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.


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