An interview with ESP-Disk’ founder Bernard Stollman

September 7, 2013

An interview with ESP-Disk’ founder Bernard Stollman

Legendary record label ESP-Disk’ is celebrating 50th anniversary. They were the first, who gave absolute artistic freedom. Many worldwide known artists recorded and released their music on ESP. From avant-garde, free jazz in the early ’60s to freak/weirdo folk of the late ’60s. We had a great opportunity to do an interview with founder of the label Bernard Stollman. 

We are very proud to feature your story on
our magazine. How do you feel about the fact, that your record company is
celebrating 50th anniversary?
I am amazed that the label and I have
lasted this long, and we remain in action. While downloads dominate the scene, we have embraced digital and are also releasing
more vinyl.
As a student you attended Columbia Law
School and in 1960, you began working as an unpaid intern for a law firm
working on the estates of Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday. How was it to work
with two titans of jazz music. Is there any special story you would like to
share about Charlie and Billie?  
I met
Louis McKay, husband of the late Billie Holiday. He was a tall broad shouldered man with a 45 caliber pistol,
thrust  conspicuously into  the front of his pants. He was a global pimp, flying girls to
clients in other countries, and I dealt with him cordially, but cautiously, as one would with such an
individual. Doris Parker was ostensibly
the widow of Charlie Parker, but her claim would be successfully  challenged by the lawyer
for  Chan Parker, his actual widow, during the few months I was
in that office.
You also did some legal work for Moe Asch
at Folkways Records, and began advising jazz, rhythm and blues musicians on
copyrights and contracts. Tell us how did this love towards jazz began? 
I knew nothing about jazz when I began, but
met several of these artists and heard their music, and was greatly impressed by
their music and their commitment to it, as well as their struggle to obtain recognition.
Moe Asch
Main logo of your label was “The artists
alone decide what you will hear on their ESP-Disk”. ESP’ was the first label to
offer this kind of artistic freedom. What can you tell me about the idea behind
The existing labels engaged in
practices that obstructed the ability of the artists to make their statements in music,
by placing producers in charge of their recording projects, who tampered with  their music to make it more mainstream and
popular, and obliged them to play works by composers
favored by the producers. This was demeaning and demoralizing, and I was determined to establish new standards for the treatment of
One of the very first artists on ESP’ was
Albert Ayler. How did you manage to get him on the label to record his
legendary album Spiritual Unity?

As I described it in my autobiography,
IN AMERICA, (co-authored with Jason Weiss), I met him on a sunday
afternoon in a piano bar in Harlem, where he sat in with Elmo Hope and his trio and performed a solo
that so amazed me that I invited him to be the first artist on my new label, and he
accepted.  I did not ask him what he would record or with whom. Penguin Jazz described Spiritual
Unity as one of the 100 greatest albums in jazz.
Albert Ayler
Many other followed such as Sun Ra, Pharoah
Sanders, Ornette Coleman, Paul Bley and Gato Barbieri. What are some of your
memories from working with such big names in jazz music? You gave them a
special place to record and release their unique experimental music…

Yma Sumac
Sun Ra had been based in Chicago for many
years and formed his 14 man Arkestra, with which he toured the world without management, an
impossible feat. We met shortly after his arrival in New York, and this was the first recording
on a label other than his own Saturn label. I worked as Ornette’s manager briefly, having been
introduced to him by a young choreographer.
Ornette Coleman
Don Cherry
Since we are talking about underground rock,
two artists came to my mind… firstly a unique Cromagnon and the second one is
Charles Manson. Have you been in direct contact with Cromagnon or perhaps
Charles Manson? We would love to hear your memories about them…
Brian Elliot and Austin Grasmere were young
producers who had achieved great success creating bubblegum music, but explained to
me that they wanted to engage in more creative projects. I asked them what their
underlying concept was?  They
replied:  “Everything is one.” I told them to go and make their album,
without ever hearing any of their work. This is what they brought me. I never met Charles
Manson. After he was convicted and imprisoned, I found an LP that had been released by a
former cell mate of his in a San Francisco prison. Manson had produced it in the studio of the
Beach Boys, and asked Phil Kaufman to issue it. Phil turned it over to me, and it was
released briefly by ESP-DISK’ in the early 70s.

Was there any certain key on which you
picked rock groups? 

I never picked any. The Fugs and Pearls (Tom Rapp) came to me.

Timothy Leary and William Burroughs were
also part of the label. How did that came along?
Leary was a prominent figure in the music
scene in New York City, appearing at concerts in Fillmore East. He agreed to have his
ideas transferred to LP.  Gait Froge,
proprietor of the English Bookstore in Paris had been given the album to
release. She was a friend of my brother, Steve, and gave it to him to give
to me to release.
How many people were working in label ESP
back in the 60s and what is its current situation. We seen quite a lot of
reissues done and also new artists are coming along. What is the future of
Back in the 60s we had six people,
of whom 4 were the members of what became the Godz. Today we have 4 associates who
are deeply involved in all aspects of the operation. The future will depend on our ability to
continue to document music that should be heard.
How do you see the current music
I do not pay attention to it.
Are there any artists you always wanted to
have on ESP’, but never came to realization?
Janis Joplin came to New York, intending to
record for ESP, according to a letter she wrote to her sister, reported in one of her
biographies. Instead, she was signed
to Al Grossman, the manager of Dylan. John
Lennon and Yoko Ono invited ESP to distribute their first
album, TWO VIRGINS, but it went instead to Bill Cosby. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI  and state and local police confiscated the
pressings from the Columbia Records 
plant in Pittman, New Jersey, claiming they were obscene..
Thank you very much for taking your time.
We wish you happy anniversary and hope for the bright future of the label.
Would you like to send a message to your fans and to It’s Psychedelic Baby
Magazine readers?
We appreciate your recognition and support
and hope you will find our new digital releases worthy of your interest,
including iconic Mort Sahl, the first stand up comic satirist, Kate Smith,
hypnotic string duo Arborea.

Photo of Bernard Stollman by Mark Dagley
Steve at ESP would like to expand on Bernard’s
last remarks about new/upcoming ESP releases.
Our new artist, Maine indie-psych duo Arborea,
put out their album Fortress of the Sun on vinyl, CD, and download. And for the
first time, a live album by the late legendary soul-jazz singer/songwriter
Oscar Brown Jr. & Maggie Brown, We’re Live, on CD and download.
We also have celebrated our 50th anniversary
with an extensive slate of reissues, many issued on CD in the U.S. for the
first time:
Jerry Moore: Life Is a Constant Journey, CD
and download
Various Artists: Fire Music, CD and download
Yma Sumac: Recital
Byron Allen Trio: self-titled, limited edition
CD and download
Patty Waters: College Tour
Giuseppi Logan: More, expanded with ten newly
discovered minutes
Peter Lemer: Local Colour, limited edition CD
and download
Albert Ayler: Live on the Riviera, CD and
Burton Greene Trio: On Tour, CD and download
Albert Ayler: Spirits Rejoice VINYL
Various Artists: The East Village Other –
first complete edition since 1967, on vinyl, CD, and download
Cromagnon: Cave Rock VINYL
Coming up later this year:
September 24
Albert Ayler/Don Cherry/etc.: New York Eye and
Ear Control VINYL
October 29
1011 Ran Blake: Plays Solo Piano

Interview made by Klemen
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