis, Terri Lynne Carrington, Ben Riley, and Jeff Williams were the drummers. 

Playing with Stan was a very positive experience for me. I felt the music was a fluid, melodic and interactive environment. We were playing a huge spectrum of music where sometimes it opened way up, you know. Like, really opened up. He didn’t care, he jumped right in. 

EI:  Stan could sort of play with anything, right? He actually had that quality. 

AC:  Yes, and I kind’ve knew it from listening to his albums like Captain Marvel and reading journals by Whitney Balliett from his book New York Notes.  I remember Balliett describing Stan playing a fast abstract tune written by the bassist, “Vortex.” The rhythm section was Riche Beirach, Dave Holland and Jeff Williams.

Before I took the gig with Stan, both Billy Hart and Victor Lewis told me, “When you play with Stan, don’t force anything. Offer no resistance.” I understood immediately. I had played with so many vocalists and instrumentalists, so that way it was second nature.

One of the gigs was with Kenny Barron and Ben Riley, and I was kind of nervous to be playing with people on that level. But they were really nice to talk to, and then when we hit, I felt like the bass was playing itself. My hand was being guided by — like Adam Smith — “an invisible hand.” Kenny Barron’s voicings: perfect. Ben Riley’s beat: perfect. Just a big cushion. It just flowed. I never had that feeling before, I always felt in some capacity that I needed to push or fix. 

EI: I was there in person a couple nights the week in 1994 you recorded at the Vanguard with Joe Lovano, Tom Harrell, and Billy Hart. I listened to that again, yesterday, while getting ready for this interview. And it still sounds just great. One of Lovano’s best records and bands, if not his very best as a leader. 

AC:  That was another high point. That is when I felt like I finally was on the top of my game playing the bass, and I felt I could play what I could hear. 

I love playing in a context without the piano. That week at the Vanguard with Lovano, I finally figured that thing of weaving in and out without the help of a guitar or piano.  Some of Tom Harrell’s music has a lot of changes. And then some of Lovano’s tunes were wide open. Some of it was modal.

EI: That’s how Billy Hart plays, too: all the genres at once. Sometimes he’ll play a set where he will reference the whole lineage on every tune, even though all the tunes are in different styles.

AC:  We really hooked up. I love Billy Hart.

EI:  They kind of did you dirty by putting that set in a two-LP package with that other band, the other quartet with Mulgrew Miller, Christian McBride, and Lewis Nash. Those guys are all great — that goes without saying — but the half you are on with Harrell and Hart is something else. 

AC:  Yeah, well, that was because Blue Note wouldn’t let Joe put it out unless he put the other out also. I guess they were thinking the quartet with Tom, Billy, and me was in was too out, and that the more straight-ahead quartet would sell better. I found it funny because I played in the quartet with Mulgrew and Lewis Nash also.

EI:  One of the nice Lovano YouTube videos is right around that era with the rep from the other band, with Harrell, Mulgrew Miller, Tony Reedus, and yourself.

Nothing against the Lovano group with the great Mulgrew Miller, but I do feel that Lovano quartet with Harrell and Cox and Hart was another kind of high point. It would have been nice for that album to have been release just on its own, it could have been assessed in a different way.

I also like Sounds Of Joy, the Lovano trio with Ed Blackwell. Tell me about playing with Blackwell.

AC:  I first played with Blackwell with David Murray’s big band. That was a train wreck. It just didn’t work.

EI:  What didn’t work about it?

AC:  He and I just didn’t hook up at all.

EI:  Huh. Well, I don’t think of Blackwell as being a big band drummer.

AC: Yeah. That’s a point. But then I played with him a year or two later, with Dewey Redman, where Dewey played all Charlie Parker tunes. Dewey was playing so beautiful, so fluid, and with he and Ed together it reminded me of looking into a kaleidoscope.  It was one of those “A-ha” moments. And the music just flowed effortlessly. I thought I was dreaming. As I kept playing with him in different situations, l also kept listening to Edin more recent contexts, like with Carlos Ward, or the Karl Berger trios with Dave Holland. By the time we got to the studio with Lovano, it had gotten to the point where Blackwell would say to me, “How do you know what I’m going to do? How do you do that?” 

I guess it was just from listening to him so much.

Blackwell also told me, “You remind me a lot of Scott LaFaro.” 

I replied, “I’ll take that!” 

I wanted to get Blackwell for my record, but he was sick, so I went to Billy Higgins.

EI: Dark Metals is one of the few occasions that Dewey Redman and Billy Higgins are recorded playing together. How’d you put that in place? 

AC: I thought about it a lot. I remembered those great gigs with Blackwell and Dewey. Then there were those recordings with Billy Higgins on Red Records with Cedar Walton and Bob Berg. Also, I heard Billy Higgins sing and play guitar. That always impressed me, and I wanted some of that on my own record. 

I wrote some material, but Dewey gave me that look like he didn’t feel like reading this stuff, so I just abandoned most of the music on the spot. That’s the way it went down, and I’m glad it did. It was better that way.

EI: How did you choose Mike Cain? 

AC: Because I was playing with him with James Newton. 

I first met James in Craig Harris’s large ensemble. James liked me. He said he was putting something together and that’s how I first played with Billy Hart and with Geri Allen. Then he got Mike Cain. James said, “I think you’ll like this guy,” and I really did. 

Mike Cain and Anthony Cox, at the Dakota, spring 2022

James Newton’s music is both compositional and open. Flat out open, and then intricate compositionally. I love it. 

EI:  James Newton is underrated. 

AC:  Yeah. Very much.

EI:  So, you moved back to Minnesota when?

AC:  In 1991 with my wife Barbara. I moved because I was always touring, and the New York lifestyle was wearing me down. I really could see the future. I knew it was time to get out of there and I wasn’t alone.  Many musicians my age opted out of staying in New York. Musicians were either moving upstate or moving back where they came from. I just wanted a better quality of life at that point. I didn’t want to spend 2 hours trying to get to the bank then stand in line for another 2 hours. The other reason was most of my income was touring out of the country, so I thought that everything was an airport away. When I came back to New York after doing the Geri Allen gig at the Walker Art Center (where you saw me), I said, “It’s nice to be back here.” I saw old friends in the audience, and I just had a good feeling playing that concert. Within 6 months Barbara and I moved.

Nobody even knew I lived here for years, because I was always on the road. 

EI:  You were always on tour.

AC: Up until about 2009, I was just gone all the time. Most of my work was in Europe. I hit the wall trying to do my own thing touring under my own name. It was very difficult to feature a group and the leader was a bass player. I know things are different now maybe, but the mindset from the labels was people need to see a trumpet or a sax and maybe a piano player lead. 

EI:  The person who signed the Bad Plus to Columbia Records told me, “You can’t ever give a date as a leader to a bass player or a drummer.” That is prejudice in the industry. There are a couple exceptions, Charles Mingus, Dave Holland, but…

AC:  I felt it as a bass player, the public perception of a bassist as leader album is perceived as the bassist must be up front playing blinding leads on every tune. I know Dave [ Holland] talked about it that balance when to solo and when not to solo. His inspiration was Mingus. Mingus influenced me that way too.  The secret was Mingus was the conceptualist. Mingus emphasized his compositions and chose when to solo or not or even doing a recording where he talks to a non-existing audience and has fake conversations with musicians in the band. I know when I did “Dark Metals”, I was thinking of it as an ensemble almost chamber like.  No matter how great the bassist is, the ear gets fatigued.  I say all of this as I’m planning to make another solo bass album.

I’m still a believer in groups.  I still believe in this concept of playing like a group. 

EI:  Well, when you say Sam Rivers trio, obviously the very repertoire is decided by the sound of the people who are playing with Sam Rivers.

AC: Exactly.

In about 2009 I was ready to get off the road or split my career into other facets. Not just play bass and tour.  I had taught a bit in different places, the University of Iowa, Augsburg College and McNally Smith College. At present I teach at St. Cloud State University. The experiences left me enjoying teaching especially on a one-on-one basis. I did teach ensembles but primarily one on one private lessons.

By 2017 I decided to work towards a Masters. It was part of my plan to not only teach and play music, but to write and lecture about music. It hit me when I started to research on my thesis. I enjoyed the research and gained insight on so many areas from my studies.  My thesis was about how the black music community was decimated from the period of 1935 to 1965 in the Twin Cities. I think when moving back to Minneapolis I noticed there were only a handful of black artists playing jazz. I was aware of that situation in Minneapolis years ago when I was just starting to play professionally. Back then I simply thought blues and funk was the music of choice. I hope to write a book about that subject as well as the years 1965 to the ’90s when the R&B scene began to develop here in Minneapolis.

I find it so interesting that some serious heavyweights in jazz were raised here and lived and played here. The most notable persons were Lester Young and Oscar Pettiford.

EI: I’m looking forward to it. I’m sure your insights will be applicable to many American cities. 

AC:  There’s no doubt about it. 

After I received My Masters in 2019, I was ready to jump back into playing full time. There were projects I was asked to collaborate on, so I was excited about being re-engaged in performing. I was also ready to go into a new phase of writing, teaching, playing, writing about music, and lecturing. I also wanted to start playing cello again, which I started off and on for a few years. It was time start my own projects with various groups where I could combine the instruments I play in whatever combination I want to (cello, upright bass, and electric bass).

But then 2020 pandemic took over and takes over the planet, and the ripple effect shuts down everything. Musicians were not immune and their livelihoods were taken away. I was lucky, because I was teaching and didn’t have to rely solely on performing and touring. During the shutdown period I remember talking with Craig Harris on the phone and he was telling me he had been talking to Henry Threadgill. Threadgill said something about in this Covid period that musicians need to step back a little and examine the music industry. Meaning things can’t go back to the same system. I agreed with what Threadgill said because I  had the same feelings myself.

For some reason hearing from Craig about what Threadgill said gave me optimism for the future.

I feel re-energized and I’m able to look back at what I’ve done in the past and ready to take on the future.