In this 2009 photo, Pete Cosey strums the very same Morris Mando Mania guitar he often played onstage with
Miles Davis in the ’70s. Photo by Audrey Cho

Cosey’s work wasn’t limited to Chess in those days either. He toured with Aretha Franklin, Jerry Butler, and did sessions for Motown as well. “We did a lot of work together when I came to Chicago to the Regal Theater,” says Michael Henderson, who played bass with the Davis lineup in the ’70s. “Pete was in the house band there with [jazz drummer and bandleader] Red Saunders. He was also in the Pharaohs with Louis Satterfield—and that was the precursor of Earth, Wind & Fire.”

But there was a lot more to Cosey than blues and R&B. “I have a great appreciation for Kenny Burrell, Joe Pass, Tal Farlow, Grant Green,” he told Cole. “I loved Wes Montgomery. To listen to my playing, you wouldn’t imagine that I had been through that kind of music, but man, I used to play Wes stuff up and down.” That knowledge came in handy when he joined up with saxophonist Gene Ammons. “He definitely had to play bebop,” says David Liebman—the sax player and flautist with Cosey in Davis’ band—regarding Cosey’s role in the Ammons band. “Pete could do a lot of things. He seemed to be a well-schooled guy.”

Experimental guitarist Henry Kaiser also notes that Cosey was a virtuoso in multiple complicated genres. “Pete Cosey had many different systems of music,” Kaiser says. “He understood Asian music, Indian music, 20th-century classical music, and many different kinds of harmony and ways of organizing melody, harmony, and pitch. He used all of those tools—a very wide set of tools—wider than most people would use.”

Cosey was also an early member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), a Chicago-area collaborative that included Muhal Richard Abrams, Henry Threadgill, Anthony Braxton, Jack DeJohnette, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and many others on the frontiers of jazz and modern original music. That involvement with his city’s avant-garde scene, together with his background in blues, funk, and jazz, made him an ideal candidate to work with Miles Davis.

“Since I couldn’t get Jimi or B.B. King, I had to settle for the next best player out there … Pete gave me that Jimi Hendrix and Muddy Waters sound that I wanted.” —Miles Davis

The Miles Years
Cosey started working with Davis in 1973. At the time, Davis had Indian musicians on sitar and tabla, but he streamlined the ensemble soon after Cosey joined. “The Indian instruments lasted another month or two, and then Miles cut the band down,” says Liebman. “He even got rid of the keyboard—he played keyboards himself when he wanted them.”

Davis’ Cosey-era band was a cultural statement as well. “Miles gave me three directions while I was with him,” Cosey told Cole. “The first was to move up front … [the second was] to turn up [the volume] … And the third thing he said was, ‘Sit there and look black!’”

Gibbs adds some nuance to that. “Miles really wanted to make the band black, and that was Pete’s thing in Chicago. His function was basically to bring what my friend [founding Black Rock Coalition member] Greg Tate calls ‘African continuum’ into the band. Obviously [percussionist] James Mtume had already brought that in, but Pete was like the final touch.”

Davis’ music at that point was slowly evolving toward lengthy funk grooves and structured group improve, and was influenced by artists as disparate as Sly Stone and Karlheinz Stockhausen. The band was loud and funky, and Cosey’s job was to add an element of Hendrix. “Since I couldn’t get Jimi or B.B. King, I had to settle for the next best player out there,” Davis wrote in his autobiography. “Pete gave me that Jimi Hendrix and Muddy Waters sound that I wanted.”

But aside from using distortion and wah-wah, Cosey didn’t sound anything like Hendrix. “Pete was Pete. Pete would have existed if Hendrix didn’t exist,” Gibbs says. “You listen to the little things he did—you take Chicago, electrify it, add some of the things he was doing on the jazz side, fuzz it up—and you’re going to get Pete.”

For one thing, Hendrix and Cosey had very different approaches to tone. Hendrix cranked his amp and pushed a lot of air. He used pedals as well, but his amp was central to his tone. Cosey’s approach was the opposite. “Pete knew how to get all these sounds at a very low volume,” Kaiser says. “He used pedals more than the amp to get his sound. He knew how to misuse pedals, too, like plugging the chord halfway in to get what we think of as Fuzz Factory-type sounds now. He knew the difference between having the fuzz before and after the wah. He had all the pedal tricks figured out.”

Cosey didn’t travel with an amp, though he had his preferences. “I liked the Yamaha equipment best,” he explained to Milkowski. “It gave me more highs, as opposed to the meatier sound you get with Marshalls. The Sunns were really powerful and sounded good, but the Yamaha equipment seemed to work best with my pedals.”

According to Henderson, Cosey sounded like Cosey regardless of the gear. “He could duplicate that sound through any amp,” Henderson says. “Once you know what your sound is, it’s not really about the amp that much. You are the instrument, and your tone and your sound on whatever you play is going to have that same attitude—even if you’re tapping on the table. His DNA, so to speak, generated what you heard out of the speakers.”

Another distinguishing feature of Cosey’s playing was how he tuned his guitars. “He never played in standard tuning,” Henderson says. “He would tune to the way he wanted to play the chords—the way he wanted them to sound—because the different tunings make your approach quite different.”