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Bernard Stollman: The ESP-Disk Story


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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.


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