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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.

Stanley Cowell 1973
Stanley Cowell, New York, 1973 (photo: Raymond Ross Archives/CTSIMAGES)

Strata-East still exists as a company, albeit one that focuses on reissues (there were a small handful of new CD releases in the early 1990s), and its legacy and influence are tremendous. Original Strata-East pressings are valuable collectors’ items across the board. But more than anything, the label demonstrated what was possible for artists.

GRIFFIN: A drummer named Keno Duke had records on Strata-East [1972’s Reasons in Tonality and 1974’s Sense of Values, both with his band the Jazz Contemporaries], and then he left and started his own label, Trident Records. In 1979 I did a record on his label called Now Is the Time, and I’ll tell you absolutely, for sure, that Keno was taking a page out of the Strata-East book.

BRANCH: In Washington, D.C., a man named Jimmy Gray had a company called Black Fire. They handled the distribution for Strata-East in the mid-Atlantic and further south. Well, in 1975 Jimmy and I became partners. We founded the Black Fire Records label, and we took our lead from Strata-East. It wasn’t a secret; we were trying to be like them. The model we were working with was 50-50, though, and that kind of became an indie thing.

MTUME: It was really a grassroots concept, but it was the first time that musicians tried to take control of their music. … Strata-East set a historic precedent, to show musicians that they could get together, and do for themselves.

SYLVIA COWELL, Stanley Cowell’s widow: The concept was a bit ahead of its time. The industry wasn’t ready for it. A lot of the artists didn’t really understand it, but those that benefited from it I think were happy. These were all musicians; they were not businesspeople. They were all busy performing and working and composing, and it’s difficult to do all that and the business at the same time.

I think had this happened at a later date, with more structure and business-minded people, that it would have been something that lasted for a much, much longer period of time. But that’s how things go. Still, I think it laid the foundation and showed the way for lots of other musicians and artists that came along after them, and the importance of owning your own material.

TOLLIVER: I’m surprised at how much posting there is on the Internet. In the last 30-some years, there are scores of online pages with complete chronologies of Strata-East Records—and comments on how much appreciated it is.

When I shut the office down, I trashed a lot of LPs. I said, “I don’t have a place to put all this.” If I had kept those LPs, man, it would have been a ton of income! As the young people would say, dope, silly money!

Later this summer—the official date is still TBD—Dreamstage will host a live performance at Birdland in New York City celebrating the 50th anniversary of Strata-East Records, featuring Charles Tolliver, Billy Harper, George Cables, Buster Williams, Lenny White, and narrator Danny Glover. The performance will also be available to stream on demand for a limited time. (The original performance date of June 16 had to be changed due to Tolliver’s undergoing emergency dental surgery.) Go here for more information. A new book on the complete story of Strata-East, written by Tolliver, is slated to be published in the fall.

The Strata-East Records logo

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.