Amazing and inventive jazz pianist with a knack for classical, often adventurous compositions
A piano technique that encompassed ragtime, boogie, Art Tatum’s dazzling virtuosity, Thelonious Monk’s acuity, 1960s free jazz and groundbreaking electronics would have been enough to make American pianist Stanley Cowell a major jazz star – even if he hadn’t combined those talents with adventurous compositions, an illustrious teaching career and a founding role in one of the most famous African-A Yet Cowell, who died at the age of 79, was an innovator who spent most of his rich musical life remaining under the radar.
Cowell forged his own course with a combination of single-mindedness, happenstance, a passion for education that rivaled his musical talent, and indifference to others’ perceptions of his originality. But this was not only a private life journey, because Cowell still grasped the beat of the mainstream pulse, whether in styles of jazz that captured the rhythms of dance floors and church songs, as hard-bop did, or in early electro-jazz experiments, such as his 1969 Viet Cong album Blues, featuring the title track, an edgy choppy trio piece that dealt with U.S. participation in Vietnam In order to see Cowell mature as a jazz and classical singer, teenage years and a family association with Tatum blended with formal music training. He collaborated with the multi-red phenomenon Rahsaan Roland Kirk while attending Oberlin College in Ohio in 1962 and later had collaborations with Marion Brown, a free-jazz saxophonist, and Max Roach, a bebop leader and drummer. He worked with Music Inc, a large-band group headed by a Roach protégé, the trumpeter Charles Tolliver, from 1969 to 1973. In 1971, with Tolliver, whose first release was the album Music Inc & Big Band, Cowell co-founded the Strata-East record label. The label was devoted to exploratory African-American jazz and the founders’ original sessions-particularly Cowell’s groundbreaking piano septet, Piano Choir-but it was also large enough to release Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson’s 1974 album Winter in America.
While Cowell and Tolliver chose to retire from Strata-East that year, mainly to follow their busy schedules of touring and recording, for a new jazz generation, the label remained successful and iconic. Cowell then spent a decade working frequently in the group Heath Brothers with Philadelphia hard-bop siblings Jimmy, Percy and Albert Heath in 1974, and recorded in the ’70s with Joe Henderson, Art Pepper, Johnny Griffin and Roy Haynes. He has performed widely with his own groups and with the trombonist JJ Johnson in the ’80s and’ 90s.
In mid-life, alongside a burgeoning teaching career at Lehman College in New York (1988-99) and the New England Conservatory (1988-89) until his retirement from Rutgers University in 2013, his compositional output moved gradually towards jazz and classical fusion. Stanley was the son of Hazel (née Lytle) and her husband, born in Toledo, Ohio, and Stanley, a businessman who founded the first motel in the city and was an amateur violinist. From the age of four, the boy received classical piano lessons, and the family home was an open house for jazz musicians, including Tatum, another Toledo resident, who, at the request of his father, played a duet with the then six-year-old in 1947. Stanley studied piano and pipe organ and was involved with classical music until his mid-teens, when jazz started to fascinate him more and more. He performed Dmitry Kabalevsky’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Toledo Youth Orchestra at 15. Before studying at the universities of Wichita, Southern California, and Michigan, he attended the Akademie Mozarteum in Salzburg in 1960 and the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio in 1962. In 1966, a master’s degree from Michigan was followed by a period of collaboration with Brown and Roach that led to a decade of change in his life, during which he met Tolliver and became the linchpin of the big band Tolliver’s Music Inc, co-founded Strata-East, began as a composer and improviser, and was a top-notch piano collaborator for some of the biggest names on the border of bebop and free j He founded his adventurous piano ensemble Piano Choir in 1972 and became a founding member of the non-profit organization Collective Black Artists Inc, committed to promoting African American music.
He worked on the Se Se in 1974.