The rock world takes a lot of credit for what’s known as the “indie ethos,” or “DIY.” Circumventing the corporate music industry with small labels and self-pressed and -promoted records is often thought of as a postpunk-era notion, exemplified by the English label Factory Records’ proud credo: “The musicians own all the music and we own nothing!”
Yet that ethos wasn’t new. As with so many other things, Black American music—and jazz in particular—had gotten there first. In 1971, Charles Tolliver and Stanley Cowell founded Strata-East Records in New York. The label operated on the principle that the artists owned all of their output, with Strata-East taking only a small commission to keep the lights on (if that).
It was only active for a decade. But today, 50 years after the fact, Strata-East is lionized. Part of that has to do with the remarkably high quality (and relative rarity) of its catalogue. However, its pioneering approach to artist self-determination is perhaps even more celebrated.
This oral history is based primarily on interviews with Tolliver and Cowell; the latter gave this writer his final interview just weeks before he passed away last December. Sylvia, his wife, also provides some insights, as do several of the artists who worked with Strata-East. All quotes have been edited for space and clarity.
CHARLES TOLLIVER, trumpeter: Stanley [Cowell] and I met in the summer of 1967. We both had been called on by Max Roach; he was starting a new quintet, and all the band members would meet at his house to rehearse and talk. We met at that first rehearsal. We were 25 at that time, and we hit it off right away.
STANLEY COWELL, pianist: Summer ’67 to summer ’68, that was the year I worked with Max. Then in the winter of ’68 to ’69 I went on tour with Miles, and then Stan Getz and the Bobby Hutcherson-Harold Land group. But Max still called for special things at that time, special projects with some of his larger works.
Then of course Charles and I worked together in Music Inc.; it was a co-op, but he was the one who started that band. We went to Europe in the summer of 1969, and while we were in London both of us made records under our own names [Tolliver’s The Ringer; Cowell’s leadership debut Blues for the Viet Cong].
By 1970, the idea had been in Charles’ mind for some time to produce a big-band record, and so I was part of helping to produce the first big-band record [Music Inc., recorded in November 1970].
TOLLIVER: The recording sat for a while and then I shopped it around. And you know, [Riverside’s Orrin] Keepnews and all the others, they said, “Well, man, big band.” Well, Thad Jones and them were doing it! But Stanley and I weren’t known as big-band leaders or anything like that, so I never got a yes.
I decided I would read up on how you really put out a recording, like the big guys. I checked with Max Roach [who had co-owned Debut Records with Charles Mingus from 1952-57], and he showed me how they’d done the covers. I talked to this lady who was at that time a label person for Epic; she gave me basically mom-and-pops that the majors use, and also their bigger distributors. And I figured out who was doing the mastering. There was one other important item, and that is the paper. The jackets. Come to find out, that’s the whole ballgame.
So I said, “Stan, we might as well do the whole thing, you know?”
COWELL: I had gone to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and there was a group of Detroit musicians I played with around the Artists Workshop there. Kenny Cox, a pianist, and Charles Moore, a trumpet player, were part of it.
Around 1970 or so, they came to me. They had founded Strata Corporation in Detroit, and they had a concert space, and they were going to produce records. They were all part of this spreading entrepreneurial movement: Musicians should have self-determination in terms of what they put out, not always be beholden to some other people who don’t look like us and probably are ripping us off.
But it moved from a racial-based idea to an entrepreneurial idea. And they wanted us to start a company and affiliate with Strata Corporation. We started the company, but Charles thought we needed a little more autonomy, and so he incorporated it separately as Strata-East Records Incorporated. Connected, but independent.
TOLLIVER: Kenny and Charles, they had this square logo, with stripes getting smaller down to the end. And I didn’t like that; it looked too much like a flag. I just rounded it into a disc and put “Strata-East” at the bottom, and that became our logo. I trademarked it, and I said, “Okay, now we’re ready to go.”