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Stanley Cowell 1941–2020

The pianist, composer, and educator was also the pioneering co-founder of Strata-East Records

Stanley Cowell
Stanley Cowell performs at the 2016 Detroit Jazz Festival (photo: Marek Lazarski)

Stanley Cowell, a pianist and composer who co-founded the seminal jazz label Strata-East Records, died on the morning of December 17 at his home in Camden, Delaware. He was 79.

His death was confirmed by Charles Tolliver, a trumpeter who was Cowell’s colleague and closest friend for more than 50 years. The cause of death was hypovolemic shock.

Cowell was a major voice on his instrument, a veteran of bands led by Max Roach, Stan Getz, and Bobby Hutcherson before beginning his career as a leader in 1969. Two years after that, Cowell and Tolliver established Strata-East in Brooklyn. The label became an influential force and a pioneer among independent, artist-owned and -operated record companies.

Though he was a highly accomplished figure in the jazz world, Cowell was often underrated as both a pianist and a composer. He himself was partly responsible for not having a higher profile. He curtailed his live performances significantly in the 1980s because of an aversion to the cigarette smoke that filled most jazz clubs; instead, he turned to academia, and as a result his recording work also became increasingly rare in the ’90s.

Nevertheless, Cowell was revered among jazz cognoscenti and especially among his fellow musicians, both for the innovative legacy of Strata-East and his own endlessly imaginative music. His talent and erudition were ferocious, though he tempered that ferocity with a gentle, thoughtful personal character whose reserve could conceal his extraordinary intelligence and kindness.

In the end, he couldn’t keep himself off the bandstand. After his retirement from teaching in the 2010s, Cowell embarked on a comeback as a working musician, culminating in 2015 with the achievement of a longtime dream: a week’s run at the Village Vanguard in New York.

Stanley Allen Cowell was born May 5, 1941 in Toledo, Ohio. When he was six years old, he watched Art Tatum—a fellow Toledoan and a friend of his father’s—playing the spinet piano in the Cowell family home and had his life forever changed. By the time he was a teenager, he had dedicated his life to jazz and to the piano.

At 17, he matriculated at the Oberlin Conservatory, graduating in 1962 and heading to the University of Michigan for graduate studies. He arrived in New York in 1966, quickly finding work with free-jazz saxophonist Marion Brown. He also met Rashied Ali while working with Brown, supporting the drummer on his debut gig at Slugs’ in May 1967. Just weeks after that gig, Cowell fell in with another great drummer when he passed an audition for Max Roach’s quintet.

He stayed with Roach for three years, later referring to his time there as “the beginning of everything.” It led to a tour with Miles Davis, a seat in Hutcherson’s quintet with Harold Land, and another in Getz’s quartet. His work with Roach additionally gave him the clout to make his own first recordings, 1969’s Blues for the Viet Cong and Brilliant Circles (both for Polydor).

It was through Roach that Cowell met Charles Tolliver, the quintet’s trumpeter, with whom he immediately became close. Together they left Roach’s band in 1970 to devote their energies to Tolliver’s new big band, Music Inc., which recorded that November. When they were unable to attract any record label’s interest, they decided to put the recording out themselves. A brief courtship with Strata Records, a company started by some of Cowell’s friends from Michigan, gave their new label its name; however, Cowell and Tolliver channeled the Black Power spirit of the day and opted for self-determination.

Though both players founded and owned Strata-East, it was Tolliver who did the actual running of the label. Cowell involved himself in other ventures, such as concert presentation and production with the Collective Black Artists group, but primarily poured himself into his music. His projects included a trio with drummer Jimmy Hopps (later succeeded by Roy Haynes) and a revolving door of bassists (including Steve Novosel, Cecil McBee, and Stanley Clarke); Piano Choir, a seven-keyboard unit; an ongoing series of solo experiments; a West Coast connection with saxophonist Art Pepper; and membership in the Heath Brothers ensemble (the only non-Heath in the group).

In 1981, Cowell was hired as a full-time faculty member at City University of New York’s Lehman College. He would remain there for 19 years, gradually making it his top career priority rather than performing and recording (though he would occasionally do both in the ensuing decades). He even left New York, moving with his family to Prince George’s County, Maryland in the late ’80s. In 2000, he changed universities, going to Rutgers and remaining there until retirement in 2013. He did do significant musical work during his time at Rutgers, including the 2011 premiere of his composition The Asian Art Suite.

Cowell’s life as a performing musician reasserted itself after his retirement from academe. Though the Vanguard was his “bucket list” accomplishment, he worked fairly regularly in the mid-Atlantic region; his final recording was a 2019 outing at Keystone Korner Baltimore.

Cowell is survived by his wife, the former Sylvia Potts; their daughter, Sunny, a singer and violinist; and another daughter, Selena, by a previous marriage.

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.