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ESP-Disk

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Now that I'm back, it seems to me that I had something to do with introducing change and innovation to the industry... now, artists are not going to be pushed around by record companies in terms of content and repertoire. —Bernard Stollman
Sometimes it does take a bit of a reminder—especially in the days of corporate conglomerates managing almost every aspect of one's media experience—that the history of improvised music has been forged not only by left-field artists and visionaries, but also by record labels just as independent as their rosters. Commodore, Savoy, Dial, Transition, Blue Note, Prestige, and a host of musician-run private productions (Saturn, Strata-East, Incus, FMP) have all contributed to the direction of jazz, cementing the notoriety of major players as well as giving the decidedly obscure a chance to make their recorded mark on history.

Though there are currently too many independent productions to count releasing improvised music, there were far fewer choices—even among indies—forty years ago. In terms of the jazz vanguard of the post-bop era—those innovators like Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, Sunny Murray and Pharoah Sanders that separated improvisation from chord structure and straight-time and gave it to the realm of action and "all time"—an independent production and distribution system was necessary to get this new music to the public. If you were playing avant-garde jazz in New York in 1965, Bernard Stollman was your man and ESP-Disk was your label.

Bernard Stollman grew up in Plattsburg, New York and attended college and law school at Columbia University. "The first job I got as a beginning lawyer was an unpaid go-fer position at the office of a very prominent New York lawyer I knew from college... during that time, she was working for the estates of Charlie Parker and Billie Holliday... through those connections I became aware of that sector of music. This was in 1960... Gradually, I started becoming acquainted with the [jazz] community—Calvin Massey, Randy Weston, and at some point the word got out among the music community that there was a lawyer that would help them with their problems. A young woman came to me and said, 'I understand you help musicians. Why aren't you helping Ornette and Cecil?' I said, 'Ornette and Cecil who?'

Stollman by default became manager to Ornette and Cecil in the early '60s, working to get Taylor royalties from published music, as well as attempting to get Coleman record deals—as well as getting the saxophonist's Town Hall concert tapes correctly mastered. Getting a record company started to document the artists he was meeting in New York, many of whom had shaky label contracts, was stewing throughout this period—after a fiasco with Ornette and the above tapes, in fact, Stollman contracted Ornette in 1964 to let him manage the masters (eventually becoming ESP 1006, Town Hall Concert).

Stollman had produced a vanity record by that time, 1963's Ni Kantu en Esperanto (Let's Sing in Esperanto), an album of folk songs and readings in Esperanto, which later became ESP 1001: "it was so obviously simple—you could utilize millions of dollars worth of equipment at these plants, have a tiny record company and produce a thousand records."

"What a remarkable thing—you bring them the tape, cut the laquer, make the lathes, press it, do the artwork and make a jacket and you're dealing with a huge industrial plant. How nice! ...I also did some work with Moe Asch over at Folkways and I liked what he was doing with his record label, solid black jackets with the paste-on [covers]. Look what he's done here, something profoundly direct and simple and inexpensive and he's getting the music out."


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