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Stanley Cowell: Never Too Late

A pianist-composer's late-career renaissance

Stanley Cowell
Stanley Cowell in performance saluting Strata-East at the Barbican Centre in London (photo: Paul Wood)
Stanley Cowell
Stanley Cowell (photo: Natalie Elliot)
Stanley Cowell at home
Stanley Cowell working with the digital sound-design program Kyma at home (photo: Natalie Elliot)
Park Lane Trio
Park Lane Trio, 1959, including Stanley Cowell and Vernon Martin (photo courtesy of Cowell)
Stanley Cowell 1977
Stanley Cowell in NYC, 1977 (photo: Tom Marcello)

I am standing at the long, black grand piano in the living room of Stanley Cowell’s Southern Maryland home, watching as he comes alive. The 74-year-old pianist and composer is showing off his digital sound-design system, called Kyma, which he used during his just-ended weeklong stint in New York in June. “You can see I have a folder called ‘Village Vanguard,'” he points out on his tablet screen. “These are the sounds I chose for the performance.” He selects one, and a heavy church bell tolls in the standup speaker next to us. Cowell picks out the opening lick of “‘Round Midnight” on the keyboard, and another set of bells play along.

We’ve just spent two hours conversing in his basement. He’s been gracious and forthcoming, but also been cerebral and soft-spoken-not cold, but reserved. That fades during his 10 minutes at the piano. As he transforms “‘Round Midnight” into “an upside-down version,” demonstrates another effect with his own melody “St. Croix” and tools around with phrases from his new solo recording, Juneteenth (Vision Fugitive), his eyes light up and his voice gains volume and merriment. “Now to do all that in rhythm!” he exclaims, and lets out a throaty chuckle. “It was cool. People wanted more of it!”

If music animates Cowell, the reverse is also true, and his incorporation of the Kyma, which he’s used for nearly 20 years, is living proof. “Stanley’s always been an inspiration because he’s not a stagnant artist,” says drummer Nasheet Waits, who worked with Cowell in the 1990s. “He’s always exploring, coming up with new ways to express himself.”

Cowell is no stranger to tradition, either. His initiation into jazz came at age 6, in his Toledo, Ohio home, where he watched his father’s friend Art Tatum play the family’s spinet piano. In the ensuing decades, a deep understanding of the jazz lineage mingled with Cowell’s innovative spirit and came to define his music. By the early ’80s he boasted an unimpeachable résumé, including sideman work with iconic leaders, his own powerful recordings and even co-ownership of a game-changing label. All of which added to the loss the jazz scene felt starting in 1981, when Cowell largely shifted his focus from performing to educating. He began teaching fulltime that year and continued for the next 32, first at CUNY’s Lehman College, then at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

But his 2013 retirement from Rutgers has brought him back onto the bandstand, culminating in his week at the Vanguard. “Part of my bucket list!” Cowell says proudly. “It took 74 years to get there. So don’t give up!”

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Cowell’s bucket list has to be a short one, considering the number of accomplishments he’s already checked off. He graduated from Oberlin college in 1962 and arrived in New York in the summer of ’66, working first with saxophonist Marion Brown and other “out” players. But in 1967 he passed an audition for Max Roach’s quintet. The legendary drummer’s band also included the young trumpeter Charles Tolliver, with whom Cowell bonded immediately. “We just had the right vibes, the right affinity,” Tolliver says. “We bonded … from the start,” he continues, and he remains Cowell’s closest friend today.

Roach’s band was really “the beginning of everything,” Cowell says. From there, the pianist got a call to tour with Miles Davis, and joined the Bobby Hutcherson-Harold Land Quintet as well. In 1969, he toured with Stan Getz’s quartet, and made his first two albums under his own name.

The 1970s are often dismissed as meager years for jazz; for Stanley Cowell, they were bullish. He and Tolliver left Roach in 1970 to form Tolliver’s quartet Music Inc., which in November 1970 made its first studio recording, Music Inc. After getting no takers among the labels, Tolliver and Cowell decided to put it out themselves. “This was part of [Nguzo Saba], the seven principles of African Heritage,” Cowell explains. “Kind of a rebuilding thing, coming out of the need to take over our own resources. But it moved from a racial idea to an entrepreneurial idea.”

Two of Cowell’s friends from Michigan had formed a corporation called Strata. “We told them that we were going to issue this new recording. They said, ‘Well, why don’t you guys become the Eastern leg of our thing?'” Tolliver recalls. “To make a long story short, I decided that we would not become a part of the Strata Corporation but would definitely use the name Strata-East.” It would become one of the most important independent jazz labels of the decade.

Cowell also cofounded the Collective Black Artists, in another outgrowth of Nguzo Saba’s principle of self-determination. “We decided that we wanted to bring African-American artists more to the fore, in presentation and recording and so forth,” he says. “We did a lot of concerts, took music into prisons, into schools. It survived a long time.”

Throughout it all, Cowell’s musical career was blossoming. Between 1973 and 1981, he recorded nine albums. Two found him leading an ensemble called the Piano Choir-a seven-keyboard ensemble that blended acoustic and electric pianos, organ, harpsichord and an array of synthesizers. He was also a prolific freelancer, touring and recording with bassist Richard Davis, drummer Roy Haynes and saxophonist Art Pepper, among others. So prolific was he, Cowell notes, that Tolliver was left to operate Strata-East. “I got so busy performing,” Cowell says, “I thought that Strata-East was gonna run by itself.”

Among his sideman gigs was a roughly decade-long one as pianist for the Heath Brothers-the only member of the quartet who was not a family member. “Stanley Cowell was the adopted and well-respected other Heath Brother,” laughs Jimmy Heath, the saxophonist and middle brother of the group.

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Teaching wasn’t the only thing that distanced Cowell from active performance. The smoke that accumulated in the jazz clubs was a major irritation, especially on tour. “The Japanese and the French used to come and gang-smoke!” he says. “It’d be a mushroom cloud of smoke all over the place!” In addition, he’d married and had a daughter, and in 1988 the family moved to Upper Marlboro, Md., about 45 minutes outside D.C., though they bought a second home in New Jersey to ease Cowell’s commute to Lehman.

But none of these were obstacles to his creativity. Cowell continued to develop as a musician and composer, to develop and innovate, and now he was assisted by the resources of academia. For one thing, he had access to student ensembles, and not just in jazz. Cowell began building an impressive résumé of orchestral works: short pieces for solo or small ensemble as well as long-form sonatas, concerti and suites. “I used their symphony, wrote for their brass choir, wrote for their woodwind quintet and combined jazz soloist with those ensembles-either myself or, on one piece, the Asian Art Suite, the whole faculty.” Cowell is particularly proud of the Asian Art Suite, a three-part, seven-section composition for orchestra, percussion and jazz sextet that he premiered at Rutgers in 2009. “It’s a fun piece,” he says. “It’s based on a commission from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, inspired by their Asian collection.” (It has never been issued as a recording, although excerpts appear on his 2012 album, It’s Time, on SteepleChase. That prolific but low-profile Danish outfit was Cowell’s label of choice during the ’90s. After not recording for over a decade, he returned to the fold for It’s Time and 2013’s Welcome to This New World, a quartet date featuring guitarist Vic Juris.)

While writing his first orchestral piece in the early ’90s, Cowell, using a boxy IBM computer, began learning “a very early, unstable version of the notation program called Finale.” The long process of composing allowed him to become quite practiced in the program. “I got into electronic music, experimenting with that,” he says, “[enough that] in ’97 I took over the electronic music class at Lehman.”

Much of the equipment was still analog, but Cowell steered it toward digital, and it was in this capacity that he began working with the Kyma. “I got a grant to [purchase] it,” he says. “I used it at a concert when I started teaching the electronic course.” He began incorporating the system into his orchestral work as well: A piece commemorating the Emancipation Proclamation was composed for concert band, chorus and Kyma. “He’s just that kind of person: open always to new happenings,” says Heath. “We went to Japan, and I bought my first keyboard, and he had it all figured out by the time we got home. He taught me a lot about the computer over the years, too.”

Further, Cowell hadn’t completely abandoned live performance. In fact, whereas he had rarely led bands in earlier years, in the mid-’90s he formed a real working quartet: Bruce Williams on alto saxophone, Dwayne Burno on bass and Keith Copeland on drums. Copeland was soon replaced by Nasheet Waits, who has known Cowell since the pianist was a neighbor of Waits’ father, drummer Freddie Waits, in New York’s Westbeth Artists Housing complex. “The music was challenging and engaging,” Williams recalls. “We would hook up every couple months, at the minimum three times in the year, for a weeklong stint. For a working New York jazz band, that’s kind of a lot unless you’re on the road.”

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Cowell’s first major orchestral work, completed and premiered in 1992, was his Piano Concerto No. 1, a tribute to Art Tatum. As a native of Tatum’s hometown of Toledo, Cowell was more captive to his influence than most jazz pianists-many of his mentors were Tatum’s contemporaries and protégés-not to mention the effect of witnessing a performance of “You Took Advantage of Me” in his own childhood living room. When Cowell recorded his 1969 debut as a leader, Blues for the Viet Cong, he included a rollicking solo stride rendition of that same tune. “Somewhere that just came off the top of my head,” he says. “I didn’t know why. I realized later, ‘Well, that’s where that came from.'”

Cowell’s version didn’t really sound like Tatum. Nor did the rest of his early recordings. His sound was based instead on Bud Powell, Phineas Newborn and ’60s innovators like McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock. As the ’70s progressed, he took on polyrhythmic West African influences and became skilled on the mbira, or thumb piano. But during the ’80s, perhaps as a side effect of teaching jazz history, Tatum came creeping back in; his rhythmic and harmonic signatures are prominent, for example, on Cowell’s 1983 album Such Great Friends.

In 1990, the master asserted himself in a big way. “I never wanted to play like Tatum, but the Charlin Jazz Society kind of steered me in that direction,” he says, “by offering me a grant to develop a concert of Tatum’s transcriptions and whatever I could ape, so to speak. So I did 22 of his pieces in the concert. Some of them were transcriptions and the others were close interpretations of the songs that he played.” Shortly afterward, he began the concerto. “I had already isolated quite a few of Tatum’s ideas, and kind of sprinkled them about, as one reviewer said, into the piano concerto.”

From then on, Tatum was simply another element in the nuanced tapestry that is Cowell’s music. Juneteenth-a “reduction” of his piece on the Emancipation Proclamation, now applied more broadly to the struggle for civil rights-never overtly addresses Tatum, but it does abstract and, yes, sprinkle his conception throughout, along with ideas from other historical jazz pianists. That blend is filtered through an approach to voicing and space that is Cowell’s alone, and as a result those influences are subsumed into his sound. Indeed, Juneteenth may be the most distinctly Cowell-ian of all his albums, particularly on the improvised closing track, “Juneteenth Recollections.” “His music is unique. It’s not like anyone else’s that I know,” says Heath. “He’s not strictly a bebopper, and he’s not strictly from the Tatum school. He’s got his own voice in this world. He has things as avant-garde as Ornette Coleman and that era of music. The whole spectrum of African-American classical music. And he never forgets the history of African-American people, and he tries to do everything he can to better our position in the world.”

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Throughout his time as an educator, Cowell took a few sabbaticals to work on his music. He embarked on one of these breaks in 2013, he says, “and then just decided to stay out. They had me come back for graduation and commencement that year, and treated me lovely.” At 72, he was finally retired.

Which gave him the opportunity to come out of his quasi-retirement from live performance. Jazz clubs around the world had adopted smoke-free policies, which Cowell relished, and he made his way into concert halls, including London’s prestigious Barbican. In March, he reunited with Tolliver, singer Jean Carne, tenor saxophonist Billy Harper, bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Alvin Queen to tour the U.K. as the Strata-East All Stars. “The Brits, like the Japanese, are forever in love with the Strata-East happening,” says Tolliver. “And a world-famous DJ there [Gilles Peterson], who grew up on Strata-East, found out that we were alive and well. He put it together.”

Then there was the weeklong bucket-list stint at the Vanguard. Cowell’s friends in the music visited throughout the week, among them Heath, Waits and Tolliver. Bruce Williams played in the quartet, along with bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Billy Drummond, and found that after more than two decades the pianist still found ways to inspire and teach. “The mentoring in jazz a lot of times is not like sitting at a desk with someone at a blackboard, it’s more like real-life experience,” Williams says. “It’s always a challenge, but a beautiful thing. … Stanley’s clearly one of the best there’s ever been.”

“Now he’s coming back out here, and I wish him all the best,” says Heath. “He deserves it.”

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