Following our post on Eugene Coles and Gil Scott-Heron's collaboration around Winter in America, we take a look at the label that produced that record, Strata-East.
A D.I.Y. Approach
Trumpeter Charles Tolliver and Pianist Stanley Cowell were rising stars in the jazz world of the late 1960s. After being sideman for names including Max Roach, Bobby Hutcherson, Jackie McLean, and Roy Ayers, the duo formed the group Music Inc. and released an album on Polydor in 1969. But when their subsequent album was passed over for release by all the major record labels, Tolliver and Cowell were undeterred and decided to release the album themselves. The two men already saw themselves as part of a larger community of musicians whose artistic visions may have naturally placed them outside the realm of commercial viability in the eyes of large record companies. In Andy Thomas's recent write-up on Strata-East, he reports that Stanley Cowell explained "Our surprise at not being able to place the freshly recorded tapes with a major company for a sufficient advance morphed into our determination to self-produce it. The '60s Black Power movement in the United States had an effect on many black artists toward self-reliance, entrepreneurship, and self-determination." Specifically, Tolliver and Cowell were fascinated with the approach of Kenny Cox and Charles Moore in Detroit, who had set up an independent jazz label called Strata Records. Eager to adopt the teachings of Strata, Tolliver and Cowell set about creating their own east-coast version and in 1971 Strata-East Records was born. The two labels were technically separate but obviously shared several affinities. One look at the logo and album design aesthetic of both Kenny Cox's 1975 output on Strata Records and Shamek Farrah's Strata-East recording from 1974 serves to visually affirm the relationship.
A Radical Business Model
The art of Strata-East albums has often been described as radical, both in its content and its aesthetic. These compositions, then, seemed to match the entire structure upon which the label was built. Since Tolliver and Cowell had started Strata-East as two musicians just looking to get their work out into the hands of the public, they offered other artists a similar opportunity, meaning they helped distribute more than produce records. In Superfly Records' recent interview with Charles Tolliver, the trumpeter explained, "I decided there would be no artist under contract. The artist would have to produce his own product just as Stanley and I had. We, Strata East, would serve as their conduit to the market place with 70/80 payback to them. IT WAS A GOOD DEAL..." Musicians essentially had full artistic control of their recordings, and they also owned the masters, so when the records finally sold, the lion's share of the profit went back to the recording artist. But that is not to say that anyone was getting incredibly rich on the Strata-East label. While Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson's Winter in America did receive critical and commercial success, that album proved to be the exception to the rule. Tolliver emphasized that, "No deal was ever made with any artist based on whether or not it would be a commercial success. It was made because the artist wanted and needed to have a product commercially issued and came to us to help them accomplish that. Obviously some were more successful than others."
Strata-East largely ceased its output by 1976 but the label is technically still in existence, and Tolliver and Cowell (both in their 70s) remain working musicians. You can find many original Strata-East recordings that have been reissued on CD at Mosaic Records.
You can find the entire interview between Charles Tolliver and the awesome Parisian record store Superfly Records here.
Andy Thomas' review of some key Strata-East recordings can be found here.
Many of the images seen in this post can also be found in an amazing compilation of album covers called Freedom, Rhythm & Sound: Revolutionary Jazz Original Cover Art 1965-83.