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Stanley Cowell, Pianist, Composer and Educator with a Kaleidoscopic View of Jazz, Is Dead at 79

Stanley Cowell, a pianist, composer and educator who demonstrated a vast range of possibilities for jazz over the last 50 years, died on Thursday at Bayhealth Hospital in Dover, Del. He was 79.

The cause was Hypovolemic shock as a result of other health complications, said trumpeter Charles Tolliver, one of Cowell’s closest musical associates.

“Stanley invented pathways for the piano,” Jason Moran, among his pianistic heirs, attested in a post on Instagram. “Many times his two hands sounded as if they were six. The drums in the left hand, the strings or guitar in the middle, the horns and the voice up high, the kalimba down below.”

Cowell came of age musically at a moment when the jazz tradition was understood to be in flux. A piano virtuoso with a sharp, capacious mind, he upheld an exacting standard for acoustic post-bop in the 1970s. His output in that decade was both prolific and far-ranging; among his signature ensembles was The Piano Choir, which consisted of no fewer than seven pianists, including Harold Mabern and Hugh Lawson.

Handscapes, the lone album by The Piano Choir, was released on Strata-East, a pioneering label that Cowell founded with Tolliver in 1971. Inspired by Strata Records, a collective entity in Detroit, Strata-East was an independent affair in every sense, from the production to the distribution.

It became arguably the most significant indie jazz label of the ‘70s, home to Music Inc., a band co-led by Tolliver and Cowell; tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan, whose classic Glass Bead Games features Cowell on piano; and even Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson, whose Winter in America would yield a Top 20 R&B hit, “The Bottle.”

Cowell also released his first solo piano album, Musa: Ancestral Streamson Strata-East; it stands as an early indication of his genius. One piece on the album, “Equipoise,” also provided the core sample for a hip-hop track by The Pharcyde.

Stanley Cowell was born in Toledo, Ohio on May 5, 1941, into a family of amateur music enthusiasts. “My father played street-corner violin with some preachers when he was very young,” he told Marian McPartland in a 1999 episode of Piano Jazz. “He was a businessman, and he built the first motel in the city limits of Toledo, Ohio. And all the musicians that would come to town, I would meet, because in those days especially because of segregation or choice, they would stay in the Black community. So I would meet all the musicians who came through.”

The most consequential of those would be piano phenom Art Tatum, a Toledo native who visited the Cowell household when Stanley was 6 years old. His father asked Tatum to play some piano, and the legend suggested that young Stanley play first. So he did, playing a piece from a popular piano method book. Tatum followed suit, performing the Rodgers and Hart standard “You Took Advantage of Me.”

Cowell included a stride piano version of that song on his 1969 debut album, Blues For the Viet Cong, released on the British label Polydor. At that point he was only a few years into a mainstream jazz career, having worked with saxophonists Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Marion Brown.

In 1967 he joined a band led by trailblazing drummer Max Roach; it was in this context that he first met Tolliver. And the impact Cowell made there was immediate: he composed half the music for Roach’s 1968 Atlantic album Members, Don’t Git Weary, including “Equipoise” and “Effi.”

Cowell’s subsequent work as a sideman extended to saxophonists Art Pepper, Sonny Fortune, Gary Bartz and Stan Getz; vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson; and drummer Roy Haynes.

Stanley Cowell performing with The Heath Brothers at Rockerfeller Center in June of 1977.
Credit Tom Marcello
Stanley Cowell performing with The Heath Brothers at Rockerfeller Center in June of 1977.

With Tolliver and Music Inc., he released six albums, all of them now collectors’ items. And he spent a decade as the only non-Heath member of The Heath Brothers, appearing on seven of their albums.

Music education was a consistent priority throughout Cowell’s life and career. His studies took him to Oberlin, the Mozarteum University Salzburg, the University of Wichita, the University of Michigan, and the University of Southern California. He had a masters in classical piano, along with formal study in composition. So it was a natural progression to move into teaching from the mid 1970s on, first at Amherst College, then Lehman College, the New England Conservatory, and finally at Rutgers in N.J.

Cowell’s retirement from Rutgers, in 2013, brought a renewed energy to his career. He had been composing steadily over the years, for settings ranging from woodwind quintet to full orchestra, often in wildly ambitious terms. One work — intended for choir, concert band and electroacoustic elements — was a commemoration of the sesquicentennial of Emancipation. In 2015, Cowell released a solo piano reduction of that piece, called Juneteenth.

Cowell also intensified his interest in electronic music, and in particular the digital sound-design system known as Kyma, which allowed him to manipulate the pitch and texture of his output on an acoustic piano. At times in performance, he’d use it to harmonize his lines in real time. When he performed a week at The Village Vanguard in 2015 — an occasion widely hailed as a notable event — he incorporated Kyma as a tool in his arsenal.

Stanley Cowell performing at The Jazz Gallery in 2020.
Credit Jonathan Chimene / WBGO
Stanley Cowell performing at The Jazz Gallery in 2020.

Cowell never maintained a high profile, even among most serious jazz fans, but he earned a circle of devoted admirers. And despite the sprawl of his music that went unreleased, he did make almost three dozen albums; the most recent is Live at Keystone Korner Baltimore, featuring a band that includes Freddie Hendrix on trumpet and Bruce Williams on saxophone.

Throughout his career, indifferent to the public reception, Cowell maintained a fiercely independent streak and a commitment to the most ambitious expression of his artistry. “One of my composition teachers accused me of trying to write the history of music in one song,” he told McPartland on Piano Jazz. “He said, ‘Don’t do that.’ And that’s the last lesson I took from him.”

Copyright 2020 WBGO