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Charles Tolliver Celebrates 50 Years of Strata East This Week, Live at Birdland

Charles Tolliver
WRTI/NPR
Charles Tolliver performing at The Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz & Performing Arts on Oct. 12, 2019.

Fifty years ago, trumpeter Charles Tolliver and pianist Stanley Cowell teamed up to make an entrepreneurial effort now known as Strata East Records to document their new music for their Music Inc. quartet project with big band.

Their resulting model served as a guide for self-reliance and independence for generations of composers and musicians after them. This week at Birdland, Aug. 31 through Sept. 5, Tolliver will lead an all-star assembly including saxophonist Billy Harper, pianist George Cables, bassist Buster Williams, drummer Lenny White — and on the last show of the engagement, narrator Danny Glover and bassist Cecil McBee, in commemoration of Strata East Records.

WBGO's Let Me Tell You 'Bout It w/Charles Tolliver

Season One of WBGO Studios' Jazz United podcast dug deep on Tolliver, whose most recent album, Connect, was issued last year on Gearbox Records. He's one of the torchbearers of the post-bop generation of the 1960s and 1970s, who translated the feelings and events of the day into a lively, spirited and energetic style of musicianship. He has continued to inspire in recent years as a bandleader, mentor and educator. As he set out to craft a template for his company in 1970, he sought the wisdom of his former employer Max Roach as well as the saxophonist Clifford Jordan.

"The person next to Stanley and myself that was most important in the early development of the label was Clifford Jordan," Tolliver says. "He has already recorded a number of well-known artists...and that became [our] Dolphy Series. [After that] a lot of musicians started to ask if they could get involved and get a product of theirs released under the Strata East label name."

After the musicians recorded their project and invested in it, they were the first in line to see the profits. Nobody was under contract and could entertain other offers as they came in. One artist, Gil-Scott Heron, caught wind of the Strata East model and decided to get connected. The result was classic and the Winter in America album in 1974 became the label's biggest commercial success by earning a gold record and debuting at No. 6 on the Billboard Top Jazz Albums chart.

The first ten years of the label saw its most prolific output, and many of the original vinyl pressings from then command a high dollar in the record collector community. Many of the recordings have been reissued on CD over the years, and many hip-hop and electronica producers have looked to Strata East recordings for sound sources involved in sampling. Tolliver is encouraged by the label's impact and believes that the same self-reliance in other artists will ultimately make a pathway for them.

"Don't be afraid to take the bull by the horns," Tolliver says. "Direct your career the way that you want to go. It doesn't mean that you have to be hard-nosed. There will always be someone that will step up, hopefully, and champion what you have to offer."