Charles Tolliver

At the end of the 1960s, after Alfred Lions sold Blue Note, a void emerged for up-and-coming jazz musicians looking to put out a record. A saving grace came in the form of the artist-run Strata-East Records, created by trumpeter Charles Tolliver and pianist Stanley Cowell. In the warm up to Gilles Peterson’s Strata-East Live event at the Barbican, we looked at the stories behind the label’s founders.

One night in 1963, jamming at the Blue Coronet, Brooklyn, 21-year-old trumpeter Charles Tolliver had started his career as a professional jazz musician.

Approached on the bandstand by a man named Jim Harrison, a close friend of (and founder of the fanclub for) master alto saxophonist Jackie McLean, Tolliver was told, “Jackie’s looking for a new trumpet player, here’s where he is, so go see him.”

A few months later he visited McLean who, at his house, without having heard a note from Tolliver, informed him that, “Ok, we have a new record date with Alfred Lions of Blue Note and I am going to put you on.” At the end of 1964, McLean’s LP It’s Time! was released featuring pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Cecil McBee, drummer Roy Haynes and Charles Tolliver on trumpet.

It was pretty much a fore gone conclusion, once I got that trumpet I'd be there for the music

“I guess he was going on his gut,” says Tolliver, now 72. “And that’s how my career started. As a young player, you try to make as many in-roads as you can either by recordings or in employment of one of the heavy guys. I would not have gotten the chance had it not been for Jackie McLean...

“At that time, if you got a recording with Blue Note, you more or less had a permanent calling card. It was part of the ‘star making system’ created by major record companies in their quest for a wider audience.”

And the result of the system was, young jazz musicians looking for their first recording date often found themselves at the back of a rather large queue.

In less than a decade after his Blue Note debut, Tolliver, along with pianist Stanley Cowell, went on to found Strata-East Records as a solution to this problem.

Growing Up With Hip Folks

On 6 March 1942, Charles Tolliver was born in Jacksonville, Florida to “folks hip to the music of the time.” So by the age of five, he already caught an ear for jazz, listening to the bebop messiah Charlie Parker’s 1946 recording of Jazz at the Philharmonic – featuring Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins – to which he started scatting along to.

“Everything as far I am concerned stems from Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, when it comes to modern jazz,” says Tolliver. “I am not talking about the absolute indispensable examples from Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, before the turn of the last century up until 1942.”

At age of eight, his grandmother, who was raising him in Jacksonville while his parents were in New York, bought his first instrument, a cornet, which he played endlessly. “It was pretty much a fore gone conclusion, once I got that trumpet I'd be there for the music.”

Two years later, Tolliver and his grandmother moved to live with his parents in New York, the mecca of modern jazz. There, he continued to forge his interests in the music, listening to his uncle’s copy of At Basin Street by tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan and percussionist Max Roach – who he would later play and record for, and be introduced to his alter-ego Stanley Cowell.

New York Jam Sessions

Now a young New Yorker, Tolliver began attending jam sessions at two popular jazz clubs in Harlem – both of which were a walking distance from his home on 137th Street and 8th Avenue. “From when I was at least 11 or 12, I went to two places where anyone who came to New York and wanted to get into big time jazz would be at. Count Basie's bar, located on 132nd and 7th Avenue, and Branker’s, which was located on 155th.

“Every Monday night there were jam sessions at Basie’s. Miles Davies or other great luminaries of the time would stop by to hear and see who was new in town. And that would also be where I would go to listen to how the musicians were playing the music. I was not old enough to go up there and play but you know that was how I, socially, was able to watch this development. Only after I made my first recording with Jackie McLean, I actually had the chance to bring my own group in to Count Basie's.”

Look forward, always think forward and don't just play by rules that you know you can pull off

In his 20s, Tolliver left New York to study pharmacy at Howard University, Washington – “I wanted to try my hand at mixing some medicine.” But, between his second and third year in college, decided it was time to pursue jazz full time and moved back to New York to his parents’ new home in Brooklyn. In the same part of town as the Blue Coronet, where he would meet Jim Harrison.

Changing Times

Around the same year in 1963, the Civil Rights Movement had started to reach its peak. Whether it was through the assassination of Medgar Evers, the bombing of four young girls at a church in Birmingham, Alabama or Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech to 200,000 people, the importance of freedom continued to grow for African Americans. And freedom’s greatest expression existed through the many manifestations of jazz.

“Jazz,” writes the poet Stanley Crouch, “predicted the civil rights movement more than any other art in America.”

Now in the forms of dixieland, swing, bebop, hard bop, cool, modal, soul jazz, free jazz and the avante garde, jazz music in the 1960s seemed to know no boundaries and the young trumpet player Charles Tolliver was coming up alongside it.

“In the 1960s, there developed this sort of shock way of presenting improvisational music in the jazz idiom” says Tolliver. “Because the industry was taking it and moving it into the forefront and musicians like me had to take a look at it.”

Performing and appearing on records with the likes of pianists Andrew Hill and Horace Silver, alto saxophonist Gary Bartz, tenor saxophonist Booker Ervin, Gerald Wilson’s big band, and vibraphonist Roy Ayers, Tolliver was fully developing his musical palette in the 1960s. But it was always through his mentor Jackie McLean, who he played on three Blue Note records with, that he learnt his most important lessons.

Master Player/Master Tutor

“What I learned from him was to look forward, always think forward and don't just play by rules that you know you can pull off,” says Tolliver. “Listen closely to everyone before you make a decision... He had mastered modern jazz, the so-called bebop way of playing, and was looking forward with the avant-garde input.”

McLean’s role as an educator would be something that he would develop throughout the rest of his life. After his contract ended with Blue Note records in 1967, he began teaching music at the Hartt School at the University of Hartford, Connecticut, where he would go on to establish the Jackie McLean Institute.

But this later period of providence was preceded by McLean’s struggles with a heroin addiction. He even starred in Shirley Clarke's film, via a 1959 play by Jack Gelber, The Connection (1961), which depicted jazz musicians waiting for their heroin hook-up to arrive.

“It was a realism on the fact that during those years, when heroin was prevalently introduced into the impoverished neighbourhoods of America, aggressively affecting the inhabitants there,” explains Tolliver. “Jazz musicians were utilising that for whatever reasons.”

One of these being that Charlie Parker, who McLean and many other musicians worshipped, who had mastered modern jazz by the age of 15, was a prominent drug addict.

“He was the messiah who had come to New York and was playing what other musicians had in their head but could not put on their instrument yet,” says Tolliver. “They all to a man were locked into emulating everything he did. Including that [taking heroin]. It is unfortunate because it took a toll on many musicians... A lot of them were able to shake it off and live to their senior citizenry. Jackie was one of those who was able to do that and I think his gift back was to foster young people, young musicians to have a clean existence and master the music.”

The Fight for Control

In 1964, after his first recording with McLean, Charles Tolliver acquired his cabaret card. A permit that, until it’s prohibition in 1967, was required for any performer or worker at a New York nightclub.

Even though New York was my home, I didn’t want to be at home with mama

With his card, Tolliver, along with McLean’s group at the time, was then able to perform at the newly opened Slug’s Saloon jazz club.

The license, which had resulted in the likes of McClean, Parker, Thelonius Monk and Billie Holiday, due to drugs charges, and Lenny Bruce, due to obscenity charges, to be suspended from working at any New York venues was regarded by artists as an outright method of control.

“You had to be fingerprinted,” recalls Tolliver. “Charlie Parker was not able to work because he had been busted. The man who showed us all of this, who had the mecca of jazz, Birdland created for him, was not able to work at that place because he didn't have a cabaret card!”

The battle against control, one constantly fought by African Americans and jazz musicians alike during the 1960s, also extended into the problem of record labels contaminating the music in their hunt for a wider audience.

The response to which was a wave of new jazz cooperatives emerging in the mid-1960s who tried to regain control of their music. Groups such as the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) in Chicago, the Black Artist’s Group (BAG) of St Louis, and the more loosely defined loft jazz groups that had developed in New York. A phenomenon that Tolliver was centrally involved with.

Loft Jazz

“The loft movement was going on, I would say from all of the earlier part of the 20th century around the East and West Village in New York. This then turned into A.I.R. – which is an acronym for ‘Artists in Resident’ properties.

“They were basically old two-story, three-story buildings that had been little small factories, like sweatshops. That was the ‘real’ loft scene. Where people like Thelonius Monk went to rehearse for the Town Hall concerts and things like that. Where guys like us, who came up later, found refuge in playing.”

Notable jazz lofts that emerged at the end of the decade were singer Joe Lee Wilson’s Ladies’ Fort, multi-instrumentalist Sam Lee Wilson’s Studio Rivbea, and drummer Rashied Ali’s Ali’s Alley. But many preceded them in the 1960s, such as one shared by photographer W Eugene Smith in Manhattan's wholesale flower district, and a loft on 89 East Broadway in Lower Manhattan run by the McKinney family.

“There was also our place on 18th and Allan Street, which was more just musicians, squatters, who were paying the rent and practising all day,” says Tolliver. “It was me, a drummer named Roger Blank, John Hicks [pianist], John Gordon the trombone player, David Phelps the trumpet player, and another trombone player named Benny Jacob Bell. Archie Shepp (featured in Jocks&Nerds Issue 10) would sometimes come to the loft that I was in too.

“Even though New York was my home, I didn’t want to be at home with mama so, you know, I was at that loft most of the time. Around the corner there was 89 East Broadway which was the real big scene for guys being able to come at any hour and play any song they wanted to.

“It was run by the McKinney musical family. Bernard McKinney who was the euphonium player on Freddie Hubbard's recordings and is now known as ‘Kiane Zawadi’, Earl McKinney, who was known as ‘Sharms’ at that time, the elder brother, Harold McKinney, and the bass player, Ray McKinney. That loft was the main place to go.”

New Breed/New Acquaintance

By the end of 1966, Alfred Lions had sold Blue Note to the major label Liberty Records – later bought out by the financial conglomerate Transamerica in 1968. A new challenge thus arose for jazz musicians. Especially those looking to start out their career.

“You needed an industry recording in order to jumpstart your career, that became increasingly difficult after Alfred Lions sold his company,” remembers Tolliver. “Once he sold it, the game had changed.”

An answer was needed in the form of a new breed of independent record label. One that could perhaps extend beyond the freedom provided by Blue Note and open its doors to upcoming jazz musicians who weren’t able to come up through the ‘star making system’ created by the major labels.

A year after Lions sold his label, Tolliver met Stanley Cowell at the first rehearsal for the new Max Roach Quintet, and would begin to create a solution to this problem.

“Like anybody who has experienced this, there's telepathy that was immediate. We didn't have to talk too much; we were on the same wavelength,” says Tolliver on their first encounter. “It was just a once in a lifetime situation.”

In 1968, Roach’s Members, Don't Git Weary is released, featuring Tolliver, Cowell, alto saxophonist Gary Bartz, bassist Jymie Merritt and vocalist Andy Bey.

Tolliver and Cowell then formed the group Music Inc and, alongside an international tour, released The Ringer on Polydor Records.

Strata and its Eastern Section

A year after, Music Inc had already recorded their second album with a big band but were unable to find a major label to release it.

Around the same time, Cowell had struck up a close alliance in Detroit with trumpeter Charles Moore and pianist Kenny Cox who had formed a collective, Strata, with a record company named Strata Inc. Moore and Cox then brought plans to Tolliver and Cowell to set up an eastern section of Strata Inc in New York.

Strata-East was born in 1971, with the Music Inc big band album as their first release.

“Strata’s focus was on performance or bringing in people to perform,” says Tolliver. “Strata-East’s was to issue a product and start a distribution situation with it.”

Together these two factions – alongside the likes of Oakland-based Black Jazz Records and Tribe Records from Detroit – represented a newfound freedom in music, whereby musicians were given creative control by independent artist-run labels.

This was not an industry run operation

For Strata-East, “There was no desire or will to capture any musicians, only to allow their own self-help product to enter the little distribution system that we had,” says Tolliver.

New Forms/ New Label

While the percentage of sales in jazz records was on the decline, struggling to compete against the commercial values of pop and rock, the music’s forms continued to multiply through the path of jazz fusion – “which was aimed at having a sort of a palatable effect on a wider audience,” explains Tolliver. But at the same time, progressive artists were exploring the possibilities of African-centric spiritual jazz, as well as taking further excursions into post bop and free jazz.

For the latter, Strata-East became the new conduit, releasing the likes of the Mtume Umoja Ensemble’s Alkebu-Lan: Land of the Blacks, M’Boom’s Re: Percussion, which featured Max Roach, and Pharoah Sanders’s Izipho Zam (My Gifts).

Around the same time as these releases, a relatively unheard of Gil Scott Heron and Brian Jackson came to Strata-East, unsatisfied with the lack of creative control given by Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman record label, to release their breakout record Winter in America. The album, which featured the single ‘The Bottle’, went on to sell over 300,000 copies from its release in 1974.

“It had one track on there that got to the dance floor, and that’s what sold that product and the proof of the pudding was that since he owned the master, the majority of the money went to him.”

“And that was the difference between Strata-East and the rest. We could still create a product that looked as professionally issued as any major record company at the time. But underneath it was just a conduit situation; this was not an industry run operation. We did not capture musicians on the contract.”

Black Nationalists?

The freedom provided by Strata-East has often been considered as symbolic for a new fight for independence. Around the time of the label’s insurgence, the Black Panthers had begun to split but still remained in the spotlight.

“A lot of people – writers and critics – wanted to describe that what we were doing was because we were angry Black Panthers...

“That was so far from the truth it's laughable because there were at least five or six companies that we had to deal with in order to produce an LP and make sure its professionally done.

“If you're coming in there with a Black Panther leather jacket on and beret saying, OhHooRoo! You gotta do this for me. I’m a black MF. I'm doing my own thing! Just how far do you think you would get?”

“In my heart, I appreciated everything that was going on with Malcom X and the struggle of African Americans in America but it played no part in the establishment of Strata-East records.”

“Strata-East stood for jazz musicians deciding not to queue up or having to queue up to ask for their first recording date. That’s it.”

Strata-East Continues

Between 1970-1980, Strata-East had issued around 50 LPs. In 1979, Tolliver told Cowell, “Man, I’m gonna take a break now.” And did so for 10 years, returning in 1989 to reissue a selection of records during the rise of the CD.

“After 1989, through the 1990s, and a good portion of the 2000s, things were just more or less done by lease. They were running quietly. Still, the impression was that Strata East used to be a label that folded way back in the 1970s.”

But Tolliver, Cowell, Strata-East and Music Inc are all still going strong today. Tolliver himself issued two big band records in the new millennium on the revived Blue Note Records, one of which (With Love) won a Grammy Award. He is also a teacher at The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York – following in the footsteps of his mentor Jackie McLean.

In 2014, celebrating a career of 50 years (from his It’s Time! recording with McLean), Tolliver brought Music Inc to Ronnie Scott’s – mistaken by many as a comeback gig.

“I have never stopped playing that quartet all these years! The critics and the writers, they don't write about me like they do the other guys because I have not been thrust out there industry-wise.

“I’m only interested in satisfying what you know and expect out of me. If I cant do that then I will turn over... And that’s a long way away for me man.”