Stanley Cowell Passes

One of Toledo’s great jazz pianists, Stanley Cowell passed away in his home in Dover, Delaware, on December 17 at 79 years of age. Cowell had a long career that started in his hometown but came to include much of the jazz world. His father grew up with legendary pianist Art Tatum and Cowell recalls meeting and listening to him at six years of age. He remembers specifically hearing Tatum play “You Took Advantage of Me.” It was Cowell’s two older sisters who taught him to read music starting at three and as a teen he was playing pipe organ in church. His early jazz performances took place at the Waiters and Bellman’s Club, the M 7 L, the Aku Aku and the Park Lane Hotel with vocalist Jean Holden and bassist Vernon Martin.

Cowell’s formal education started in the early 1960s with classical piano studies at Oberlin and in 1962 as a graduate student in the School of Music at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He roomed with bassist Ron Brooks as Brooks recalled in a 2012 interview published in the SEMJA UPDATE:

“Stanley and I were roommates for maybe three years in the mid-1960s. I would wake up at 4 a.m. and he would practically play the keys off the piano. He practiced constantly. I got the job for the Ron Brooks Trio at the Towne Bar. I told the owners that I would build a stage in the window and bring in a piano and if they let us play for two weekends and business went up they could start paying us. (laughs).”

Brooks classifies Cowell in the “near genius” category along with another pianist he played with in the 1960s, Bob James.

Cowell also got to know some of the more adventurous musicians in Detroit. He was part of the Detroit Contemporary Four with trumpeter Charles Moore and bassist John Dana. Cowell took the place of guitarist Ron English and also brought drummer Ronnie Johnson into the group according to Mark Stryker’s Jazz From Detroit.

A pivotal moment in Cowell’s career was playing with drummer Max Roach in 1967–1970. Roach was a demanding leader who encouraged Cowell to respect the jazz tradition. Trumpeter Charles Tolliver was part of Roach’s group, and he and Cowell started a life-long musical partnership. They recorded together on Roach’s Members, Don’t Get Weary (Atlantic, 1968). A musician’s collective in Detroit that inspired Cowell was Strata. With Tolliver he formed Strata East Records in 1971, which produced several recordings including Music, Inc. with Tolliver, Handscapes with Piano Choir (with seven pianists including Cowell and Hugh Lawson another Detroiter), and the Heath Brothers. Cowell ended up playing and recording with the Heath Brothers group for ten years. He played the Detroit Jazz Festival in 2016.

Cowell eventually became a jazz educator teaching at CUNY and the New England Conservatory.

Toledo and Art Tatum remained a point of inspiration for Cowell for much of his career, not only as a pianist but also as a composer. He wrote a concerto for Toledo’s month-long Tatum Celebration in 1992, when it had its premiere with the Toledo Orchestra. Later he would play excerpts from this concerto in his solo performances, for example in a nicely recorded 2016 concert in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which can be found on YouTube.