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Bernard Stollman: The ESP-Disk Story

By Published: November 21, 2005

AAJ: In the sense that, by '68, you were pretty well established, and that people would come to you that had heard what you were doing.

BS: The momentum was there, but we were unable to provide support. We licensed to Philips in Europe and JVC in Japan, but our artists had challenged the US government and its ill fated adventure in Vietnam. This drew a lethal response—bootlegging would quickly destroy our business. I was profoundly unaware of the threats to our survival. No Federal laws existed at the time to counter bootlegging. Perhaps I should have had partners wiser and more knowledgeable than I, who understood the implications of our challenge to the system.

AAJ: How many partners do you have now?

BS: I have none, except for my ex-wife, but she is not active. I have a small first-rate staff now, and I have collaborators that I work with who are extraordinarily knowledgeable and helpful. In that sense, things have changed enormously—we are no longer flying blind. Things are happening, and I've taken a lot of initiative. I've accumulated a lot of connections over the years, and recognition has come to the label—I don't have to do a lot of selling, and think a lot of people understand what the catalog is.

That's what I've been doing—I've contracted to Eastern Europe and the Baltic States, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic. I think we're going to be fine in Eastern Europe over the next several months. In China, I think we're making inroads too—I have a contact who wants to press our product, and these people say "you can't do that, there are no copyright laws and you'll receive nothing." But we'll give them something that nobody wants; certain things we're doing will have nothing to do with the Chinese market. I won't give them any product that's marketable—I'll give them things like samplers. If the Chinese pick up on this, that's great—they'll have samplers, and that will be our entrée.

AAJ: I suppose you could do another set of one-minute samples of forty artists [1051, the infamous ESP Sampler]...

BS: We can [laughs]—but I'm not sure I want to do that again; I'd rather give them complete selections. I did find something I do want to put out—it's Wavy Gravy and Marshall Ephron doing nine or ten one-minute commercials for 99-cent samplers, and they stand on their own. It's genius, funny as hell, and I can't just have them sitting. People should hear this.

AAJ: And these are from the sixties?

BS: Yes—they're hilarious. They're wonderful little exercises. These were standard commercials, no tape splicing or anything, and they did them off the top of their heads. Wavy Gravy and Marshall are so brilliant—they're one after the other, boom, boom, boom. Having just rediscovered them and laughing about how bizarre they still sound, especially now, that I have to find a way to get them out.

AAJ: Is there anything else in the unissued vault?

BS: We have acquired a session trumpeter Norman Howard did in Cleveland with altoist Joe Phillips [originally slated for ESP release, but the masters ended up on the collectors' market], which we intend to issue. There were never second takes, and there was never any material other than what was out. It was the most frugal, most economical operation you ever saw in your life—the guys went in, did their record and came out. There was nothing to talk about, so there are literally no unissued takes. But we have discovered material, some sessions that we didn't know about that somehow got overlooked, and some tapes from the artists themselves who kept their tapes, and we found them—that is how we have Sun Ra Volume 3 [ESP 4002].

I made friends with collectors who have a bounty of material that I can put out, but I'm not going to do it without contacting the artists or the record companies that they may have signed to, so I have a major job to do on my own before any of that material can be released. There are films and videos as well. Bernard Fox, my associate who invented Sonature, records in the 5.1 surround sound medium ( Ellis Marsalis was our first artist to have a release in the new format. We plan to record artists in live performance in New York over the next several months utilizing this process, and videotape them in HD DVD.

We're about to reissue the Godz in a box set, and a box set of Randy Burns, both with new material. We also plan to reissue work by Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, the Fugs, a double CD of Patty Waters, Albert Ayler at Slugs,' and several other reissues from our catalog. We anticipate releasing previously unissued work by Lucky Thompson, Don Cherry, Eric Dolphy, Jaki Byard, Bud Powell and other major artists. We're moving ahead in the same vein and the same mindset as we were before—if it's something that works, we go with it, if it's basically a sound idea, why discard it?

AAJ: It's been interesting to watch ESP come back.

BS: Stay tuned, because I think you'll find some surprises. I would like to think that today we have risen like a Phoenix from the ashes. Our reissues have been repackaged and remastered and are sold throughout the world by our network of independent distributors. New releases are being prepared for the months ahead. Our staff are dedicated music professionals, and we utilize a state of the art accounting system. Our books are open to inspection by ESP artists or their representatives, during business hours by appointment; our telephone number is 212-731-2048               212-731-2048      . It should be noted that we have voluntarily increased substantially our uniform artist royalty. Statements and payments are now being sent quarterly to the artists featured on the new releases.

Visit ESP-Disk on the web. The site is updated regularly on the ESP Blog; if you are an artist, former or prospective, and seeking to make contact, please check the label website for more information.

Recommended ESP-Disk Releases

The Sea Ensemble We Move Together (ESP-Disk, 1973)

Charlie Parker Broadcast Performances (ESP-Disk, 1972)

Frank Lowe Black Beings (ESP-Disk, 1972)

Ed Askew Ask the Unicorn (ESP-Disk, 1969)

Erica Pomerance You Used to Think (ESP-Disk, 1969)

Pearls Before Swine Balaklava (ESP-Disk, 1968)

Free Music Quintet Free Music One and Two (ESP-Disk, 1968)

The Godz Contact High With the Godz (ESP-Disk, 1967)

Alan Sondheim Ritual All 7-70 (ESP-Disk, 1967)

Frank Wright Your Prayer (ESP-Disk, 1967)

The Fugs The Fugs (ESP-Disk, 1966)

Burton Greene Burton Greene Quartet (ESP-Disk, 1966)

Various Artists The East Village Other (ESP-Disk, 1966)

Albert Ayler Bells (ESP-Disk, 1965)

Sun Ra The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra (vols. 1-3) (ESP-Disk, 1965)

Marion Brown Marion Brown Quartet (ESP-Disk, 1965)

Patty Waters Patty Waters Sings (ESP-Disk, 1965)

Albert Ayler Spiritual Unity (ESP-Disk, 1964)

New York Art Quartet New York Art Quartet (ESP-Disk, 1964)

Pharoah Sanders, Pharoah's First (ESP-Disk, 1964)

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