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Bernard Stollman: The ESP-Disk Story

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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.

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