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Strata-East at 50: How a revolutionary record label put control in artists' hands

Strata-East Records founders, from left: Trumpeter Charles Tolliver and pianist Stanley Cowell, photographed in 1970.
David Redfern/Redferns
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Strata-East Records founders, from left: Trumpeter Charles Tolliver and pianist Stanley Cowell, photographed in 1970.

About 50 years ago, pianist Stanley Cowell and trumpeter Charles Tolliver embarked on a bold venture together. In the face of a tough business climate, at a time of constriction in the record industry, they started their own label, Strata-East Records, breaking in its catalog with the self-titled debut by their own working band, Music Inc.

More than just an indie record label, Strata-East was one of the first artist-driven collectives; ownership of the music remained with the composer or bandleader. It was a revolutionary model at the time (and still hardly the norm today), and appealed to a range of Black creative artists, from saxophonist Clifford Jordan to poet Gil Scott-Heron and keyboardist Brian Jackson, whose 1974 album Winter in America brought Strata-East a breakout hit.

So think of this episode of Jazz Night in America as your Strata-East mixtape — featuring highlights from Jordan, saxophonist Billy Harper, singer Dee Dee Bridgewater and others. We'll also hear some analysis of the label's historic legacy from two acute cultural observers, critic Greg Tate and WBGO host Greg Bryant.

And of course, we'll hear from some artists involved with the label, including Tolliver, who reflects on the considerable toil that it took to get Strata-East off the ground. "It was just nice to be still here to see the 50th anniversary of this," he says. "And to be honest, even if I had it to do all over again, given everything we had to deal with, I think I'd do the same thing."

Strata-East selections featured:

Charles Tolliver's Music Inc & Big Band, Music Inc

Charles Tolliver, trumpet; Stanley Cowell, piano; Cecil McBee, bass; Jimmy Hopps, drums; Bobby Brown, flute; Wilbur Brown, Jimmy Heath, Clifford Jordan, tenor saxophone; Howard Johnson, baritone saxophone, tuba; Lorenzo Greenwich, Virgil Jones, Danny Moore, Richard Williams, trumpet; Garnett Brown, Curtis Fuller, John Gordon, Dick Griffin, trombone

Clifford Jordan, Glass Bead Games

Clifford Jordan, tenor saxophone; Stanley Cowell, piano; Bill Lee, bass; Billy Higgins, drums, percussion

Billy Harper, Capra Black

Billy Harper, tenor saxophone, vocals; Jimmy Owens, trumpet; Dick Griffin, Julian Priester, trombone; George Cables, piano; Reggie Workman, bass; Billy Cobham, Elvin Jones, Warren Smith, drums; Barbara Grant, Gene McDaniels, Laveda Johnson, Pat Robinson, vocals

Billy Parker's Fourth World, Freedom of Speech

Cecil McBe, bass; Billy Parker, drums; Donald Smith, piano; Ronald Bridgewater, tenor saxophone; Cecil Bridgewater, trumpet; Dee Dee Bridgewater, vocals

Charles Tolliver's Music Inc, Live at Slugs'

Charles Tolliver, trumpet; Stanley Cowell, piano; Cecil McBee, bass; Jimmy Hopps, drums

Stanley Cowell, Regeneration

Stanley Cowell, piano, synthesizer, kora, mbira; Jimmy Heath, soprano saxophone, flute, alto flute; John Stubblefield, zuna; Psyche Wanzandae, harmonica, flute; Aleke Kanonu, bass drum, vocals; Billy Higgins, drums, gembhre, percussion; Ed Blackwell, water drum, parade drum, percussion; Charles Fowlkes, vocals, electric bass

Set List:

  • Charles Tolliver's Music Inc & Big Band - "Ruthie's Heart" (Charles Tolliver)
  • Clifford Jordan - "Powerful Paul Robeson" (Clifford Jordan)
  • Billy Harper - "Soulfully, I Love You" (Billy Harper)
  • Billy Parker's Fourth World - "Get With It" (Ronald Bridgewater, arr. Cecil Bridgewater)
  • Charles Tolliver's Music Inc - "Wilpan's Walk" (Cecil McBee)
  • Stanley Cowell - "Thank You, My People" (Stanley Cowell, Aleke Kanonu)
  • Credits: Writer, Producer, and Senior Producer: Alex Ariff; Host: Christian McBride; Script Editor: Katie Simon; Project Manager: Suraya Mohamed; Senior Director of NPR Music, Keith Jenkins; Executive Producers: Anya Grundmann and Gabrielle Armand.

    Thanks: Greg Bryant and Nick Loss-Eaton

    Copyright 2022 WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center. To see more, visit WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center.