An introduction to Strata-East in 10 records

Operating on minimal finance and maximal passion, the Strata-East label was a pivotal platform for the independent jazz movement that emerged from civil rights in the 1970s. Chris May suggests 10 essential albums from an artist-led label that punched far above its weight and whose archive continues to inspire.

Strata-East was founded by trumpeter Charles Tolliver and pianist Stanley Cowell in Brooklyn in 1971. By the end of the decade, the label had released 58 albums of near-uniform artistic excellence, a remarkable achievement for an independent company run on a shoestring by two musicians with no previous business experience.

In 1974, Strata-East’s balance sheet was boosted by the success of Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson’s Winter In America – the album made Billboard’s top ten jazz albums chart and breakout single ‘The Bottle’ was a top twenty R&B hit. The discs did not make Strata-East rich — its contracts were weighted in favour of the artists — but it allowed the label to pay some debts and keep functioning for a few more years. Strata-East had become less active by the early 1980s and today its business is mainly confined to licensing items from its back catalogue for reissue by other labels. Its debut release, Tolliver and Cowell’s Music Inc., is scheduled to be reissued by Pure Pleasure this summer.

Strata-East’s legacy still resonates in the work of musicians such as Shabaka Hutchings, Kamasi Washington, Idris Ackamoor and Pharoah Sanders, briefly a Strata-East artist and one of the movement’s founding fathers.