Sometimes it does take a bit of a reminderespecially in the days of corporate conglomerates managing almost every aspect of one's media experiencethat the history of improvised music has been forged not only by left-field artists and visionaries, but also by record labels just as independent as their rosters. Commodore, Savoy, Dial, Transition, Blue Note, Prestige, and a host of musician-run private productions (Saturn, Strata-East, Incus, FMP) have all contributed to the direction of jazz, cementing the notoriety of major players as well as giving the decidedly obscure a chance to make their recorded mark on history.
Though there are currently too many independent productions to count releasing improvised music, there were far fewer choiceseven among indiesforty years ago. In terms of the jazz vanguard of the post-bop erathose innovators like Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, Sunny Murray and Pharoah Sanders that separated improvisation from chord structure and straight-time and gave it to the realm of action and "all time"an independent production and distribution system was necessary to get this new music to the public. If you were playing avant-garde jazz in New York in 1965, Bernard Stollman was your man and ESP-Disk was your label.
Bernard Stollman grew up in Plattsburg, New York and attended college and law school at Columbia University. "The first job I got as a beginning lawyer was an unpaid go-fer position at the office of a very prominent New York lawyer I knew from college... during that time, she was working for the estates of Charlie Parker and Billie Holliday... through those connections I became aware of that sector of music. This was in 1960... Gradually, I started becoming acquainted with the [jazz] communityCalvin Massey, Randy Weston, and at some point the word got out among the music community that there was a lawyer that would help them with their problems. A young woman came to me and said, 'I understand you help musicians. Why aren't you helping Ornette and Cecil?' I said, 'Ornette and Cecil who?'
Stollman by default became manager to Ornette and Cecil in the early '60s, working to get Taylor royalties from published music, as well as attempting to get Coleman record dealsas well as getting the saxophonist's Town Hall concert tapes correctly mastered. Getting a record company started to document the artists he was meeting in New York, many of whom had shaky label contracts, was stewing throughout this periodafter a fiasco with Ornette and the above tapes, in fact, Stollman contracted Ornette in 1964 to let him manage the masters (eventually becoming ESP 1006, Town Hall Concert).
Stollman had produced a vanity record by that time, 1963's Ni Kantu en Esperanto (Let's Sing in Esperanto), an album of folk songs and readings in Esperanto, which later became ESP 1001: "it was so obviously simpleyou could utilize millions of dollars worth of equipment at these plants, have a tiny record company and produce a thousand records."
"What a remarkable thingyou bring them the tape, cut the laquer, make the lathes, press it, do the artwork and make a jacket and you're dealing with a huge industrial plant. How nice! ...I also did some work with Moe Asch over at Folkways and I liked what he was doing with his record label, solid black jackets with the paste-on [covers]. Look what he's done here, something profoundly direct and simple and inexpensive and he's getting the music out."
But Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, and other establishedif somewhat neglectedartists were not to grace the first proper release on ESP-Disk; rather, it was a then nearly- unknown tenor man by the name of Albert Ayler, who had recorded three very poorly distributed LPs, none available in the US (two on Danish Debut, one on Bengt Nordstrom's Bird Notes imprint). "A man came to me out of the blue and said, 'I grew up with a young man in Cleveland and we played together in the orchestra in high school. You've got to hear him, he's playing at the Baby Grand next week. You will never regret it.'"
"Anyone who is that adamant piqued my curiosity, so I went to the Baby Grandit was dark and quiet (it was a Sunday afternoon two days before Christmas) and there were just seven or eight people. Elmo Hope was there with his trio, it was very nice. After a few minutes, this man came through with a grey leather suit on and a black and white beard, jumped up on the stage and started playing the saxophone without any introduction. Elmo Hope and the group just stopped immediately; they couldn't accompany him, as it was so different [musically] and they sat back to experience this performance."
"This guy blew nonstop for twenty or thirty minutes. After he played, I went over to him and said, 'I'm starting a record label and I want you to be my first artist.' The voice in the back of my head said, 'oh you are, are you?' Six months later, Albert Ayler, Sunny Murray and Gary Peacock recorded the tracks that would be released as Spiritual Unity (ESP 1002): "I remember at the recording, I said to [Annette Peacock] 'what an auspicious beginning for a record label.'
Featuring a silk-screened drawing of a saxophonist in black on a blood-red background, with a drawing of the Gnostic "Y' symbol connecting images of the trio and a booklet of poetry by Paul Haines, the first edition of ESP 1002 was not just a record, but an art object. With eleven more releases ready to hit the shelves (recorded in late 1964 and early 1965), from reedmen Giuseppi Logan and Byron Allen, pianists Paul Bley, Bob James and Ran Blake and the music of the New York Art Quartet, ESP-Disk was launchedincluding Folkways-style wraparound sleeves with pencil sketches and photo-montages of the artists done in a black-and-white documentary style. The ordering information was in Esperanto and the label address was Stollman's tiny apartment on Riverside Drive.
"Around that time, I went to my mothermy parents were immigrants and were affluent, they'd worked all their livesand I said, 'I've found what I want to do. I'm going to document this whole community of improvisational musicians and I'm going to start a record label. I want my inheritance now.' So she gave me $105,000 (which was a fortune in those days) and in eighteen months I produced 45 records."
The label went on, in those first fifty-odd releases, to put out the first widely available recordings by Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, Milford Graves, Marion Brown, Charles Tyler, Burton Greene, Sunny Murray and proto-punk by the Fugs, the Godz and the acid-folk of Randy Burns and Tom Rapp's Pearls Before Swine. "Most of the time I didn't know what they sounded like [before putting out the records]to me it was just circles inside of circles... somehow everything worked because they were desperate and the music was happening. Someone had better capture it."
However, it only took a couple of years for ESP to run into financial problems, mainly because Stollman was not aware of the wily nature of some distribution centers and record dealerships. "[graphic artist] Jordan Matthews came to me one day and I was depressed because I'd shipped these twelve releases and they weren't selling, but I was getting interest from critics in Europe and Japan and offers to license them. By and large, we were struggling, the money was disappearing and I was feeling pretty low... the American public isn't interested in this music."
"Jordan said, 'you've got no problems. You've got the Fugs.' I said, 'what do you mean?' 'I've talked with them. They're very impressed with what you're doing and they want to be on the label.' They wanted to be identified as artists with the whole ESP phenomenon." For a brief period, The Fugs (on ESP 1018, 1028 and 1038) were a consistently-selling artist on the label, until they signed to Warner Bros. in 1968 (ESP didn't require contracts for its artists"we were a farm team ).
In the late '60s, Stollman contracted with Philips and JVC to release selected titles from the label in Europe and Japan, under the Fontana and Globe monikers: "they had an opportunity to lease them for two years and then they dropped it." Though some titles were released, Stollman wasn't paid in full for the license. Also, in the late '60s, Vietnam was one of the major sticking points in world relations and it even came down to ESP and its countercultural image. "What they licensed was anti-war and it's entirely possible that Philips decided they didn't want to be spreading music which criticized the American government."
The US government was, during the Goldwater period, also closely monitoring the activities of countercultural businesses: "I had a staff member who was from the intelligence community and he tried to wreck the company... he worked constantly to try and undermine me and antagonize artists towards me. He was a monstrous individual." By this time, ESP was in serious financial trouble: "I was out of business in '68, but I kept going for six years on money in the bank. I was just disregarding the reality, but I went on putting out new records... [with the Fugs and Pearls Before Swine] I had three albums moving to the top of the charts and overnight, it was done." In 1974, ESP officially closed up shop; Stollman put the masters in safe-deposit box and became, for a time, a New York state prosecutor.
In the 1980s, the catalog was licensed by Base in Italy and in the '90s by Germany's ZYX Musicneither of which properly paid Stollman for the use of the catalog. Following the brief lease of some titles by Calibre and Abraxas in Holland and Italy (Abraxas, in fact, was bootlegging ESP until recently), Stollman and a small staff have re-started the label, primarily focusing on reissuing original tapes in 20-bit surround sound with new liners and photographs, audio interviews with the artists and some material never before issued (though a recent solo piano recording of Ellis Marsalis is the first piece of a planned series of new artists).
"The history of this label is as an iconoclastic label that releases new music. I don't really want to repeat 1965, so I don't see any reason why I can't go forward with new music." Yet Stollman recognizes that ESP is certainly one of the most influential record labels in the business: "Now that I'm back, it seems to me that I had something to do with introducing change and innovation to the industry... now, artists are not going to be pushed around by record companies in terms of content and repertoire."
Stollman cites Eremite, Hat Hut, and Boxholder as among the contemporary indies that have supported and expanded upon the ESP ethos of a unified aesthetic and documentary style, presenting new and archival music by unknown and established artists. One thing is for sure, though: in creative music, the label is just as much the artist.