INTERVIEW / PREVIEW: Charles Tolliver (Strata-East Live with Gilles Peterson, Barbican, Mar. 22nd)

Charles Tolliver in 2009. Photo Credit: Gene Jackson / Creative Commons

Charles Tolliver talks about the New York music scene in the 60s, the trials and tribulations of starting a record label, and the background to the Strata-East night at the Barbican on 22nd March, for which Gilles Peterson is bringing him back to London, in this interview with Dan Bergsagel:

London Jazz News: Can we turn the clock back: how did your musical career kick off?

Charles Tolliver: I got my break back in 1964 with the great alto saxophonist Jackie McLean who took me under his wing and from there things just sort of happened, as they were happening in those years for anyone who was fortunate enough to get in with those original innovators. After a few years with Jackie and getting a chance, between 1964 and 1966, to be fortunate to record not only with Jackie but Gerard Wilson’s Orchestra, I performed with Roy Haynes, Sonny Rollins and Hank Mobley. After 1966/1967 I was then fortunate enough to be called on by the great Max Roach, during those years working with the group of the great Horace Silver, and Andrew Hill.

LJN: And how did you meet Strata-East co-founder Stanley Cowell?

CT: We met for the first time at our first rehearsal with Max Roach. Inicidentally during those years we came to London for the first time as young fledglings in this art form and played a double bill for a month with Max Roach’s quintet and Bill Evans and that was my introduction the the London jazz audience. I fell in love with London then and I’ve been in love with London ever since.

Stanley and I bonded immediately on meeting and working with Max Roach for those years and in 1969 I brought a group to Europe – Music Inc – which of course he was the pianist for, along with Steve Novosel on bass, and the wonderful drummer Jimmy Hopps.

We came to London and we met Alan Bates, who was at the time the label manager for Polydor, and I wound up making my first actual commercial recording as leader with Alan for Polydor, and so did Stanley.

LJN: So how did this one recording launch a record label?

CT: When we got back to the States we decided that we’d make a record of a big band surrounding the quartet, as ‘Music Inc with big band’. Actually we were only interested to take the recording and shop it around to the labels that were happening at the time – the grand old LP phonograph record time – but it seemed that it was taking too long for anybody to make a decision to issue it for us, so we decided to issue it ourselves. We had to bone up on all of the steps involved with issuing an LP in those days, 10 steps all told, ranging from post production and mastering, sleeves, jackets etc.

Then we had to decide what we were going to call the label? Stanley’s Detroit colleagues had already started to do this sort of thing for themselves, Kenny Cox and Charles Moore, and were great friends of Stanley and they said “Oh you guys are issuing a recording, we have this corporation over here called ‘Strata’, why don’t you join us and you’ll be the eastern wing”.

LJN: What gave Strata East its main break?

CT: What really pushed things along was the wonderful pianist Billy Taylor, who was the manager of a small radio station in New York called WLIB, and they were playing jazz for a few hours, and in particular one particular disc jockey named Ed Williams laid on that first recording and it started to be more acceptable for the one-stops around, and it influenced a number of musicians watching this go down. The musician who really came in and helped buttress what we were doing was the great saxophonist Clifford Jordan. He had already done what we were doing he was just sitting on it, he had at least four recordings which were to become a part of the label. So with those recordings and others things started to move along very well pretty much until 1973.

And then one day walked in the poet and singer Gil Scott Heron, and he had a recording that he had already done for himself pretty much thinking that he was going to do something along the same lines as us, so instead we added his record to the catalog. Because that particular recording was more of a commercial thing with his poetry style it got a real push by the media and it sort of took off and pretty much helped to demonstrate what I’d set up for the label, that artists would always own their masters but would use our system as a conduit to get out to the market, but with one big difference: instead of getting 3% or so of royalties having recorded the same thing for a commercial label in the business of profit, they would be the major recipient of whatever remunerations would be coming off of it, which really set the tone for other artists who hadn’t yet had the opportunity to be recorded by major companies to consider doing that.

LJN: During those early years, which other musician had the biggest influence on how you saw the label?

CT: I’d have to say it was Max Roach, as you may know from his history. During the 60s with all the political and social upheaval that was going on here a lot of that was expressed in the recordings and performances artists at the time, and certainly Max Roach was at the forefront of that. As a part of his group and a personal friend, we watched all that going on. What influenced me was that he knew that probably the position that he took might rub some gatekeepers the wrong way, and maybe he wouldn’t be performing as much as he should, you know? Particularly for who he was and what he represented as the power of the original modern jazz thing with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Mingus.

For instance it was thought that we were somehow a part of the Black Power movement, what with going off on our own to make recordings instead of standing in line and queuing up with the companies at the time. We would have been glad to queue up and wait to be recorded by someone if it didn’t take too long, but we weren’t going to wait on that. Once we got up and running a lot of people thought we were part of the Black Power movement because of our self-reliance, but we were never founded on it. It just so happened to be that we were African-Americans, but if we were another ethnicity that whole thing never would have come up. But since we were African-Americans who had done this and made it work, it became a part of the history simply because we did it during that period of upheaval.

LJN: After those busy years the label’s output began to wind down a little. Had you had enough?

CT: By 1975 or so we were upwards of 40 or 50 LPs.This pretty much apexed what we were doing for two reasons. One, I had to compartmentalise to make sure that it was a business, but that I would never allow it to interfere with me as an artist or a performer, which took quite some mental gymnastics. I decided, as closing out the decade, that I would relax off of it. It was a mistake in that we went out of business but we were still doing overseas leases, and in the early 80s I simply went into a hiatus with the operation, only dealing with leases and not having a shipping office and so on. With the compact disk in 1989 I decided to reissue those things I wanted to on CD and we were rocking and rolling again with the digital age. Things have continued like that until now. It’s like a forever baby, that never grew up to be an adult that turned on you.

LJN: Which of your Strata-East recordings do you look back on with the strongest memories?

CT: The Music Inc recording live at Historic Slugs, which was a main venue at the time. Because of all the social and political upheaval at the time, and the onset of avantgarde, it was the main arena during that period. As far as I’m concerned all the recordings had some significance, but that one stands out for me.

LJN: Let’s jump to the present – what brings you back to London this March?

CT: Over the years I would come to Europe. As I’m sure you know those artists that are getting quite a bit of press every year, that press is viewed as enough to book them, but there are some of us who don’t always get that influence. But I made a short run to Europe last year in April and the agent was able to fit in one day at the Ronnie Scott club. The place was sold out, and the fans wouldn’t let me leave until the wee hours of the morning signing LPs and stuff like that. The next days, before flying back to the states my agent got in touch to say there was this fella Gilles Peterson who wasn’t able to get in to town and was really sorry that he wasn’t able to get to the gig. I did an interview with Gilles and he brought out all the 50 or so LPs, he had them in his archive, in his personal cache. I was amazed: that someone who does what he does in the industry was that much of a jazz fan. So based on this big showing at the Scott club we started talking about doing a Strata-East retrospective again, and here we are.

LJN: How have you assembled the group you’ll be returning with almost a year after that show?

CT: Fortunately Stanley Cowell and Cecil McBee are still playing the way they were 40 years ago, and the wonderful drummer Alvin Queen from some of our Strata-East recordings. To round out some of the song presentations from a number of the albums it was suggested that we add vocals, and I decided that the best person to fit the bill would be Jean Carne who is essentially one of the greatest jazz singers ever, its just that people don’t realise it as she had such success as a pop singer. Billy Harper will join us in London, too.

LJN: Gilles has been doing fantastic work for jazz-related music in the London scene, particularly in accessing a younger audience. There must be people like him in NY?

CT: There’s nobody that I know of now that I’ve met him, like Gilles Peterson. There are a couple of people with clout along those lines, but what he’s done building himself from the BBC, as a disc jockey and with the internet, its the whole nine yards. I know of no one like that here that is also a lover of jazz and wants to foster the kind of thing that he’s presenting at the Barbican. He provides an opportunity for a new generation to see this stuff that has been hidden from them.

LJN: The gig here has been billed as a “70s post-bop, spiritual jazz and afro-jazz” event. How does that sit with your impression of yourselves and of Strata-East?

CT: I think it morphed into that. Obviously originally we started with the straight ahead modern jazz, spinning off Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie, and it morphed into being inclusive of all the idiomatic things that were going on, from the 60s and 70s, and not excluding any of it.

LJN: One last question. You’ve played a lot with big bands and you’ve played a lot with smaller groups. In which do you feel most at home?

CT: There’s nothing like playing in a small group, because that’s how the music started. Since I was 5 years old listening to small groups, I never thought about large ensembles but always loved them. When I got a chance to perform with Gerald Wilson and he allowed me to write and record one of my compositions, that started me on a road of beginning to catalog arrangements of my small group stuff and turning it to big band stuff. And I think that was one of the reasons why in 1970 when we made the first record we decided to do two things at once – we’d have a small group inside, surrounded by a big band. When I put a big band together, I want a big band of soloists. It just makes the presentation of the music sing differently compared to just professional readers interpreting it. But then I sort of put it away, I’d done the big band thing.

In 2004 while I was working with Andrew Hill making the recording Time Lines, Michael Cuscuna, who’d been a part of my professional music career from the beginning, more or less said “Hey, why don’t we do a big band recording for Bluenote”, so we did a deal and made that recording and lo and behold it got Grammy nominated. So from that I thought let’s work with a big band for a while. It was nice to have that kind of reception and bring it the London Jazz Festival, but as soon as that was done I was right back to muscling the trumpet in the small groups. That doesn’t mean I don’t love a big band, and every once in a while if there’s something spectacular, then we’ll do it.

LINKS: Strata-East at the Barbican Produced by the Barbican in association with Serious, Sunday 22nd March

Gilles Peterson’s Strata-East Mix on Soundcloud

Banlieues Bleues, Espace 1789, Saint-Ouen, Friday 20th March

Categories: miscellaneous

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