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Charles Tolliver Remembers Stanley Cowell

The trumpeter pays tribute to the pianist who was his close colleague in music, business, and life (5/5/41 – 12/17/20)

Stanley Cowell 1980
Stanley Cowell in Berkeley, Calif., May 1980 (photo: © Brian McMillen / www.brianmcmillenphotography.com)

Stanley Cowell was not my biological brother, but everything else about us would be the same if he were. I guess one could say that with the two of us it was a magical meeting. I think we were two guys who were just put on this earth to do what we did together.

Stanley 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. We thought the same way about music and everything else. We both shared this type of unassuming, easygoing personality, but our music had this fire that people wouldn’t think came out of the same person they’d observed in normal life.

That relationship deepened when Max took the band to Europe. Our first stop was London, where we spent about a month. Stanley and I spent practically every day together, dealing with the rigors of touring, and planes and trains and hotels, and I believe that’s when this bond of music and camaraderie really started to build between us. It primed us for going into business together a few years later, first in Music Inc. and then with Strata-East Records. That made the bond between us unbreakable. We never had a moment of bad words or even misunderstandings. The idea of anything negative coming between us was never even on the table.

He had this wonderful curiosity and intellect. He was always checking everything out that had to do with music, always on the ground floor of any new technology. Even before the computer, he was exploring different types of devices to explore other sounds, and then of course combining them with his incredible pianistic skills. He had a wonderful way of teaching too, without being dogmatic in his tutelage.

We were doing Strata-East together until about 1983. I don’t think there was a day that passed when we didn’t talk on the phone during that time. After that, we were always in touch, even as we were performing in different formations and building family lives with children. After he moved with his family to the D.C. area, he still maintained a residence in the New York area because he was teaching at Rutgers, so he would come to see me quite often. Or I would drive down to see him in D.C. or in Dover, [Delaware], where they also had a home after he retired from Rutgers. Our families spent frequent time together. There was nothing personally going on with him that I didn’t know, or with me that he didn’t know.

I’m still devastated by his loss. Younger musicians need to do their due diligence when it comes to Stanley and his place in his art form. It would do them a world of good to go over his works, and definitely would add another dimension to their art, if they want to be part of the real deal of this music.

[as told to Michael J. West]

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