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Stanley Cowell – All about the musician: a complete biography of the jazz pianist

Cowell left behind a daughter, Sunny, and great music that has and will continue to inspire his followers...

The story of Stanley Cowell, the legendary jazz pianist

Stanley Cowell is an accomplished jazz pianist, educator and co-founder of the pioneering jazz label Strata-East Records. At about the age of 4, Cowell began playing the piano, and by the mid-60s he was performing with the jazz ensemble Detroit Artist's Workshop ... At the end of 2020, the legendary jazzman died: Stanley Cowell died at the age of 79 ... However, the legacy that musician left us all, will live forever!

Childhood, family…

A pioneering and technically accomplished pianist whose influences ranged from the virtuoso Art Tatum to the avant-garde iconoclast Cecil Taylor, Cowell patented a distinctly percussive approach to the keys… It was this approach that propelled his music forward into new and uncharted territories… Cowell passed his musical apprenticeship playing at the end 60s with such modern jazz icons as Max Roach, Miles Davis, Stan Getz. Later, he would rather quickly reincarnate as a self-confident leader who chose an individualistic path in jazz and who always sought to expand the horizons of music without ignoring its blues roots!

"Stanley has always been an inspiration because he's not a frozen artist…" drummer Nashit Waits, who played live with Cowell in the 1990s, once said. “He is always exploring, coming up with new ways of expressing himself… His music is extraordinarily lively, just like himself…”

Stanley Cowell
Stanley Cowell

Stanley Cowell was born in 1941 in Toledo, Ohio to a family truly dedicated to music! And although the boy's parents were not professional musicians, they willingly sang and played musical instruments. Of course, their infectious enthusiasm was reflected in the young Stanley, who took piano lessons from the age of four.

Introduction to Jazz...

The turning point in young Stanley's musical life was in 1947, when he met a real jazz piano legend... As he recalled in his interview:

“Art Tatum once came to our house when I was six years old. He visited family and friends and met my father, who invited him to visit ... "

Known for his superhuman virtuosity, Tatum ended up having a profound effect on Cowell! But as a teenager, the up-and-coming young musician was more drawn to blues and R&B music - motives in the spirit of Muddy Waters, which he heard on a local radio station ...

Jazz finally hit Cowell's musical radar when he first heard bebop at the age of thirteen. At the time, classical music was his main focus, and after graduating from high school, Stanley studied music at Oberlin College. Later, in 1965, he received a master's degree in piano playing from the University of Michigan.

“I was immersed in the study of the piano: during the day I practiced and studied classical music, and at night I played jazz,” the musician recalled.

First steps

Stanley Cowell (stanley Cowell) in his youth
Stanley Cowell (stanley Cowell) in his youth

At first, Cowell played jazz professionally in the Ron Brooks Trio, whose previous pianist, by the way, was the future fusion pioneer Bob James. At this point, Cowell, whose mind was blown after performing with the blind multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk, gravitated towards avant-garde jazz: the genre beckoned him with bold experimentalism and freedom of musical expression ...

Upon graduation in 1966, Cowell moved to New York to establish himself as a jazz pianist. He was immediately hired by avant-garde alto saxophonist Marion Brown, with whom he recorded two consecutive albums. Cowell's ability to combine his polished technique with keen emotional intelligence and a keen sense of tonal color was well suited to Brown's exploratory musical adventures.

A year later, Cowell successfully auditioned for the Max Roach Drummer Quintet, where he met trumpeter Charles Tolliver, who would become his closest friend and musical companion for many years... Participation in Roach's band opened new doors for the pianist: Stanley not only played with Miles Davis and a vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson in the late 60s, but also started his own recording career! While on a trip to Europe with Roach's band in 1969, Cowell recorded his debut album in London, Blues for the Viet Cong.

Own group and ... success!

Stanley Cowell (Waiting For The Moment album cover)
Stanley Cowell (Waiting For The Moment album cover)

After leaving Roach's band in 1970, Cowell and Tolliver formed their own band, Music Inc. And when they couldn't get record labels interested in their music, they decided to release it themselves, through their own Strata-East! This label, which allowed artists to maintain control over their master recordings, became a valuable platform for black musicians at a time when jazz was suffering financially and big record deals were hard to come by...

“There were no contracts,” Tolliver recalled. "The deal was that the record would be an agreement with us and the artist could record with anyone."

So, Stanley Cowell recorded five albums for Strata-East, including "Handscapes", where he led an adventurous keyboard group called The Piano Choir. However, in the late 70s, the musician radically changed his musical direction, adopting jazz-funk! His synthesizer playing can be heard on a series of records for the Galaxy label. Cowell was also in high demand as a sideman, playing on albums by saxophonist Johnny Griffin and drummer Roy Haynes. Subsequently, he left Tolliver to run Strata-East alone...

“I was so busy with my career…,” Stanley Cowell recalled in one of his interviews. "I thought the Strata-East would work on its own..."

Stanley Cowell...
Stanley Cowell…

The pianist continued to record albums throughout the 1980s, but at the beginning of the new decade he pushed performances to the background and took up a teaching position at New York's Lehman College. Although he pursued a parallel career in music education for the rest of his life (he later taught at Rutgers University), Cowell remained a prolific musician whose output continued to grow. In his later projects, hobbies for experimental electronic music can be traced. "Piano Concerto No 1" is a recording in which he paid tribute to a man he met as a child, Art Tatum...

Last years of life…

Stanley Cowell...
Stanley Cowell...

Unfortunately, the last album of the 2020s, Live at Keystone Korner Baltimore, recorded in October 2019, proved to be Cowell's musical epitaph: it is a brilliant showcase of piano playing that has confidently traversed an independent path between jazz tradition and modernism... Cowell's unique sound was eloquently described by renowned contemporary jazz pianist Jason Moran, who, reacting to the news of the pianist's passing in an Instagram post, wrote:

“Stanley invented piano tracks. Many times his two arms sounded like there were six of them…”

Stanley Cowell
Stanley Cowell

Stanley Cowell passed away at the end of 2020 at a Delaware State Hospital. The cause was hypovolemic shock. At the time of his death, the jazz musician was 79 years old ... Cowell left behind his daughter Sunny and great music that serves and will continue to serve as a source of inspiration for his followers ...

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