Stanley Cowell ’62, Jazz Pianist, Composer, and Educator, Dies at 79

December 20, 2020
Erich Burnett
Stanley Cowell.
Stanley Cowell in concert with the Heath Brothers at Rockefeller Center in June 1977. Photo credit: Tom Marcello/courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Inventive performer played with numerous greats, dedicated himself to teaching in mid-career.

Stanley Cowell was a groundbreaking jazz pianist who played alongside a slew of legendary musicians and appeared on more than 30 recordings, a handful of them on the influential independent label he co-founded. An avid performer on the New York City scene as a young man, he ultimately dedicated his career to teaching and composing in a wide array of styles. Cowell’s contributions are considered underrated by many jazz insiders, in part because of his retreat from live performance during some of the most fertile years of his career.

Cowell returned to the stage in the final decade of his life, reveling in the dream-come-true of a weeklong residency at New York City’s famed Village Vanguard in 2015 and performing his suite Juneteenth with an ensemble of strings, voice, and percussion at An Die Musik Live in Baltimore in 2019.

Cowell died December 17, 2020, at his home in Camden, Delaware. He leaves his wife Sylvia and two daughters.

“On behalf of the Oberlin Conservatory community, I extend my deepest condolences to Mr. Cowell’s family, friends, and loved ones," says Dean of the Conservatory William Quillen. "Stanley Cowell was a towering figure in the history of jazz, and the history of 20th- and 21st-century music more broadly. As a composer, performer, and thinker, his contributions shaped contemporary musical life in profound and lasting ways, and we join with colleagues around the globe in celebrating his life and honoring his memory.”

A native of Toledo, Ohio, Cowell was raised the son of a businessman who operated the city’s first motel, which also included a record store and grill. By the time he was 6, young Stanley intersected for the first time with piano great Art Tatum, a family friend who also called Toledo home. By then two years into his own piano studies, Cowell traded turns at the keyboard when Tatum visited their home.

Cowell earned a rich and varied education grounded in classical piano and composition. At Oberlin, he was a student of the legendary piano teacher Emil Danenberg at a time when jazz existed at the far fringes of the conservatory. During his Oberlin years, Cowell also had the formative experience of performing with jazz multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk. He earned a master’s degree in piano performance at the University of Michigan and pursued additional studies at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, the University of Wichita, and the University of Southern California.

By 1966, Cowell relocated to New York City and began gigging in the bands of free-jazz saxophonist Marion Brown, drummer Max Roach, saxophonist Stan Getz, and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson. In 1969 he struck out on his own with the album Blues for the Viet Cong (Polydor), which featured seven Cowell originals—one of which he had written before beginning his studies at Oberlin—and a take on the Rodgers and Hart tune “You Took Advantage of Me,” an interpretation heavily influenced by Tatum, who had played it in the Cowell household years earlier. The album was hailed for its surprising power, especially in light of Cowell’s still-tender age.

A pioneer in the realm of 1970s post-bop, Cowell played in numerous ensembles during that period. Most notable among them was the Piano Choir, which boasted a lineup of seven pianists and released its first two albums—Handscapes (1972) and Handscapes 2 (1974)—on Strata-East, the label Cowell started with his longtime friend and collaborator, trumpeter Charles Tolliver, with whom he also created the band Music Inc. Strata-East was also home to Cowell’s first solo piano album, Musa: Ancestral Streams (1973).

At the height of his creative powers, Cowell mostly stepped away from the live concert scene—averse as he was to the smoke-filled rooms of the era—and turned his attention to teaching at Amherst College, Lehman College at the City University of New York, New England Conservatory, and finally Rutgers University.

With his 2013 retirement, he found himself reinvigorated to perform and write—for chamber ensembles, orchestras, and choirs, and branching increasingly into electroacoustic sounds. During an acclaimed weeklong stint at the Village Vanguard in 2015, he filtered his acoustic piano through Kyma, a system used to digitally manipulate sound. It represented the latest innovation in a career marked by it.

In October 2019, Cowell helped christen the new Keystone Korner, a Baltimore club opened by jazz impresario and NEA Jazz Master Todd Barkan ’68 and modeled after the San Francisco club of the same name, which thrived from the early 1970s until 1983. A recording of the performance, which featured an all-star lineup of performers—including Cowell’s own vocalist daughter, Sunny—was released on Steeplechase Records this fall.

Over the course of Cowell’s career, his numerous collaborators included Tolliver—his best friend for more than 50 years—as well as drummer Max Roach, trumpeter Miles Davis, poet Gil Scott-Heron, and saxophonists Sonny Rollins, Clifford Jordan, Stan Getz, and Gary Bartz, a longtime professor at Oberlin. For 10 years, Cowell was also a member of the Heath Brothers.

When Oberlin celebrated the opening of the Bertram and Judith Kohl Building—the home of Jazz Studies at the conservatory—in 2010, Cowell was on hand for the gala celebration. He strode onto the Finney Chapel stage, unannounced, and took a seat at the Steinway next to Stevie Wonder, with whom he played duets—with Wonder on harmonica—for some 45 minutes.

Oberlin guitar professor Bobby Ferrazza will remember the moment—and the man—forever.

“Stanley was an extremely kind, thoughtful person,” recalls Ferrazza, the longtime director of Jazz Studies. “We once had a conversation about the details of some of J.J. Johnson's music, and Stanley subsequently sent me one of J.J.'s lead sheets. He was a great musician and a truly thoughtful one.”

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