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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.

Gil Scott-Heron in 1972
Gil Scott-Heron in 1972 (photo: Raymond Ross Archives/CTSIMAGES)

Cowell and Tolliver made no requirement for artists to adhere to any particular sound, style, or other aesthetic; Strata-East was a big tent, and its catalogue cut across not only styles but generations. Its roster included saxophonists Cecil Payne and Charlie Rouse, both then in their fifties, as well as Billy Harper—whose iconic Capra Black came out when he was 30—and 25-year-old Plunky Branch. Nevertheless, devotees of the label have often observed that there did seem to be a “Strata-East sound.”

COWELL: It happened organically. It wasn’t really an artist’s label; it was a producer’s label. But a lot of African Americans at the time were eschewing the cultural trappings of European elements in jazz, trying to focus on elements that were Blacker.

MTUME, percussionist/vocalist/producer: It was a period of Black Consciousness, so a lot of the stuff revolved around those kinds of thematic fibers. Certainly my record [1972’s Alkebu-Lan: Land of the Blacks] did. I think it was just a coming together of like minds. Like minds draw from the same reservoir.

TOLLIVER: One day in 1974, Gil Scott-Heron came in. Stanley was there that day and he told me, “Hey, man, Gil Scott-Heron wants to do a record.” I said, “Gil who?” I hadn’t really been paying attention to that side of things, even though “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” really became an iconic thing. He was this spoken-word guy, Stanley said; he had been with Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman, but he sees what we’ve been doing and he’d like to put a record out.

At the time, Scott-Heron was half of a duo with musician and composer Brian Jackson, with whom he’d attended the Pennsylvania HBCU Lincoln University. After issuing three albums through Flying Dutchman, they had left the label in a dispute over publishing rights.

BRIAN JACKSON, keyboardist/flutist: We had no idea how we were going to move forward after Flying Dutchman, but we had $4,000 burning a hole in our pocket, and we thought, “Well, that’s enough to produce a record!” So we made Winter in America.

We found out through some people in D.C. that there was this new label being run by Black musicians—Charles Tolliver and Stanley Cowell. And the deal couldn’t be better. Not everything that they did had to be a hit—in fact, none of it was expected to be a hit. Their biggest goal was to see that artists who would ordinarily not be recorded, or have any type of recording deal, could have one. That’s what they were about.

When it was released, Frankie Crocker, the New York DJ, heard a track called “The Bottle” and started blowing it up on his show, which was very popular. That was it—everybody started clamoring for this single, but it was only on an album. It wasn’t even a single. So Strata-East started getting a lot of demand for that album. And eventually they pressed a single—something they had never even considered before. But they had to do it. The demand was huge.

If Strata-East was the Internet, we would have broken it.

“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.” –Stanley Cowell

BRANCH: I would bet that some of the albums on Strata-East didn’t even sell one thousand copies. Now here comes one that’s getting orders of 10,000 copies.

COWELL: Sometimes a good thing can be not such a good thing. Some disgruntled producers felt that they should be making more money as they saw Gil’s record catapulting upward. … I got them together, because that’s where the earning power was, and that’s when jealousy and power kind of went against each other.

TOLLIVER: I disagree [with Stanley]. If I had thought that the Gil Scott-Heron was going to drag the operation down because of the success of it, I would have sold it to Clive Davis.

Clive Davis had come back to start his own operation at Arista. I got a call one day from Mr. Davis saying he would like to have that [Winter in America]. So I said to him, “That’s interesting. Why?” He said, “I just signed Gil Scott-Heron.” “Oh, okay. What are you offering?” He wasn’t offering enough. Then he came to the office to talk about it! But I said to him, “You put Strata-East Records in your distributorship, and we can talk.”

And he said no. So I said, “No, then.”

He didn’t really need that record. But he wanted it because he could have hit the ground running with that. And it would have been easy for him to put Strata-East into his distribution lane. But honestly, I didn’t want to deal with that kind of thing anyway. It would have required more work on my end, pushed me into a whole other level of industry operation. But he was not going to get that record.

The Gil Scott-Heron product changed things only to the extent that if the distributors wanted that, they had to take the rest of the product. Which is just business, you know. So in that sense, the success of Gil Scott-Heron allowed us to sell a few more—not a lot, but a few more—than we would have, trickling along as we were, to the tens and tens of one-stops across the country.

GRIFFIN: When I put my record out, I was around the office, answering the phone and taking orders. And I do remember somebody called and ordered 10,000 Gil Scott-Heron records, and I said, “Would you take a hundred of Dick Griffin?” We moved on it, you know.

JACKSON: I think that the only thing that caused us a bit of tension was that there was just too much demand. And then in the end, there was a copy of it, done by this band called Brother to Brother. It was a bunch of musicians—all of whom I knew, by the way—and they made this record for Sylvia and Joe Robinson’s All Platinum label called “In the Bottle,” and it was an exact copy of “The Bottle.” Even the flute solo was a copy. But they had the mechanism to sell it and distribute it. They put it out, and they sold a million copies.

TOLLIVER: Not sure whether that record company had better distribution reach and resources. Even though we had very good distribution, obviously a bigger, industry-operated company staffed with personnel just to handle distribution can sell big with a hit. On the other hand, Strata-East’s Winter in America and “The Bottle” did just fine for its run.

COWELL: It also helped to change the focus, as the other attitudes came into focus at that time. In other words, they said, “Oh! Gil’s making money,” and our artistic jazz aesthetic began to change and become even more broad.

TOLLIVER: And then after that, the label grew. A lot of unknown guys coming from every which direction, with all different types of music—from George Russell’s Electronic Sonata to guys playing what would soon become part of the lexicon.

But in the case of all the issues except for Clifford Jordan, and of course Stanley and myself, and a few others, there was only one issue from each artist. Billy Harper, or Mtume, or Gil Scott-Heron, they were going to go and do other things. Even Stanley went and did other recordings for other labels! Even my partner wasn’t locked down.

COWELL: It was an offer [from Galaxy Records] that would allow me to make some personal money, sell the music that I wanted to sell also. So that became an issue; I think people saw that, in a way, as me bailing out. I got so busy performing I think I thought that Strata-East was gonna run by itself. But, of course, Charles was dealing with it.

TOLLIVER: Around 1980, I just decided I didn’t want to spend any more brain time on it. I knew that I had many ways of keeping those products being reissued through distribution deals that had previously been done with European and Japanese companies. Because for sure, anything that came out in Japan was going to find its way into the record bins here. Digital was not on anybody’s tongue yet, but in the mid-’80s, Japanese folks were saying this digital thing is going to be coming. So I said, “Things can still run along with that without me having to find an office.” 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.