Founder of the iconoclastic jazz and protest-music label ESP-Disk, Bernard Stollman initially commenced recording and releasing new music in 1964 with Albert Ayler's Spiritual Unity, a classic of modern improvised music, and continued in a stylishly off-the-cuff yet wholly documentary vein releasing contemporary jazz, folk, rock, punk and outsider art music until the threat of bankruptcy forced the label close down in 1974. Plagued by soured licensing deals in Europe and Japan in the '70s, '80s and '90s, ESP-Disk' has returned to the fore under the direction, once again, of its founder. Mr. Stollman and All About Jazz New York writer Clifford Allen conversed on the history, the mission, and the future of the label last May. Here is the result of that conversation.
All About Jazz: I'd like to start out with a bit of your pre-ESP personal history. Were you born in New York?
Bernard Stollman: I was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey but when I was an infant my parents moved to Plattsburg, New York, on the Canadian border, and I grew up there. My father had been a child prodigy; he was an improvisational singer who toured Eastern Europe with another young boy and a cantor until his voice changed with adolescence and World War I erupted. When he had settled in America and had a family, he would sing everywhere an opportunity arose. He would drive from Plattsburg to Montreal during World War II with our mother, and we children were squeezed in the back seat, and he would sing as he drove to his captive audience, while our mother harmonized with him. I was the first of seven children, and my parents worked hard all their lives. We weren't poor, we weren't rich, but we were well off.
AAJ: What was the impetus for moving to New York? Was that for law school?
BS: To go to college. I attended Columbia University, and attended law school there as well.
AAJ: You got involved with being an artists' rights lawyer, right?
BS: I fell into itit wasn't something that I started out to do. My job as a beginning lawyer was an unpaid gofer position in the office of a New York City lawyer whom I knew from law school days, Florynce R. Kennedy. I was with her very briefly, perhaps two months, but during that time her clients included the estates of Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday, so I met the individuals who were involvedLouis McKay, Billie Holiday's widower, and Doris Parker, the ostensible last wife of Charlie Parker. Through those connections, I became aware of that sector of music. Jazz was just a word to me thenthis was about 1960. I gravitated toward Broadway and 52nd Street where black songwriters congregated. They came from all over America, and they all knew they had something going there. They wrote for Jackie Wilson, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra; they wrote for everyone. Otis Blackwell, who wrote some of Elvis Presley's biggest hits, and I worked together briefly, but there was a whole coterie of people there, and I started to learn music publishing. I did some copyright work for themfiled songs and started little publishing companiesbut then I concluded that the music was not that attractive to me. The crowd was so agile and opportunistic, that I couldn't keep up with themthey were wild. I didn't fit with them at all.
I started helping black musicians involved with improvisational musicthe late Cal Massey, Randy WestonI became acquainted with that community very gradually. The word got out among the most desperate of the musicians' community that I would help them with their problems if I could. A young woman came to me who was a choreographer, a very lovely woman, and she said "I understand you're helping musicians." I said yes, I am sympathetic to their struggles, and she said "why aren't you helping Ornette and Cecil?" I remember I said "Ornette and Cecil who?" She was aghast, "they're the princes of modern music and you don't know them? That's just terrible. Look, I've talked to them about you, and they both want you to manage them."
AAJ: Had you done any actual management yet?
BS: No, I called them both and they were very responsive.
AAJ: They were probably two of the biggest characters in the music, just personality-wise.
BS: They're the same irascible, mercurial, innovative people they were then, but I didn't know that at the time. Cecil had a loft on Chambers Street near City Hall with two grand pianos in it, and rain was dripping through the skylight, and the pianos were in sad shape. He was upset, and asked me to persuade Steinway to fix them at no cost. I did, and they fixed his pianos for him. He had some songs with a publishing company and he wasn't getting royalties from them, and had done an album with Gil Evans, Into the Hot (Impulse, 1961), a very famous record, and the songs were controlled by the label. I asked for the songs back and they gave them to me, but that was about all I did.
AAJ: That's where I think Cecil and Gil fell out, around that point.
BS: I think they did, and there was something about credits on the album, but I didn't really follow the history at that point, and it wasn't part of my work (though I was still pretty naïve and dumb about the business). Ornette needed help; he was already famous and featured in Time Magazine, "America's Plastic Saxophone or whatever ["Beyond the Cool," June 27, 1960], and I didn't know this stuff but he was an interesting guy. I went around to various record companies and found strong interest from them everywhere I went. He followed my leads, but ignored me and made his own deals. At one point he brought be a tape of a concert he produced at Town Hall [later ESP 1006] and asked me if I could do anything with it. I listened to it, and David Izenzon's bass was distorted (he'd turned up his amp and caused the whole thing to distort), so I said I'd do what I could. I went to an engineer by the name of Dave Sarcet (I met Horace Parlan, the marvelous pianist, and Ralph Ellison through him, so Dave was something else), and he said "sure, I could fix that." He compressed that track and it sounded better, so I brought it back to Ornette fixed. Ornette said "Hmm. I'd like to borrow the tape, and I'll bring it back. How much was it?" I told him the cost and he gave me the money. Next thing I knew, I picked up an issue of Billboard and Ornette had signed to Blue Note, and they were going to put out his tapes. He left the country and went to Sweden, and this was very disheartening to me.
During the same period, Bud Powell came back to America. I'd been corresponding with Buttercup [Powell, Bud's wife] and found out that Francis Paudras was bringing Bud back to New York to play Birdland. About two months later Bud disappeared and I got a call from Nica de Konigswater, and she said "Mary Lou Williams told me to call you because Bud has disappeared." I called the police department and told them Bud Powell had disappeared; they asked if I was a family member, and I said no, and they said they couldn't send out a missing-persons bulletin without the request of a family member. I said, "we're talking about Bud Powell, an American treasure. You can't have him wandering aroundyou've got to find him!" They agreed to send out a missing-persons bulletin and at about two o'clock in the morning Bud was on a stoop in the West Village, just sitting there. A rookie black policeman who knew about this said "aren't you Bud?" Bud said "yeeaaah?" The policeman said "come with me" and took him to the station and called Nica. She called me at 3:30 in the morning and said "they've found Bud, they're bringing him back, would you like to come visit?"
I'd never met her and by then I knew she was legendary, so I went to Weehawken at 3:30 in the morning to wait for Bud to come. I met the mother of his daughter, and Ornette was there! I found Ornette, and he said to me "why aren't you helping me?!?" I said "Ornette! Don't you remember I made all these calls, all these visits, set up things with record companies for youand what did you do, you ran around behind me and didn't pay any attention to the work I was doing. Not only that, I did the tape for you and you took it away. I will help you, but we have to have a formal agreement." I sat down at a typewriter and typed an agreement that gave me the right to do with the tapes as I saw fit. What I hadn't realized was that when I gave him the tapes, I still had the two-track mix (he had all the originals), because what I thought was important was the corrected tapes. So he signed the agreement and at that point I guess the idea of a record company was forming in my mind.
To get back to Nica and Bud, Bud came back, Nica broke out her Chateau Lafitte de RothschildI'd never tasted a wine so exquisite or wonderful. Bud Powell came up to me after he played, and when he saw that we were alone he said quietly "mister lawyer, can you help me? I don't want to go back to Paris. I want to stay" and I promised I'd see what I could do. Francis had to go back to Paris, Bud wanted to stay with the woman who'd raised his child, and Francis didn't have the money to return. He expressed the need for some money, so I licensed a drawing he'd done of Bud that ended up on ESP 1066, Bud Powell at the Blue Note Café, Paris 1961, which gave him the money for airfare to get home. That was the end of his relationship with Bud Powellhe had to go back to France, and Bud was homesick.
AAJ: So by this time, had you already recorded the Esperanto record [Ni Kantu en Esperanto, ESP 1001]?
BS: Yes, that was in '63. I had some experience with it, it was so obviously simple that you could have millions of dollars worth of equipment at these various plants, have the album pressed upwhat a remarkable thing! You bring them the tape, cut the laquers, plate it and press it, you do the artwork, they make the jacket and you're dealing with a huge industrial plant, yet you can press as few as 500 records. I was absolutely amazed at this whole custom thing, and my experience with the Esperanto record did nothing to dissuade me. Also, I'd done some legal work for Moe Asch at Folkways. I liked Moe and liked what he was doing with his record label, with his commitment to American musical culture and its minimal solid black jackets with printed paste-over sheets.
AAJ: Well, that right away explains some of the early aesthetic you were going for.
BS: Yes, I saw that Moe had arrived at a formula that was uncomplicated and inexpensive, and he was getting the music out. I was very taken with that, and this was one of the things that inspired me to start a label.
AAJ: Plus Broadside [a folk and protest-music subsidiary of Folkways] was in the picture for him, too, which seems like a direct corollary.
BS: Yes, I was greatly impressed with Moe and with Pete Seeger's involvement as well. I think all this nudged me in the direction of starting a label. Then late 1963, Granville Lee contacted me and came by, and he excitedly told me "I grew up with a guy and we were in an orchestra in high school, and we played all over the city making money, and you've got to hear him. You must hear him; he's playing at the Baby Grand next week. I won't be in town, but go hear him and you'll never regret it." My curiosity was piqued, so I went to the Baby Grand on West 125th Street in Harlem. The club was dark and quietit was a Sunday afternoon between Christmas and New Year'sand there were about twelve people in there with coats on (there was no heat in the club). Elmo Hope was at the piano with a trio and after a few minutes this small man came through the audience. He had a grey leather suit on and a black and white beard, jumped up on the stage with this huge saxophone, and he started to play without any fanfare or introduction. Elmo Hope and the group stopped immediately; they couldn't comp to what he was doing, it was so different. He closed the piano lid and the trio sat back and listened to this performance.
Albert Ayler blew the saxophone for twenty or thirty minutes nonstop, and when he finished, covered with sweat, he came down from the stage. I went over to him and introduced myself, and I said "I'm starting a record label and I want you to be my first artist." This voice in the back of my head said "oh you are, are you?" But I made the commitment, I set things in motion. I had a cause, as this man was incredible. I was blown awayI'd never heard anything like it. I wasn't a jazz aficionado; I might have heard other things like itColtrane, Cannonball, and Rollinsbut I didn't pursue it, I wasn't a music lover and didn't go to concerts, I was mostly unaware of that sect of music.
Anyway, getting back to Albert, he said "I've got a gig coming up at Atlantic Studios in March [Spirits, released on Debut] and as soon as I find my way clear, I'll contact you." I was frankly quite skeptical that he would ever botherhe was diffidentbut in June the phone rang. It was Albert Ayler, and he said "I can record now, it's fine." I didn't ask him any questions, but I said "I know this studio near Times Square, Variety Arts it's called, why don't you meet me there." He did, and the other guys showed upGary Peacock and Sunny MurrayI met them, they went in the studio to record, and I sat out on the steps.
It was a cramped studio, a hole-in-the wall, and I don't even know what the room they were in looked like. The walls were covered with Latin albumsit was obviously a Latin music-oriented operationand they started to play. There was no discussion [with me] about what they were going to do, the music came from the monitors in the control room (the door was open for ventilation and maybe so we could hear), and over his monitors I could hear what was going on. I looked at Annette [Peacock, Gary's then-wife] and she looked at me, and she was just as enraptured as I was. It was awesome. I remember I said "what an auspicious beginning for a record company." That was my comment to herI knew that there was something quite extraordinary going on. The engineer came out after a bit, said he'd do some splicing on it, and it turned out that this was a monaural recording. I said "monaural? How could you have done that?" He said "I thought you just wanted a demo; I didn't realize you wanted stereo." I was heartbroken, but in forty years I've never heard one adverse comment from anybodyit sounds great.
AAJ: It's so raw...
BS: It's a magnificent recording, and the engineer knew exactly what he was doing. The sound was wonderful, and I'm happy with it to this day; Penguin even said Spiritual Unity was one of the 100 greatest jazz records of all time. We went to the coffee shop next door and I paid them their fee for the session, they signed a recording agreement, and a few days later I went to Kennedy Airport (then called Idlewild), and Don Cherry was with them. I remember a few days before, I walked with Albertit was a sunny day, I think it was a SundayAlbert said "we're going to Europe in a few days. I know what's going to happen. We'll tour, and then Sunny will get into trouble [AAJ laughs] and we'll have to bail him out. And we'll have to make a record in order to get the money to come home."
AAJ: Sounds exactly like what happened...
BS: Yes, they made two records in Denmark, I think one of them was Ghosts [Debut, reissued by Freedom as Vibrations]. It's a gorgeous record. In any case, it played out just as he thought. Cecil and Ornette [mostly Bill Dixon] had sponsored a series of events in the Cellar Café. I went there because it was a block from where I lived, in a tiny Israeli caféthis was the October Revolution in Jazz. I was living on Riverside Drive in the maid's room above my parents' apartment at the time.
AAJ: That's the 180 Riverside Drive address [first address of ESP-Disk]?
BS: Yes, exactly. I had a tiny room under the roof and I'd come downstairs to raid my parents' refrigerator. I had some privacy, not much but I had my own room. It was cheap, not an indulgence. So when this festival was set up, everybody came. Archie Shepp was there puffing his pipehe was already with Impulse and he was comfortable and mainly observantPaul Bley was there, playing this upright, out-of-tune piano, Giuseppi Logan was standing next to the piano playing his clarinet, which even then was just wired together. There was no electricity, so to hear them I had to sit just under their noses. What was important was not so much what was played there, but who was thereSun Ra was there, and he invited me to hear him in his loft in Jersey City, so I did a few nights later. Marion Brown was there; Burton Greene was there; it was this whole community of improvisational musicians and composers. I invited them all to recordI'd already started something with Albert, and I invited all these guys to record for my new label. Everybody accepted.
AAJ: How did you get the idea for the graphic design of Spiritual Unity, with that hand-silkscreened red cover?
BS: That's a good question. Jordan Matthews had been a producer for ABC TV, and he switched careers and began doing graphics. The covers and liners for Spiritual Unity, Bells and Pharaoh were his concepts. I decided that silk screening them would have a primal quality, suitable for this enterprise. We worked together doing the screening. Bells was a transparent, one sided LP, only 22 minutes in duration. I wanted to make a point, that music is not a commodity and that a record's length has nothing to do with its artistic merit. It was the statement that counted. I personally silk screened the Bells LPs, a very satisfying experience. We are considering a reissue in the same format, silk screened.
I didn't have the education or the preparation to take on being a patron in the arts. I didn't have the money and wasn't affluent. But I did go to my mother at just about that point  and I said "I've found what I want to do (I was 34, so you can imagine I wasn't a kid), I've found my calling. I'm going to document this whole community of desperate composers of improvisational music." When I went to her I had an idea to start a record label, and I wanted my inheritance. She gave me $105,000 which in those days was a fortunenow, you multiply that by ten. So in eighteen months, I produced 45 records. I wasn't what you'd describe as an aficionado of the music; it was something I could do that was meaningful. I could document it, and the choices I madewell, in most cases I didn't know what they sounded like [before recording them]. Marion was playing with Burton Greene; I liked Marion's music, and so by this process I captured a whole community.
AAJ: And a lot of the people whom you captured never appeared anywhere elseGiuseppi Logan didn't really [ESP 1007, 1013, 1055 and as a sideman on Roswell Rudd's Everywhere, Impulse, 1966], and Tom Price is only on those ESP sessions [ESP 1024, 1025 and 1026], but he's a great drummer.
BS: Giuseppi was doing an awful lot of drugshe burned out, well, actually, he flipped out and never came back. I think that helps explain what happened to Giuseppi. Also, he was mentally ill to some degree and he attacked me once, just randomly. He would assault people without any warning; I loved his music, however, and when he did his first session, resulting from the October Revolution [ESP 1007, Giuseppi Logan Quartet], Milford Graves and he filed through the studio and as they walked in to record, Giuseppi turned to me and said "if you rob me, I'll kill you. Milford was mortifiedhe had asked me to record GiuseppiI'd given him a record date and he threatened me with death.
At one point, I was standing with the engineer in the control room, and I thought the piece they were playing was stunningly beautiful. It sounded totally spontaneous, as if they were ad-libbing and commenting like a gorgeous conversation. Suddenly, I heard a 'thwuuunk,' and I realized that the tape had run out. The engineer and I were so absorbed, we hadn't been paying attention. I thought "oh God, this remarkable thing is lost. It was interrupted in the middle, and it's gone." Richard Alderson was the engineer, and he got on the intercom and said "Giuseppi, the tape ran out." Without a pause, Giuseppi said "take it back to before where it stopped and we'll take it from there." So he did, he wound it back and played some bars of it and took down the record button, and they resumed exactly what they were doingthere was no way of telling where one or the other ended. It was unreal.
AAJ: Wow. Alderson deserves a lot of credit for that, too.
BS: He's marvelously skilled, and he's still going strong. I talked to him the other day, and he's back in the industry. But, [this experience] told me something. What I thought was going on was not what was going on. There was no way they could have picked up the way they did without it being orchestrated. They knew what they were doingeveryone knew precisely what he was doingit wasn't random, it sounded totally improvised but it wasn't. They had a clear idea of what they were saying, and it was something that was awesome, a stunning experience.
AAJ: It really drives home how in tune they were with one another.
BS: Right, this was no random conversation. They had something going, and each one knew exactly what it was and how to contribute to it. That was one of the most inspiring and interesting experiences of my career. It told me that I had an awful lot to learn [laughs]!
AAJ: There was not really a template of what to do or what not to do that you could go from. You had to go by the seat of your pants.
BS: In every possible way, just about, except one thingthe recording contract. With my training as a lawyer and my instincts and values, I thought 'give them a simple agreement and go your own way. Ignore the industry and the thirty-two or forty-page contract. Don't take away the music, share it with them.' Our agreement said that we owned the masters, and in those days, the industry said the label owned the publishing, so we co-owned the publishing. Every step of the way, everything I did just seemed logical and natural, and had no relation at all to what the industry was doing. I would not put the name on the record as producermy sense of it was the artists themselves were producers. Why should I move in on that or make any claims? So I didn't do it, I pointedly and purposely kept my name off of the credits. The artist alone decides.
So that's how that happenedit was an expression of my own personal, if you will journalistic impulse, and I guess I'm a muckraker. I've always chosen to tweak the beard of convention. I don't particularly feel any need to get in line. There's no reason toI go my own way, a maverick or whatever. I didn't go to critics and hire them to do liners either, I thought to pay someone to do liner notes struck me as sillyhow can you describe something with words that cannot be described? That was my feeling. How do you write about music? It seemed to me, always necessarily, like a priest doing a voodoo incantation. To talk about music in a meaningful way? People should hear it. I don't feel that way today; I've read extraordinary, marvelous writing about music, and there are some superb writersthe New York Times' Ben Ratliff; Gary Giddins did some beautiful writing for the Village Voice. I've read some remarkable prose journalism about music. So I was wrong, and I could have hired people, but I chose not to. Of course, with that in hindsight, we are now using liner notes in every one of our reissues.
AAJ: But that also helped to set ESP apart.
BS: In a sense, I suppose, in some devious way I was trying to break all the rules I could find. It worked, and it established us firmly as iconoclasts and that's a good place to be.
AAJ: When the records started coming out, how did you gauge the reaction?
BS: Here's what happened. The distributors across America took them, but they took them on consignment, which was always the case in the record industry. They didn't mind taking them and putting them in the shelves for awhileit didn't mean anything. The critics were ecstaticI can't say enough. They were wonderful, both here and in Europe, and I put out twelve releases this way. I did it to make a statement, of course, that this isn't some vanity label by an artist or a small wannabe effort. I was serious, and that's how they took it. They took it as the ascension of what could be a major label.
AAJ: I guess I didn't realize that you'd put out that many at first. I thought it was maybe four or five.
BS: I gathered up twelve and within a month or two another twelve came out. So this caused a tremendous impact, just by virtue of the volume, and I was walking up 57th Street just as this was beginning and saw a crowd at the [Sidney] Janis Gallery. Janis had just launched what he called Pop Art. [George] Segal, Warhol, the whole crowd. The gallery owner had brilliant inspiration; he had taken what I thought were artists that had little to do with each other, but were part of the time. Their workeach one's approach was very distinctive and original, and I couldn't pick a correlation among them, but he did and he called it Pop Art. He put a frame around it and said "this is the new movement."
I thought this was a brilliant thing to do, give it some kind of name and give people something to hang onto. You couldn't find people more different than Segal doing his plaster sculptures of people or Mary Salle and her particular tack; each was very distinctive and very much on their own wavelength. He had tied it together with a label, and I thought that was a fine idea. When I started ESP, I said to the world at large "this is the New Music," [laughs] and the idea apparently did catch on. It was acknowledged to be a particular movement with a given name. It was a rudimentary lesson, but one I learned, and it was a good idea.
AAJ: Well, at least for the improvisational spectrum of the catalog, you never referenced the term 'jazz' on any of them.
BS: There is a reason for that. It's because the musicians, at least the ones I knew, more than one, expressed a great disgust at the use of the term 'jazz' as a racist thing. It's not a music thingif you play the sax and you're black, the word itself is so imprecise and racist in general. Duke Ellington, as you know from his autobiography Music Is My Mistress, he detested the word 'jazz.' He did string quartets, symphonies, musicals, and here they're summing him up as a 'jazz' artist, which is a profound insult because the word does not describe what he is doing. He was not alone; I found this thread among many of the musicians I knew who opened up to me and said they detested the word. I constantly tried not to use the word.
AAJ: As far as thewell, I would hesitate to use the term 'rock'but the folk and protest music, and more singer-songwriter oriented projects that you began releasing, how did that come about? The Fugs were first, right?
BS: Yes, The Fugs were first.
AAJ: Did you have to approach them in necessarily a different manner than the improvisers?
BS: It was identical. I saw no reason to put my hands in the clay, and as far as I was concerned, they were poets and they were on their own trip. Why should I interfere? What they were doing was wonderful. They were already a hit on Moe Asch's label [the Folkways subsidiary Broadside]The Village Fugs was selling like mad. I went back to Moe at the same time I released them [on ESP 1028] and said "Moe, will you license that record to me? It's selling very well." He said "Yeah, you take it, you license it. I don't want anything to do with those filthy Fugs." [AAJ laughs] He had no feeling for them at all, which was generational, and that surprised me because of all the remarkable people he recorded. He just couldn't relate to the whole generation and what they were doing.
AAJ: What were the circumstances that they got on Broadside in the first place?
BS: It was Harry Smith.
AAJ: Oh yes, right, because Ed Sanders and he were buddies.
BS: I didn't know that, but I'm not surprised. In any case, the Holy Modal Rounders [ESP 1068, Indian War Whoop] were around, and Tuli [Kupferberg] and Sanders decided they needed musicbut they weren't musicians, they were poets, so they simply borrowed [Steve] Weber and [Pete] Stampfel, and the musical side was essentially the Rounders.
AAJ: How did you meet them?
BS: Jordan Matthews, our new art director, came to me one day and I was in a very depressed state. I had shipped off these initial releases and they weren't selling. Despite the critical acclaim, and interest from Europe and Japan in licensing our titles, we were struggling to survive. Money was disappearing, and I was feeling pretty low. He showed up and asked what I was depressed about, and I said "you'd be depressed too if you saw what was going on. My company's not happening. The American public is not interested in this music." He said "you've got no problems. You've got the Fugs." I said "what do you mean?" He said "I've talked with them. They're very impressed with what you're doing. They want to be on the label." I said "how is that possible? They've got a hit record on Folkways. Why would they come to us?" He said "don't ask any questions. I've already talked to them, they'll meet with you and you'll set something up."
There was a club on Bleecker Street called the Café Au-Go-Go, and 'The Fugs' was displayed on the marquee, and I had remembered seeing this and thinking "wow, what an audacious group to call themselves the Fugs." I was very impressed then, and my mood improved with Jordan's news, so I went to hear what these guys are all about. They were playing at a place called the Bridge Theater, a tiny place with maybe 45 or 50 steeply sloped seats above a store on St. Marks Place. I went to hear them and the mikes and amplifier were so terrible that they emitted a blaring distorted sound. You couldn't make out any of the wordsit was a roar, just indecipherable! They were singing and pounding away on the drums.
The place was full and the people around me were jumping up and down, joyously. They knew the songs and could fill in the words. While I hadn't a clue as to what they were singing, they had an audience for sure, and an enraptured one. These were robust peoplethis wasn't the tea set, they were rough and rowdy in appearance. I listened to their Broadside album, and then agreed to have dinner with Ed Sanders at The Paradox, a macrobiotic restaurant on East Seventh Street that we both frequented. He was terse and laconic. He didn't behave the way one would think one might when sitting with a record company mogul [laughs]; he was pretty uptight.
I said "look, we're glad you guys are coming aboard. You guys can even have your own labelwe'll create a label for you." What's pop music doing with free improvisation, right? "Oh no, no, that's out of the question. We have to be on ESP." That was essentially what Jordan had said, they wanted to be identified with this whole ESP phenomenon. I invited them to my apartment on Riverside Drive, the group came up and we had a buffet, a signing ceremony, and we signed them to one record. That was my mindsetwe wouldn't sign anybody to a term agreement. I think the reason was fairly soundwe were a tiny company and if the music came out and people liked it, let them sign to larger labels. We were the farm teamthat was the reasoning in my mind anyway.
So they made one record, The Fugs, and it started selling. So I went back to Moe Asch and said "will you license this record [Village Fugs, Broadside 304], or will you sell me the masters to this?" He agreed and we agreed on a price and I paid him. He couldn't care less whether they sold 100,000 or 1,000 copieshe wasn't willing to be identified with them. I was ecstaticI loved the stuff. When I got the tapes, I issued it as The Fugs' Broadside Record [ESP 1018], and there was enough material for a third record.
AAJ: That was Virgin Fugs [ESP 1038].
BS: Right, so at a certain point, Warner Bros. got interested and Ed got managementPeter Edmonson and Charlie Rothschild, who was Judy Collins' manager at the time. Our stance, as you know, again despite the notion that we are simply a jazz label, we wanted to take a broader place in music, to reach outoriginality was the only criterion. Some of the most original, beautiful and artistic music comes from free improvisation, but it's not the only thing. Duke Ellington was said to be beyond category. I've always maintained it's not the mode, the style or the songwriter, it is originalitygreat art can emerge from anything. Hip-hop, sampling in its present form; it's rare but it happens, and you can hear it.
That is, of course, the big issuecan I hear it? I'm not at all certain that, because of my generation[al position] I am not part of the generation that's making this music or listening to it, so I don't necessarily have a frame of reference that works, and I'm pretty careful in that regard. We're not turning our backs on anyone, as far as we're concernedwe'll listen for originality, and wherever we find it, we'll try to support it. Our rhetorical question is always this: do you have something to say?
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To expand our coverage even further and develop new means to foster jazz discovery and connectivity we need your help. You can become a sustaining member for a modest $20 and in return, we'll immediately hide those pesky ads plus provide access to future articles for a full year. This winning combination will vastly improve your AAJ experience and allow us to vigorously build on the pioneering work we first started in 1995. So enjoy an ad-free AAJ experience and help us remain a positive beacon for jazz by making a donation today.