Stanley Cowell, Pianist, Composer, Educator

When the 1981 movie version of E.L. Doctorow’s novel, Ragtime, was being filmed, jazz pianist/composer Stanley Cowell was hired to coach actor Howard Rollins, who was portraying the fictional pianist, Coalhouse Walker. “Rollins played the piano a little,” Cowell told me, but the trick, he added, was to make him look like a professional player of the ragtime era. “With great difficulty he could play the notes,” Cowell said, “but it would have taken him two years to work up a performance of one of those pieces that was really a performance.”

Cowell, who died in Camden, DE, on December 17, 2020, at the age of 79, explained this to me during an interview in 1982 at his home in Peekskill, NY, for an article that appeared in the Sunday Magazine of the Toledo Blade newspaper. Cowell was from Toledo and when he was six years old, he met Art Tatum who had been invited to his home by Cowell’s father, a local trumpeter.

Twenty six years later, I interviewed Cowell again to update the original article for a chapter in my book, Jazz Notes: Interviews Across the Generations (Praeger/ABC Clio: 2009). This time, it took place in his room at the Holiday Inn Express in New Brunswick, NJ. Cowell was Director of Jazz Studies at Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts, and he commuted from his home in Upper Marlboro, MD.

The most difficult aspect of the Coalhouse Walker piano playing role, Cowell said, was to get Rollins “away from reading the notes to just dealing with the shape of the phrase . . . I was trying to get him to get the overall proportions, the overall look of the piece – the oompah oompah bass figure in ragtime.” The result: “He did great. He worked hard. We worked twice a week for about two months. Then a new batch of music came down about six months later, and we worked again.”

Born on May 5, 1941, in Toledo, Cowell had already been taking piano lessons for two years when Tatum visited his home. “My father,” he said, “insisted that he play, and I don’t think he really wanted to play. He had a way of choosing titles that reflected the way he felt, so he played ‘You Took Advantage of Me’, and he played the hell out of it. He played it so strongly and so powerfully that my mother left the room and went into the kitchen, kind of shaken and seemingly upset. I asked her what was wrong, and she said, ‘Oh, that man plays too much piano.’”

In 2008 when I interviewed Cowell in New Brunswick, he had been teaching at Rutgers for eight years, but, prior to that, he was an Associate Professor of Jazz Studies at Lehman College in the Bronx. “Teaching today,” he said, “is a real challenge. These guys can play. They’re already professional-level musicians. The first week of my jazz improvisation course I usually have them play standards. Ultimately, I want them to write vehicles that will take them out of the nightclub and push them to bigger venues incorporating orchestras, choruses, church choirs, dance groups.”

In the early 1980s, Cowell was described by DownBeat as “a fine composer and a keyboard performer of considerable range and depth . . .  a musician capable of almost anything.”  According to JazzTimes’ Michael J. West, (December 18, 2020), Cowell “curtailed his live performances significantly in the 1980s because of an aversion to the cigarette smoke that filled most jazz clubs . . . Nevertheless, Cowell was revered among jazz cognoscenti and especially among his fellow musicians . . . His talent and erudition were ferocious, though he tempered that ferocity with a gentle, thoughtful personal character whose reserve could conceal his extraordinary intelligence and kindness.” Pianist Jason Moran, who is Artistic Director for Jazz at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, told WBGO’s Nate Chinen that Cowell “invented pathways for the piano. 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.”

After retiring from Rutgers in 2013, Cowell returned to performing, including a week’s engagement in 2015 at the Village Vanguard in New York. He also often appeared in the Mid-Atlantic area, and his last album was Live at Keystone Korner Baltimore (Steeplechase: 2020). 

Pointing out Cowell’s long absence from performing, The New York Times’ Ben Ratliff wrote that his Vanguard appearance “seemed like an index of what we’ve been missing. He played post-bop originals and blues language and jarring electro-acoustic music; he articulated Art Tatum-like flourishes and runs as a matter of course, no matter the context; and he ended his set with a song played on African thumb-piano.”

Arriving in New York City in 1966, Cowell was hired by alto saxophonist Marion Brown. Then, in 1967, he joined a group led by drummer Max Roach. In 1971, he and trumpeter Charles Tolliver formed Strata-East Records, described by West as “an influential force and a pioneer among independent, artist-owned-and-operated record companies.” Among those who recorded on the label were Music Inc., a band co-led by Cowell and Tolliver and tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan. Cowell also created an ensemble called The Piano Choir, consisting of at least seven pianists. Its members included Hugh Lawson, Harold Mabern, and Danny Mixon, among others. Strata-East released two Piano Choir albums: Handscapes and Handscapes 2. 

Charles Tolliver’s son, Ched, posted a tribute to Cowell on Facebook, describing him as “a remarkably gifted jazz musician and music teacher who co-founded Strata-East Records with my father 50 years ago. I knew him as Uncle Stanley. He was family. An absolutely brilliant pianist and composer, educator, father, friend, beautiful soul . . .” Today, Strata-East exists mainly to license items from its back catalog for other labels.

In the late ‘60s and ‘70s, Cowell also performed with saxophonists Sonny Fortune, Stan Getz, and Art Pepper; vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson; and the Heath Brothers (tenor saxophonist Jimmy, bassist Percy, and drummer Albert). 

Majoring in music at Oberlin College and Conservatory in Ohio, he was somewhat frustrated by the school’s attitude toward jazz. “When I first got there,” he told me, “the dean of the music school, at his opening address, said, ‘This is a Bach, Beethoven, Brahms school. All that other stuff – keep it out of here.’ That surprised me because Dave Brubeck had gotten a lot of popularity because of a record, Jazz at Oberlin.”  He was, however, able to play jazz off campus at local clubs.

In 2006, Cowell took a sabbatical from Rutgers to work on an orchestration commissioned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He composed a 12-part suite for different works of art from India, China, and Japan. Cowell always felt strongly about the connection between classical music and jazz. He told me a rift had developed between the jazz and classical areas when he arrived at Rutgers in 2000. “There was no effort to connect the classical and jazz programs,” he said. “Part of my tact in writing pieces for classical ensembles was to repair that rift.”

Cause of death was hypovolemic shock as a result of other health complications. Survivors include his wife, Sylvia; their daughter, Sunny, a singer and violinist; and another daughter, Selena, from a previous marriage.

Sanford Josephson

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