Stanley Cowell

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.

In his living room in 1947, listening to a piano performance of Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart’s standard ‘You Took Advantage of Me’, six-year-old Stanley Cowell was introduced to jazz in the wake of a giant – one who was partially blind.

“Art Tatum, lived right down the street and was brought into my house one day by my father [Stanley Sr], he grew up with him in our hometown in Toledo, Ohio.” recalls Cowell, now 73.

I always liked melody, I can’t seem to break away from it

The performance overwhelmed his mother Hazel in such a way that she left the room mid-performance to wash dishes in the kitchen. “That man just plays too much music,” she said.

Her shock reaction was one shared by many great pianists who encountered Tatum, such as his mentor Fats Waller or classical virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz. Tatum’s successor Oscar Peterson recalled in his autobiography A Jazz Odyssey: The Life of Oscar Peterson that after he heard Tatum play, when listening to a 1932 recording of ‘Tiger Rag’ as a teenager, “I sank into a morass of dejection and would not go near a piano for a month.”

For the young Cowell however, who had started on the piano a couple of years before, “It was an indelible experience that was stamped into my brain.”

The next time Cowell saw Tatum was in the ground, at his gravesite in Los Angeles. While Tatum was his first inspiration, his technical style of playing would not be Cowell’s ultimate influence as a pianist.

“I never wanted to play like Tatum... I always liked melody. I can’t seem to break away from it, it seems to be a part of me.”

With this connection to melody, would come a desire for multiple influences. Diversity would be Cowell’s defining feature and would be one incorporated into the sounds of Strata-East Records, which he would go on to found with trumpeter Charles Tolliver.

Stanley’s Hamburger Grill

While as a teenager, Cowell encountered more jazz musicians as they passed through Toledo in the 1950s.

“My father owned a grill that eventually evolved into a decent restaurant... Stanley’s Hamburger Grill was on the main drag in the black community and across the street was a club where people like Lionel Hampton came with his band,” says Cowell. “Lots of popular jazz bands would come there or to a larger venue called the Civic Auditorium. Eventually, they started playing at the Toledo Museum of Art at the performance hall called the Peristyle [opened in 1933], where I heard Dr Billy Taylor and Errol Garner play.

“In addition to Tatum, my father claimed he brought Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines to the house,” he adds. “But that one I can’t recall.”

Stanley Cowell Sr was not only friends with musicians but also a self-taught violinist who, “played hymns on the street corner with preachers to earn a quarter.” Stanley Sr also played by ear on the family piano, which he kept in the living room.

“Everybody had a piano in those days, it was the stereo of the day,” says Stanley Jr. “Most people could play something whether they had studied or not.”

Classically Trained Pianist

Cowell was taught to read music at the age of three by his two older sisters Mary and Dolores, who were both classically trained. A year later, they took him to his first teacher Mary Belle Shealey but were told that he had to learn the alphabet before she could teach him.

I began to improvise during the preludes and postludes at church

“My older sister and I made flash cards and taught him so he could take the lessons,” recalled his sister Mary in an interview with the Toledo Blade, published 7 February 1977.

After Shealey taught him everything she knew, Cowell moved on to a more advanced teacher at the age of 11, and then began studying music and theory at Scott High School as a teenager.

While studying at high school, Cowell also advanced his skills at church, playing organ at the All Saints Episcopal Church.

“I chose the Episcopal Church because it had the shortest service,” mentions Cowell. “I accompanied their choir on the organ and eventually took over as the choir director – singing with them and teaching new anthems and hymns.

“I must say that where I began to improvise was during the preludes and postludes at the church. It was also where I was introduced to the modes, those early scales that Miles Davis’s So What is based on – the Dorian mode.”

Around the ages of 13/14, Cowell was also learning jazz and playing the dance music of the time, picked up from his older sisters. He also started playing at high school dances – another opportunity to sneak in his improvisations.

“It was the music that they partied to, an early form of R&B and the danceable forms of jazz – like Louis Jordan and the Tympany Five or the ballads of Willie Eckstein,” he says. “I was also listening to the WLAC radio station in Nashville, which played R&B.”

At age 15, Cowell became a soloist for the Toledo Youth Orchestra in 1956, the same year that Art Tatutm died.

Further Studies

Aged 17, Cowell left Toledo to study music at Oberlin College. He graduated in 1962, visiting New York for the first time that summer. While at Oberlin, he had also been playing in various trios in local lounges and starting his professional jazz career.

“Those groups were mostly with local musicians... names such as Dean Austin, Paul Stubblefield and others I can’t remember,” he says. “The bass player that travelled with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Vernon Martin was also a mentor to me at the time. We played together, depending on whose trio got the gig.”

Through Martin, Cowell was able to meet Rahsaan Roland Kirk – a virtuoso renowned for playing several instruments simultaneously – when he visited Toledo when travelling from his hometown in Columbus, also in Ohio.

“Rahsaan came to someone’s house, and they had a session there,” recalls Cowell. “I sat in with him and he heard me, and encouraged me to keep developing.”

In 1963, he started playing with Kirk’s band on another brief visit to New York. When Kirk played in Philadelphia in the same year, Cowell also met saxophonist John Coltrane – who was in the midst of his Classic Quartet period.

“That was an interesting experience,” he recalls. “Rahsaan took the reed off his mouthpiece and played ‘Body and Soul’ using his tongue [in place of the mouthpiece]. We were invited down to meet Coltrane and it was interesting to meet such a humble peaceful man, who was such a great artist and such a great influence on the scene.”

Around the same time – having already taken additional undergraduate study at the Mozarteum Akademie, Salzburg, Austria – Cowell began his MA at the University of Wichita, Kansas, continued the degree at the University of Southern California, and finally finished it at the University of Michigan in 1965.

While studying at Michigan and playing in a trio in Ann Arbor with bassist Ron Brooks, Cowell had begun making connections with an artists’ workshop in Detroit, run by the poet John Sinclair – the soon-to-be manager of proto-punk band MC5 and founder of the anti-racist White Panther Party.

Detroit Collective

“In the fall of 1964 poets George Tish, Robin Eichele and Jim Semark, photographer Magdalene Arndt, musician Charles Moore, myself and several of our friends in the neighbourhood around Wayne State University founded and artists’ collective called the Detroit Artists Workshop,” recalls Sinclair in 2011, from his home in Amsterdam.

Trumpeter Charles Moore (who passed away in February 2014 at the age of 73) had been sitting in on Cowell’s Ann Arbor performances with the Ron Brooks trio and brought him in to play with the Detroit Artists Workshop’s Jazz Ensemble in 1965. “It was another opportunity to connect with other musicians who were trying to do creative things,” says Cowell.

For me, a note was a bullet or a brick

Moore had formed his own cooperative ensemble named the Detroit Contemporary Five, who performed at the Artists Workshop. Around the same time, pianist Kenny Cox was playing at the Workshop with fellow Detroit native, trombonist George Bohanon’s quintet.

Bonding through the Workshop, Cox and Moore would go on to form the Contemporary Jazz Quintet and later create the multi-faceted collective Strata Corporation in 1969. Around the same time as Strata’s formation, John Sinclair would be given a 10-year sentence for the possession of marijuana.

“From the Workshop’s fertile clime germinated the Strata Corporation,” says Sinclair.

The meeting of these two likeminded individuals Cox and Moore, would be followed by one between Cowell and trumpeter Charles Tolliver in New York, who together would go on to form the eastern division of Strata.

New York/New Chapter

In 1966, Stanley Cowell moved to Midtown, New York in a flat on 52nd and 10th Avenue. “I felt that I could hold my own and wanted to become a part of that scene,” he recalls.

He became initially involved with alto-saxophonist Marion Brown and drummer Rashied Ali, who introduced him to tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp (featured in Jocks&Nerds Issue 10) and drummer Sunny Murray. “Some of the so-called free players,” Cowell says. “I didn’t consider them free necessarily but they were expressive musicians.”

Cowell made his debut recordings on Brown’s albums Why Not?, released on ESP in 1968, and Three for Shepp, released on Impulse! in 1967.

“Brown and Ali had a loft in Brooklyn, I came at the end of that and used to trek there to play with them. It was a commercial-type space, and different artists dropped by to sit in with us. We ended up playing at some places like the Five Spot Café but it was a challenge finding gigs.”

Cowell had already begun to feel the limitations of free jazz; a style of playing that had taken off with saxophonist Ornette Coleman’s 1959 breakout gig at the Five Spot, and seemed to form part of a new black consciousness.

“The interesting thing that kind of pulled me back to more traditionalist elements in jazz,” he says “was the fact that when I was playing free concerts, audiences were almost always white.

“For me a note was a bullet or a brick. The enemy, the oppressor was the majority community and population... I realised eventually that this was a stance that was not too fruitful and wanted to communicate music to everyone and have a universal approach.”

To broaden his musical palette, Cowell then became involved with drummer Max Roach’s new quintet in 1967.

First Meeting

By way of bassist Jymie Merritt, who he had worked together with for Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Cowell was introduced to Roach at his house and started playing in his new quintet with Meritt, tenor saxophonist Odean Pope and trumpeter Charles Tolliver.

“Playing in the Max Roach quintet was like going back to school,” says Cowell. “He had his great tradition, which was the jazz of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. But, he also had the skills to accept diverse influences and those that pushed him to open up came from the two Philadelphia musicians who were in the band, Odean and Jymie.

Don’t throw anything away, anything that you have is valuable

“Tolliver was more respectful of the Max Roach history and I was somewhere in the middle – and learning a lot.”

Aged 43 when the quintet was formed, Roach was perhaps one of the most regarded drummers of the time. In the 1940s, playing with bebop giants such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Roach had evolved jazz drumming into an art form through seeing a gap in the then-standard approach to 4/4 time, moving the main pulse from the bass drum to the ride cymbal. In the 1950s, Roach expanded 3/4 waltz rhythms and modality through hard bop with his 1957 album on Emarcy, Jazz in 3/4 Time.

In 1966, a year before he formed his new quintet, Roach released Drums Unlimited, which featured tracks of pure drum solos and emphasised how they could be an instrument able to play theme, variations and rhythmically cohesive phrases.

In his obituary for the Washington Post, 16 August 2007, drummer Stan Levy reflected on Roach: "I came to realise that, because of him, drumming no longer was just time, it was music."

For Roach’s 1967 album on Atlantic, Member’s, Don’t Git Weary, Cowell wrote three of the six featured compositions. Playing with the virtuosic drummer had brought Cowell away from the world of free and brought a more structured way of playing into his musical palette.

“I was in search of a broader connection to the rhythms of jazz and was able to follow the adage that Max Roach gave me that was, don’t throw anything away,” says Cowell. “Anything that you have is valuable and you try to use it at the proper time. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t. Gradually over time, things began to work...”

Music Incorporated

A year after his album with Roach, Cowell had recorded three albums with vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson for Blue Note, one with saxophonist Stan Getz for LRC, one with Gary Bartz for Milestone, and his first two records as leader with Freedom and Polydor – Blues for the Viet Cong being his debut album, released near the end of 1969. Cowell was also invited to play with Miles Davis’s band on a short tour to Montreal and Boston, after Davis heard him play with Roach's group at the 1968 Newport Jazz Festival.

Amongst this burst of creativity, Cowell had found “commonality" with Tolliver after their experiences together with Max Roach. He started playing for Tolliver’s group Music Inc, with bassist Steve Novosel and drummer Jimmy Hopps. The group then toured Europe, securing a record deal with Polydor after meeting the label’s manager Alan Bates in London.

Everybody has to pull their own weight, they have to be like spokes in a wheel

On Polydor, Cowell and Tolliver were both able to release their first recordings as leaders, as well as Music Inc’s The Ringer. Inspired by their success, the duo returned to New York and began to lay the foundations for their biggest project yet.


In the 1970s, jazz continued to make multiple transformations. “There was a spiritual side, there was a soulful side, and incorporated elements of the hard bop of the older musicians,” says Cowell. “The popular black music of the day also had an influence with its rhythms – and there was James Brown of course.”

While jazz was experiencing more creative freedom through this diversity, the industry at the time was not quite geared to cater for it.

After Cowell and Tolliver returned to New York, they decided to make a recording with Music Inc, accompanied by a big band. But searching for a suitable record label to release the record in the States was no easy task.

“Our backs were against the wall,” says Cowell.

An answer came from Detroit friends, Charles Moore and Kenny Cox of Strata who suggested Cowell and Tolliver open an eastern section of their entity.

Thus in 1971, Strata-East was formed, with the Music Inc big band album as its first releases and their new offices opened in New York on 5th Avenue, around 20th and 21st Street.

“We were on the juggernaut between 1972-1976; we had it going,” recalls Cowell. “We learnt from Max Roach to control our publishing, to control as much of our intellectual property as possible.

“Many artists, black and white, had basically given it away to companies who Max would refer to as, blood suckers. It does look that way if you look at the artist contracts that are 95% to the company and 5% to the artist, which – even if a little bit of something is worth a lot more than a lot of nothing – most artists would never see.”

Strata-East’s counter-approach was through using Tolliver’s ‘condominium concept’, which put the artist’s first.

“I think it's still a great concept today,” says Cowell. “The impression that some producers got was that it was a co-operative and that would imply something different. In a co-operative, everybody has to pull their own weight. They have to be like spokes in a wheel. The condominium concept was that Charles and I were responsible for the structure, the contracts and the distribution network.

“For us, we were more interested in music and were trying to create a conduit for African American artists who did not have an avenue to get their product out.”


After performing on a handful of albums on Strata-East, Cowell’s first personal release on the label was his solo piano album Musa: Ancestral Streams in 1974. The album displayed Cowell’s broad palette, highlighting that he had followed Max Roach’s adage of not throwing anything away.

“I had evolved aesthetically and philosophically with a universal approach,” he says. “I still played elements that were used in my free playing; tone-clusters and violent strikes on the piano. But I used them in an overall context. Musa: Ancestral Streams was a culmination of influences of the virtuosic tradition of piano, as well as melodic things that I’d been working on that reflect the lyricism.”

His next Strata-East album Regeneration (1976), which featured a large collection of musicians – including his initial free jazz associate Marion Brown, close collaborator, soprano saxophonist and flautist Jimmy Heath, and bassist Bill Lee, the father of filmmaker Spike Lee – incorporated pop music with African roots.

“Travel was certainly a big factor in influencing me, I was able to go everywhere I wanted to go performing with various groups,” he says. “I came to Europe, Senegal in West Africa, Tunisia in North Africa, Japan, South America and the Caribbean.”

By the end of the 1970s, Cowell had started moving away from Strata-East. Preoccupied with performing and pursuing his personal interests in music.

In 1981, he began his music teaching career at Lehman College, New York – also going on to teach at the New England Conservatory, Boston, and Rutgers, New Jersey.

Staying true to his influences, he would pay tribute to his first mentor Art Tatum on various occasions. In 1990, he was commissioned to write ‘Piano Concerto No 1’ in honour of Tatum, which was performed by the Toledo Symphony Orchestra on 17/18 January 1992. In 2009, to celebrate Tatum’s 100th birthday, Cowell was invited back to Toledo again to perform a tribute concert with his daughter, vocalist Sunny Cowell.

Last year in 2014, Cowell retired from teaching after 33 years. Having shared a wealth of knowledge and influences.

“For younger musicians coming up today, the ones that have been trained and have come through the universities and the colleges playing jazz, it is probably even more challenging than it was before.

“So I've always taught my students the lesson, create situations, performance situations, and create other types of ensembles. Not just new ensembles that were formally associated with jazz performance.”