Self-Determined, Then and Now: A Focus on Charles Tolliver

Jul 24, 2020

Charles Tolliver has lived his share of jazz history. As a fiery young sideman with Jackie McLean and Max Roach in the 1960s, he joined a lineage of exalted post-bop trumpeters, more than holding his own. But Tolliver also set a model of self-determination in the ‘70s, with a DIY record label called Strata-East.

I first discovered Tolliver’s music in my teens, and earlier this year I realized that 2020 marks Strata-East’s 50th anniversary. So in February, not long after I arrived in the New York area, I arranged an interview with Tolliver. In this third episode of Jazz United, you’ll hear portions of that interview as well as a conversation with my cohost, Nate Chinen.

We were especially interested in considering Strata-East as a groundbreaking case study. With a mission to record and release music themselves — sidestepping the delays and other hassles of a traditional industry pipeline — Tolliver and his label cofounder, pianist Stanley Cowell, made a significant mark.


Likeminded artists, including Roach, saxophonist Clifford Jordan and percussionist and vocalist Mtume, brought their projects to Strata-East. The incisive soul poet Gil Scott-Heron released a landmark album on the label, Winter in America, that yielded a hit single called “The Bottle.” (It reached No. 15 on Billboard’s Top R&B Singles chart.)

And when Nate told me that Gearbox Records would be issuing an all-new Charles Tolliver album this summer, I was ecstatic. We’ll also discuss that album — Connect, which releases on July 31 — and hear a portion of its lead single, “Blue Soul.” And we’ll talk about how Tolliver’s early example of self-determination takes on even greater significance during the coronavirus pandemic, as artists are compelled to handle their own production and promotion.

Jazz United is produced by Sarah Kerson. Our senior producer is Simon Rentner.

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Music in This Episode: