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Bernard Stollman: The ESP-Disk Story


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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 it—it 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 involved—Louis 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 then—this 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 them—filed songs and started little publishing companies—but 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 them—they were wild. I didn't fit with them at all.

I started helping black musicians involved with improvisational music—the late Cal Massey, Randy Weston—I 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 around—you'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 you—and 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 Rothschild—I'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 Powell—he 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 up—what 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 quiet—it was a Sunday afternoon between Christmas and New Year's—and 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 away—I'd never heard anything like it. I wasn't a jazz aficionado; I might have heard other things like it—Coltrane, Cannonball, and Rollins—but 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 bother—he was diffident—but 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 up—Gary Peacock and Sunny Murray—I 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 albums—it was obviously a Latin music-oriented operation—and 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 her—I 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 anybody—it 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 Albert—it was a sunny day, I think it was a Sunday—Albert 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 café—this 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 pipe—he was already with Impulse and he was comfortable and mainly observant—Paul 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 there—Sun 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 record—I'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 [1964] 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 fortune—now, 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 made—well, 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 else—Giuseppi 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 drugs—he 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 mortified—he had asked me to record Giuseppi—I'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 doing—there 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 doing—everyone knew precisely what he was doing—it 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 thing—the 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 producer—my 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 happened—it 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 to—I 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 silly—how 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 writers—the 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 awhile—it didn't mean anything. The critics were ecstatic—I 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 work—each 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 thing—if 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 the—well, 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 music—but 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 words—it 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 people—this 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 label—we'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 mindset—we wouldn't sign anybody to a term agreement. I think the reason was fairly sound—we were a tiny company and if the music came out and people liked it, let them sign to larger labels. We were the farm team—that 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 copies—he wasn't willing to be identified with them. I was ecstatic—I 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 management—Peter 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 out—originality 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 originality—great 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 issue—can 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 concerned—we'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?

AAJ: That's the philosophy that spawned a lot of the one-off projects, like The Coach with the Six Insides [ESP 1019, an adaptation of Finnegan's Wake by playwright Jean Erdman and instrument-maker Teiji Ito].

BS: That could be called a digression or a detour, but I don't think so. We're role models for people who love music, so in that same boat, why restrict ourselves? Why not be open? It could be interesting from any direction.

AAJ: You did set up the Oro subsidiary later; how did that come about?

BS: Well, there were only four titles—All That the Name Implies, a group that was around for a nanosecond; Bruce Mackay [1069]; Todd Kelley [1097] and the Haryou Percussion Group [1067]. The idea was for a 'pop' label, and that's how we approached it, but we felt it was better to collect the music under one roof and let ESP be a unitary approach to a diverse number of ideas about music.

AAJ: You did mention some distribution deals in Japan and Europe. What happened there that was so specifically disheartening?

BS: Well, I made a three-year deal with Phonogram-Philips and actually flew over to Europe at one point. Something very strange happened—they had the opportunity to put out several titles, and then they dropped it. I never fully understood that.

AAJ: I've seen the Fontana-ESP records before, and it was always somewhat unclear what the story was behind those.

BS: Those were part of the deal. But you must remember this too, that the war in Vietnam was white-hot in 1968 when we made the agreement and there might have been pressure subsequently from the American government, because the Fontana license included records by the Fugs and Pearls Before Swine, and these artists opposed the war. It's entirely possible that Fontana-Phillips decided that they didn't want to put out records that attacked the American government. Not only that, but our pressing plant was bootlegging like crazy, and they might have been shipping them export, cutting the price—it's a riddle to this day.

JVC licensed us in Japan, and they had some kind of a problem—maybe the sales didn't meet their expectations or whatever, but they took a Billie Holiday album that they weren't supposed to have and they put it out, but they put it out off-peak and the sales were not what they thought they would be. There again, it is a mystery, and whether the US government got involved, I can't even begin to guess. We did have a staff member who was with the intelligence community, and he tried to wreck the company—well, he didn't have to try, as I was already wrecked by the bootlegging, but while he was there he worked constantly to try and undermine us and antagonize the artists towards us, everything he could do.

This would have been around 1972 or '73. I had moved to an apartment at 55th Street and 9th Avenue [the 300 W. 55th address found on some later ESP jackets], the top floor of an apartment building. We were trying to operate there, but we were out of business. We had been effectively out of business since '68, but for six years we kept going on money we had in the bank, and I guess we were just disregarding the reality of the situation. We went right on producing records, and that was nuts of course, but those records will stand today. For all intents and purposes, the company had stopped functioning in 1968.

At that time, we had the Pearls—both of the Pearls' albums were taking off [One Nation Underground, ESP 1054, and Balaklava, ESP 1075], and the Fugs were taking off, and three albums that were moving to the top of the pop charts and overnight we were broke. How that happened was that I got a call from Warner Brothers' Jack Holtzman, who ran Elektra Records and who sold his company to Warner Brothers. I hadn't known that, but he called me out of the blue and said "will you sell your company to Warner Brothers.?" I said we would think about it, but that I didn't think so. The reason I refused was because I suspected that the government had been pressing Warner Brothers to take over the company and shut me down.

AAJ: You would have probably lost the masters too, right?

BS: Yes, we would have, the whole company would have been sold to them. Peter Edmondson and Charlie Rothschild had signed the Pearls and the Fugs to management deals, and trotted them over to sign with Reprise because none of them were under contract to me. That was the end of their anti-war production, of course. The industry effectively shut down the Fugs and the Pearls in two ways: by getting the bootlegging going and taking the artists to Warner Brothers. So I was out of business.

AAJ: What happened after ESP was shut down and the catalog was licensed? I'm curious about this sort of unfortunate part of the label's history.

BS: Well, at the age of fifty I took on my first real law job, at the attorney general of New York, a prestigious title.

AAJ: How did that come about? It seems that, with running the label for so long, you were out of the realm of law practice.

BS: I certainly was, as I hadn't done any law practice during the label period, and when the label folded in 1974, I married. My wife and I moved to the farm that I bought in '69 in the Catskill Mountains, the idea being that New York was expensive and I was turning my back on that world and that scene, and moved to the woods. I loved the country, and the two of us moved to this mountain farm. It had been a dairy farm earlier, and we had an old wood-frame two-story rooming house, which we held onto for awhile before tearing it down. Anyway, I tried to get work as a lawyer which, in these backwoods small towns is awfully hard—I had a solid background and wasn't all that enamored of it, but I tried it and didn't get very far.

I got tired and very depressed—you're out in the woods and no income. Eventually my wife said, "why don't you try the government and take the state and federal exams?" Then I could get a state job as a beginning lawyer, which was at $17,000 a year. I commuted an hour and a half each way to Albany and worked with the state government for almost two years (four in my car), and eventually I found out that the attorney general's office was down in New York City, and that the attorneys there seemed to have it pretty serene and liked their work.

So I went down to New York, to the World Trade Center, which at the time was the headquarters of the attorney general, and wandered up and down the halls and talked to various bureaus, and eventually to the mental hygiene bureau, which was run by the Republicans, who had been put there during a previous regime. They took me and decided I could work for them. The new attorney general, Bob Abrams, had just been elected, and I guess he heard from Albany that I was a diligent worker—I was already a state employee at middle age, and he said "well, I need veteran lawyers." I had almost no experience at that point, but I wasn't going to tell him that. I really didn't talk about my role in controversial music.

AAJ: Especially your ties to the Fugs...

BS: It didn't seem particularly appropriate. I passed muster, so they hired me. He said "look, I've got all these kids and I need somebody who is a mature lawyer." I wasn't about to argue, so I took on a decent salary—not for New York, but decent in terms of where I'd started—and we found a co-op loft in an industrial building with a number of co-op apartments in it, in Hell's Kitchen at 8th Street and 9th Avenue (which is now getting pretty hip). We were able to get it for relatively cheaply because I was a state employee, so I guess I was a good risk. I commuted down to the World Trade Center for about seven years, and eventually we sold it for an excellent profit.

We bought a condo in '87, which was a terrible time because it was just before the real estate crash, and we had a pleasant apartment down in the Wall Street area (which wasn't a residential area), and I could walk home for lunch because it was just a few blocks from my job. The work wasn't any strain at all, and I continued for another three-and-a-half or four years until 1991, when I retired. I had a tiny pension and a tiny social security check, and we dumped the condo and moved back up to the farm. Our marriage was breaking up too, and then a number of things happened.

First of all, I retired on my sixty-second birthday in July of 1991, and five months later there we are with my tiny pension, and suddenly we had word that a German record company [ZYX] wanted to license ESP—they wanted it out on CD of course, and they were good to their word and put out 115 titles. We did a monumental job of getting ready and spent all of our money on materials getting prepared for them, and they did a great job. They put them all out [but a few] and distributed them all over the world. [Prior to 1992] they were a dance label, and they had global distribution because dance music is very popular. That was a help to us.

AAJ: What was the deal with those Base LPs? Were those bootlegs or legitimate?

BS: Back while I was in New York, Base came to us and wanted to license them for two years, back in 1980, and they kept producing them illegally for about twelve years.

AAJ: I think you can still buy a lot of them new.

BS: Well, they're not manufacturing them anymore, at least [laughs sheepishly]. As far as I know, anyway. With ZYX, we were committed to preparing the catalog and spent a lot of money doing that, but lo and behold, after the advances were paid, the money from royalties did not come in. I should've known, but I didn't, that when you license in this industry, you get your front money (which may seem very impressive), and that's it.

AAJ: That's a common occurrence?

BS: Yes, absolutely, it's a pattern. Unlike in an actual business, being able to audit is a difficult proposition, and the courts are unavailable to you. The six years were up, and meanwhile a young Dutchman had started a record label [Calibre] and he licensed the catalog from us for a year and a half. He did some beautiful graphics and packaging and put out about twelve or fourteen titles, and then he went down. Meanwhile, he had attracted an Italian company to license from him, and so he went along with that.

AAJ: It's getting soupier and soupier by the minute.

BS: Exactly, and meanwhile ZYX had also licensed our catalog on vinyl to an Italian company that we knew nothing about. I saw the records in stores, but being a dim bulb about it, it didn't really dawn on me what was going on.

AAJ: This is Get Back, right?

BS: Yes, Get Back and Abraxas. There was no way that in the last year of a contract, you would license vinyl to another company. They did it, and they were pressing the products poorly—the Italian company, during the Dutch year and a half—and we weren't focusing on it, but it went along in the deal to Abraxas, so now they have us on vinyl and CD.

AAJ: And they're making double what they would be otherwise.

BS: Exactly. They've never paid us for the vinyl, and somehow our Dutch colleagues had taken on the vinyl deal, and he was supposed to be paid and they didn't do that either. About three or four years go by, and they paid us initially—the Dutch guy had paid us a fairly substantial advance, and the Italians paid a small amount and two years ago they decided they weren't going to pay us any further. For two years, we haven't been making any money from the Italian deal—Abraxas has about 36 titles in vinyl and about 40-something on CD, which is disgusting. Here's our product out all over the world, and they aren't answerable to any of the calls.

AAJ: But royalties and payments have been something that plagued ESP as well, right?

BS: That is largely true. Following our launch in 1965, the Fugs and Pearls Before Swine were the only groups on the label that caught on; through word of mouth, they rose to near the top of the pop charts. Of course, the new improvisational music that we recorded and documented gradually found some acceptance among a small but growing global community of musicians and enthusiasts (granted, the sales of this music were never enough to recoup production costs or advance significant royalties).

Though our artists are now widely acclaimed for the integrity and power of their works, as a label we have always had to struggle. The recognition that came from being a part of ESP helped some artists to teach at the university level, participate in international festivals, and go on to major-label careers. Some of our artists later started their own labels, and they learned from experience the difficulty of marketing obscure serious music and obtaining significant distribution. I think most of them now recognize and appreciate the importance to their professional careers of having participated in the history of ESP.

But as you know, we were put out of business in 1968, after only three years of operation, by bootlegging of our chart groups. The label has never provided a livelihood to me—to survive, I worked throughout my life as a lawyer. If you look at the past 40 years, we have entered into ill fated licensing agreements with Philips in the Netherlands; JVC and Phonogram in Japan; ZYX; Calibre; and two Italian labels, Base and Abraxas. After paying an initial general advance, these companies, except Calibre and Abraxas, invariably failed to provide meaningful accountings or pay royalties. Abraxas sent credible statements of sales, but then did not pay royalties, and on top of all this, international licensing agreements in the music industry are not enforceable, and are not recommended.

AAJ: I've noticed that there are a lot of Italian bootlegs or whatever—do you know if there is some reason why?

BS: Lax government, lax laws. It's clearly abated, however; the Italians by and large, and the Germans and the French, have been cracking down and it's by no means as big as it was. It's largely dissipated for whatever reason—I think the governments just didn't want to tolerate it anymore. They're annoyed by it, and it's an international industry that has persuaded the governments to enact more strict laws. Italy, I don't believe, is the center of this activity much longer. I have done my research, and I believe it's true. So anyway, that's the Abraxas story, and we've struggled with that for about two or three years, and their contract if they observe it will expire this November.

If they extend beyond November, then we'll go to federal court because they have no pretext of any kind. They can wave the contract and offer all kinds of excuses or explanations, but they tried to grab my publishing. They forged my wife's signature and that of the Dutch guy, allowing them to take the publishing, and my wife never signed anything. It was dated May, 2005 to grab money which had been accumulating in Italy for several years, substantial monies, and Abraxas had been paying publishing money into society for three or four years. Money's been accumulating for years before that, and we had the Italian publishers send us a copy of this, which of course stopped the SAIE from paying anybody. I quickly checked with my wife and she said "no, I didn't sign any of that." I said "look, this is a forgery. Simply stated, it's fraud."

Abraxas are depending on licensing from all these major companies—important titles, so they're very astute. This is a big part of their business, licensing vinyl rights, because the majors had pretty much given up on it. They were making a pretty large business of making and selling vinyl all over the world, including 36 of our titles. My point is at this time, Europe is aware that we have gone back into manufacturing. The word is out—"what's going on here? We've been stocking these Abraxas titles, but here comes ESP with double CDs mastered differently, packaged differently and more liner notes, photos and additional material." We've been pretty much demolishing them.

AAJ: That was one of my questions—whether this will be confusing, or that it's the right time to put it out again.

BS: I'll put it this way: we're not going to sit back and watch and let them exploit our catalog again. It doesn't make any sense. My answer is that we'll checkmate them by putting out double CDs for only slightly more money—double reissues at a low price. Most emphatically, though, we are going to issue new products and previously unissued historical products. The history of this label is as an iconoclastic label which breaks new music and I don't really want to repeat 1965. There are recordings that are extraordinary that have not had their day in the sun, but they're quite remarkable, so I see no reason why we can't continue to go forward with new music. It's a strange thing; when we went out of business in 1974, disco came in. Speaking musically, when we left, it stopped, and now that ESP is back, I think we had something to do with introducing change and innovation to the industry. That stopped when we stopped.

AAJ: There are some important factors to consider—I mean, ESP certainly got the ball rolling for independent production. One thing I'd thought of, and that you've alluded to, was how your moniker, "The Artists Alone Decide What You Will Hear on their ESP-Disk, maybe inadvertently had a strong effect on the emergence of privately-pressed recordings in the '70s and '80s. With ESP gone, the artists were putting out themselves what would have likely been on ESP, with a similar aesthetic.

BS: I would say that we probably did succeed in some degree the way that unions helped eliminate child labor, by virtue of establishing if you will a standard. It became a standard that artists weren't going to be pushed around by record companies regarding repertoire the way they had in the past, and that it might be possible to do your own record. We were part of something that was already in motion and we accelerated this outlook.

AAJ: As far as a lot of contemporary independent labels, so much has sprung up in the wake of ESP, but who are you watching and what things are you looking out for among the contemporary independent labels that could help you?

BS: Eremite is doing a wonderful job, Delmark, Pi, Tzadik, Boxholder, and CIMP in the US, Hat Hut in Switzerland, and Leo and Emanem in England. These are the ones that come to mind as being innovative and having a good ear for change.

AAJ: Do you feel you can learn a lot from these labels, possibly how to approach things differently—although it's now a different climate, I guess.

BS: To some extent I have been studying what other record companies have been doing around the world, what they publish on their website, doing a survey to learn what distributors in certain countries are picking up on the labels that I respect. There are some fine labels in the world, and any distributor that picks up on these labels is a distributor that we should be interested in.

AAJ: That would make sense, as it was certainly one of the major problems before.

BS: It certainly was—we made a lot of mistakes, and we're probably still making mistakes, but I hope we're making fewer of them. We have established strong relationships in the United States and in Europe and Japan since our launch in March, 2005. They are all paying their bills and sending reorders, which is very gratifying. We are hopeful of finding representation in Arab states, in Central and South America, and in Africa.

AAJ: This might pertain to some of the earlier ESP discussion, but in terms of improvisers from other countries, how did things start trickling in from Gunter Hampel [1042—Assemblage], Peter Lemer [1057—Local Colour] and some of the European artists?

BS: I guess there was no pattern to it, it just sort of evolved. we had things from Willem Breuker and in '74, the last year before shutting down, we received from Peter Brötzmann the Machine Gun record [BRO 2/FMP 90], which was wonderful—the only problem was that we were out of business. So we didn't end up putting it out, though we intended to. There was a Japanese guitarist as well, who played this guitar just unreal—lightning fast, all these remarkable lines...

AAJ: Was that Masayuki Takayanagi?

BS: Yes, I committed to put his music out. I'll never forget this—an emissary came from Tokyo with a master, beautifully packaged with graphics and everything, all ready to release. I was mortified—I had made this commitment, we were out of business, and there was nothing I could do. It was very stupid of me, very blind, to nurture anything because we were out of business in '68. We went on, but it was totally an empty exercise, except for the producing end of it—there was no marketing, we weren't selling these guys. You could say what we did was not very sane.

AAJ: ESP marketed itself by that point, I would think.

BS: In what sense?

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. 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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