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Strata-East Records: An Oral History

When Charles Tolliver and the late Stanley Cowell co-founded Strata-East in 1971, their only goal was to put out their own work. Before long, though, they found themselves in charge of one of the era’s leading jazz labels—and a lasting symbol of artistic independence.

Clifford Jordan
Clifford Jordan at Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society, Half Moon Bay, CA, July 1980
(photo: © Brian McMillen/www.brianmcmillenphotography.com)

The Music Inc. LP was released in mid-1971. At first, Tolliver and Cowell envisioned Strata-East as being exclusively for their own product. Soon, however, saxophonist Clifford Jordan—a friend and member of the Music Inc. big band—approached them with a cache of recordings he’d produced for a self-owned enterprise called Frontier Records that had never gotten off the ground.

TOLLIVER: When Clifford saw what we did with that first record—because he was on that record—he said, “Well you know, I’ve already done what you’ve done in terms of recording a lot of musicians. And since you guys have already gone this far, how about me putting my stuff out through you guys?” So we started issuing Clifford [1972’s In the World], Pharoah Sanders’ Izipho Zam, and Cecil Payne’s Zodiac, and Charles Brackeen [Rhythm X, released in 1973].

He [Jordan] came to Strata-East with already-produced product and once he was in the fold, he came in much later with another album of his own, [1974’s] Glass Bead Games.

COWELL: He had about seven masters that he incorporated into the Strata-East catalogue. [In addition to the five mentioned above, Jordan brought two albums to Strata-East, Wilbur Ware’s Super Bass and Ed Blackwell’s Shades of Edward Blackwell, that remained unissued until the early 2010s.] He called that his “Dolphy Series.”

Cliff was the first, and then others saw it was possible and they kicked in. They wanted to do their own. So we developed a system, a contractual arrangement, where we were the company that was the central organization and the distributor.

“It was a grandiose plan, a laudable plan, a culturally sophisticated plan; I’m just not sure it was a viable plan.”—Plunky Branch

LARRY RIDLEY, bassist: Stanley called it a “condominium concept.” The idea was that we would produce our own thing, then bring our projects together to become the catalogue for Strata-East Records. Every person that recorded and released their product on Strata-East was an individual owner of the project, but under the umbrella of being called Strata-East Records, which would make us competitive with Blue Note and Atlantic or these other labels that were producing jazz.

JAMES “PLUNKY” BRANCH, saxophonist and leader of JuJu: In those days—well, since the beginning of time—the concept was that a record company would sign an artist and grant them five, 10, or 15 percent royalty return based on their work. But typically, whatever you got as an advance, that was all you’d ever see from the record company.

Strata-East turned that on its head. Basically, it said that the artist-producers would keep 85 percent of the return, and the label would get 15 percent for manufacturing and distribution. The caveat was, the artist had to bring a finished master tape, ready for releasing.

It was a grandiose plan, a laudable plan, a culturally sophisticated plan; I’m just not sure it was a viable plan.

TOLLIVER: Impossible to administer. The 15 percent did nothing in terms of paying for electricity, the rent, and a temporary office girl. But I didn’t care. The record company was started so that we could put that first record out; I was not thinking about any other musicians. After Clifford, this just went by word of mouth. But if they wanted to go using my distributorship that had been created, at least 15 percent would pay for something.

Up until then, we could only order 500 LPs, because there was no money to order more. This is money out of our pockets. The records sat in Stanley’s doorway, because at that time he was at Westbeth, the artist’s community [in Greenwich Village]. I had a little paper file cabinet in my little hallway. But in 1972 or so, I realized that now we had to have some office space. At that time you could get a little office space below 23rd Street for just a few hundred dollars a month. I found one in the building across the street from where Blue Note Records is now, at 20th Street and Fifth Avenue. Now we had space for the records and everything. Now we were up and running with a real office to work out of.

DICK GRIFFIN, trombonist: You’d come into the office and you’d say, “Okay, I want to get a hundred copies of my record [1974’s The Eighth Wonder].” I used to do that when I was with any band. We were all working musicians, you know, traveling, moving in and out, but we would go by to pick up records. “I want to get 10 records.” Or “I’m going out on the road, I want 100 records,” or whatever. That’s the way it was.

BRANCH: I was an unknown artist, with an unknown group out of San Francisco, just on our first record. Anything they could have done for us would have been a step up for us! I was overjoyed and honored to be working with those guys.

Originally Published

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.