Remembering Stanley Cowell

Cowell was a renowned and innovative jazz pianist, composer, record label founder, and educator who taught jazz piano at NEC from 1986 to 1989.

Stanley Cowell
Photo credit: Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

NEC mourns the loss of jazz pianist, composer, record label founder, and educator Stanley Cowell, who died on December 17 at age 79.

Born in Toledo, Ohio, Cowell began playing the piano at a very young age and went on to study classical piano and composition at Oberlin College Conservatory, where he graduated in 1962. He later attended the University of Michigan and graduated with a masters degree in piano performance.

Cowell joined the New York City jazz scene and became one of the most innovative and prolific pianists in the genre, playing alongside numerous other legendary jazz artists and appearing on more than 30 recordings—including his collaboration with Max Roach on one of the greatest classic recordings of the 20th century, "Members, Don't Git Weary." Some of Cowell's recordings were released on the groundbreaking independent label that he cofounded, Strata-East, which became one of the most successful Black-run record labels of its time.

Cowell later dedicated his career to music education. In addition to his time teaching at NEC, he also taught at Amherst College, Lehman College at the City University of New York, and Rutgers University.

Contemporary Improvisation department co-chair Hankus Netsky remembered Cowell's vast talents and achievements, and how invaluable his contributions were to both NEC and the broader world:

"Stanley Cowell understood the real meaning of cultural and racial equity in the arts in ways that most people are only now beginning to try to grapple with. He spent his entire life setting an example of what achieving that goal could ideally look like, doing so with extraordinary grace, dignity, and humor.

The knowledge, energy, warmth, and collaborative spirit that he brought to his teaching [at NEC] set an example for all of our other faculty, not just in my department but in the entire Conservatory... Stanley was a formidable musical mentor who brought with him the kind of knowledge and experience that enabled him to meet any student on their own terms and challenge them in ways that they had never even imagined.

We will all truly miss him — and may the example he set guide all of us who work in the field of music education on the path to a brighter future."

Read Mr. Cowell's New York Times obituary Back to NEC News