I cherish this little holiday listening ritual, but it still felt too new, too insignificant to mention back in the autumn of 2018 when Cowell — who died Thursday at 79 — invited me into his Maryland home to talk about his music. Instead, we talked about the vastness. We had to. Cowell’s hands had traveled countless miles up and down the keyboard in this life, so I was surprised to learn that the pianist didn’t see his decades-long journey through jazz as a quest toward unknowable horizons, even when the music kept taking him there. Cowell told me he preferred to approach the piano with curiosity and immediacy. “One note follows the next,” he said.
It’s humbling to know he navigated so much turf by looking into the future two notes at a time. In 1958, the Toledo native composed one of his hallmarks, “Departure,” during the summer between high school and Oberlin College. By 1966, the pianist was appearing on Manhattan bandstands with drummer Max Roach. And by 1971, Cowell had taken his recording career into his own hands, teaming up with trumpeter Charles Tolliver to launch Strata-East, a record label that released loads of pathfinding jazz discs throughout the 1970s, including two Piano Choir albums, as well as Cowell’s “Musa: Ancestral Streams,” a 1974 solo recording whose intimacy and intricacy quietly foretold a career of big possibilities. He sounded like he could go anywhere. And he did.
Cowell even made a holiday album once, albeit for a holiday he thought deserved to be more widely celebrated. His 2015 album “Juneteenth” brings all kinds of energy and ingenuity to the piano, with Cowell occasionally flicking light melodic shards from his fingertips — fragments of “Dixie,” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and other American songs heavy with our nation’s racial baggage. Despite all its subtleties, the album felt major, and during our chat in his living room, I caught the feeling that Cowell thought his “Juneteenth” should have been more widely celebrated, too. “Isn’t it strange,” he said to me, “that a European label had to put that record out?”
It was a passing comment, but it stuck like a dart. Instead of asking Cowell if he felt undervalued as a figure in jazz, or as a Black man in American music, I asked whether he felt as if he had been fully heard. He said he didn’t know.
We can do something about that. As we approach the end of a cruel year that refuses to stop taking, we can honor Cowell’s curiosity by giving his work our complete attention, by hearing him in full, by making his music a part of our lives and traditions, by continuing to listen, or by beginning. Where? You might be wise to go all the way back to Cowell’s fleet rendition of “Departure” on 1969’s “Blues for the Viet Cong,” the first track on his first album as a bandleader. Start at the start. One note follows the next.