In 1971, together with the trumpeter Charles Tolliver, Mr. Cowell founded Strata-East Records, a pioneering institution in jazz and the broader Black Arts Movement. It would release a steady run of pathbreaking music over the coming decade, becoming one of the most successful Black-run labels of its time.
Mr. Cowell and Mr. Tolliver met in the late 1960s, as members of the drummer Max Roach’s ensemble. After recording a now-classic album with Roach, “Members, Don’t Git Weary,” in 1968, they formed a quartet called Music Inc., which released its debut LP, “The Ringer,” on Polydor in 1970. But Mr. Cowell and Mr. Tolliver found themselves unable to find a label that would pay what they considered a fair advance for their next album, at a time when jazz’s commercial appeal was fading.
Inspired by the Black musicians’ collectives that had recently sprouted up in cities across the country, and by the artist-run Strata label in Detroit, Mr. Cowell and Mr. Tolliver founded Strata-East. Their second album together, “Music Inc.,” with the quartet fleshed out into a large ensemble, was the label’s first release.
“The aesthetic ambition was to compose, play and extend the music of our great influences, mentors and innovators, while keeping the distinguishing features of the jazz tradition,” Mr. Cowell said in a 2015 interview for the Superfly Records website.
Over the coming decade, Strata-East would release dozens of albums with a similar goal at heart, including some gemlike LPs by Mr. Cowell: “Musa: Ancestral Streams” (1974), a solo album of understated breadth; “Regeneration” (1975), an odyssey equally inspired by pop music and pan-Africanism; and a pair of singular albums with the Piano Choir, a group of seven pianists, “Handscapes 1” (1973) and “Handscapes 2” (1975).