Pain Relief Beyond Belief





From Blakey to Brown, Como to Costa, Eckstine to Eldridge, Galbraith to Garner, Harris to Hines, Horne to Hyman, Jamal to Jefferson, Kelly to Klook; Mancini to Marmarosa, May to Mitchell, Negri to Nestico, Parlan to Ponder, Reed to Ruther, Strayhorn to Sullivan, Turk to Turrentine, Wade to Williams… the forthcoming publication Treasury of Pittsburgh Jazz Connections by Dr. Nelson Harrison and Dr. Ralph Proctor, Jr. will document the legacy of one of the world’s greatest jazz capitals.


Do you want to know who Dizzy Gillespie  idolized? Did you ever wonder who inspired Kenny Clarke and Art Blakey? Who was the pianist that mentored Monk, Bud Powell, Tad Dameron, Elmo Hope, Sarah Vaughan and Mel Torme? Who was Art Tatum’s idol and Nat Cole’s mentor? What musical quartet pioneered the concept adopted later by the Modern Jazz Quartet? Were you ever curious to know who taught saxophone to Stanley Turrentine or who taught piano to Ahmad Jamal? What community music school trained Robert McFerrin, Sr. for his history-making debut with the Metropolitan Opera? What virtually unknown pianist was a significant influence on young John Coltrane, Shirley Scott, McCoy Tyner, Bobby Timmons and Ray Bryant when he moved to Philadelphia from Pittsburgh in the 1940s?  Would you be surprised to know that Erroll Garner attended classes at the Julliard School of Music in New York and was at the top of his class in writing and arranging proficiency?


Some answers  can be gleaned from the postings on the Pittsburgh Jazz Network.


For almost 100 years the Pittsburgh region has been a metacenter of jazz originality that is second to no other in the history of jazz.  One of the best kept secrets in jazz folklore, the Pittsburgh Jazz Legacy has heretofore remained mythical.  We have dubbed it “the greatest story never told” since it has not been represented in writing before now in such a way as to be accessible to anyone seeking to know more about it.  When it was happening, little did we know how priceless the memories would become when the times were gone.


Today jazz is still king in Pittsburgh, with events, performances and activities happening all the time. The Pittsburgh Jazz Network is dedicated to celebrating and showcasing the places, artists and fans that carry on the legacy of Pittsburgh's jazz heritage.






Duke Ellington is first African-American and the first musician to solo on U.S. circulating coin



       In Her Own Words

Strata-East Records: An Oral History

When Charles Tolliver and the late Stanley Cowell co-founded Strata-East in 1971, their only goal was to put out their own work. Before long, though, they found themselves in charge of one of the era’s leading jazz labels—and a lasting symbol of artistic independence.

Charles Tolliver 1974  Charles Tolliver, New York, 1974 (photo: Raymond Ross Archives/CTSIMAGES)

The rock world takes a lot of credit for what’s known as the “indie ethos,” or “DIY.” Circumventing the corporate music industry with small labels and self-pressed and -promoted records is often thought of as a postpunk-era notion, exemplified by the English label Factory Records’ proud credo: “The musicians own all the music and we own nothing!”

Yet that ethos wasn’t new. As with so many other things, Black American music—and jazz in particular—had gotten there first. In 1971, Charles Tolliver and Stanley Cowell founded Strata-East Records in New York. The label operated on the principle that the artists owned all of their output, with Strata-East taking only a small commission to keep the lights on (if that).

It was only active for a decade. But today, 50 years after the fact, Strata-East is lionized. Part of that has to do with the remarkably high quality (and relative rarity) of its catalogue. However, its pioneering approach to artist self-determination is perhaps even more celebrated.

This oral history is based primarily on interviews with Tolliver and Cowell; the latter gave this writer his final interview just weeks before he passed away last December. Sylvia, his wife, also provides some insights, as do several of the artists who worked with Strata-East. All quotes have been edited for space and clarity.


CHARLES TOLLIVER, trumpeter: Stanley [Cowell] 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.

STANLEY COWELL, pianist: Summer ’67 to summer ’68, that was the year I worked with Max. Then in the winter of ’68 to ’69 I went on tour with Miles, and then Stan Getz and the Bobby Hutcherson-Harold Land group. But Max still called for special things at that time, special projects with some of his larger works.

Then of course Charles and I worked together in Music Inc.; it was a co-op, but he was the one who started that band. We went to Europe in the summer of 1969, and while we were in London both of us made records under our own names [Tolliver’s The Ringer; Cowell’s leadership debut Blues for the Viet Cong].

By 1970, the idea had been in Charles’ mind for some time to produce a big-band record, and so I was part of helping to produce the first big-band record [Music Inc., recorded in November 1970].

TOLLIVER: The recording sat for a while and then I shopped it around. And you know, [Riverside’s Orrin] Keepnews and all the others, they said, “Well, man, big band.” Well, Thad Jones and them were doing it! But Stanley and I weren’t known as big-band leaders or anything like that, so I never got a yes.

I decided I would read up on how you really put out a recording, like the big guys. I checked with Max Roach [who had co-owned Debut Records with Charles Mingus from 1952-57], and he showed me how they’d done the covers. I talked to this lady who was at that time a label person for Epic; she gave me basically mom-and-pops that the majors use, and also their bigger distributors. And I figured out who was doing the mastering. There was one other important item, and that is the paper. The jackets. Come to find out, that’s the whole ballgame.

So I said, “Stan, we might as well do the whole thing, you know?”

COWELL: I had gone to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and there was a group of Detroit musicians I played with around the Artists Workshop there. Kenny Cox, a pianist, and Charles Moore, a trumpet player, were part of it.

Around 1970 or so, they came to me. They had founded Strata Corporation in Detroit, and they had a concert space, and they were going to produce records. They were all part of this spreading entrepreneurial movement: Musicians should have self-determination in terms of what they put out, not always be beholden to some other people who don’t look like us and probably are ripping us off.

But it moved from a racial-based idea to an entrepreneurial idea. And they wanted us to start a company and affiliate with Strata Corporation. We started the company, but Charles thought we needed a little more autonomy, and so he incorporated it separately as Strata-East Records Incorporated. Connected, but independent.

TOLLIVER: Kenny and Charles, they had this square logo, with stripes getting smaller down to the end. And I didn’t like that; it looked too much like a flag. I just rounded it into a disc and put “Strata-East” at the bottom, and that became our logo. I trademarked it, and I said, “Okay, now we’re ready to go.”



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 h

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