Always in Trouble
An Oral History of ESP-Disk', the Most Outrageous Record Label in America
Publication Year: 2012
Published by: Wesleyan University Press
This work began its own circuitous life in mid-July 2008, when Bernard Stollman called me up one day, out of the blue, and asked if I would like to write a book with him about the ESP label. Although I eventually came to understand that I was the one writing the book, he made himself readily available from the start and provided whatever support he could. So, I must first of all thank him for his good humor and patience, as well as his generosity of spirit....
A Note on the Photographers
While doing a bit of research on ESP at the Institute of Jazz Studies in Newark, I came across an interview that had appeared in Jazz Hot during the label’s heyday (“Qui êtes-vous, Bernard Stollman?” Jazz Hot 33, no. 230 ). Among the more informative pieces on ESP from that time, it was written by Daniel Berger, a young Frenchman who also included half a dozen photos that he himself had shot in New York. I was lucky enough to find him, via the phonebook,...
The history of independent record labels, in the United States and abroad, has run like a fleet-footed spirit alongside the larger, more commercial enterprises since the beginning of the industry. Less burdened by grand designs, and keeping a sharper focus and certainly a tighter margin of operations, the independents managed paradoxically to court greater risk; having almost nothing to...
I What Got into His Head: Bernard Stollman, Founder of the Label
1. Who, Where, When: Beginnings and Departures
My father, David, was born at the turn of the century, in the small Polish market town of Krynki [Krinik]. He was the third youngest of nine children whose father, a devout Orthodox Jew, labored for long hours as the foreman of a local tannery owned by his brothers. The rafters of their one-story house held stacks of curing hides, which gave off a terrible stench. My father attended yeshiva...
2. Music and Law: Into the Deep End Fast
As a law student I attended huge parties that Flo Kennedy and her two statuesque sisters threw in their large Harlem apartment for law students. Later, when I found that she was practicing law in midtown Manhattan, I approached her directly and offered her my services as an unpaid gofer....
3. The Initial Years
In 1963 I volunteered to do legal work for Moe Asch at Folkways Records. I was fascinated by his dedication to documenting the folk music of America and of other cultures. I saw him as an unoả cial extension of the Smithsonian. Pete Seeger was often in the oả ce, providing support. I was struck by the fact that one could operate a record label with very modest means. Th e custom pressing...
4. While It Worked
Karl Berger sent Gato Barbieri to me. I was lying on the oả ce couch, and suddenly Gato Barbieri was there with his wife, Michele. They looked down at me and said, “Karl sent us.” And I said, “When do you want to record?” I had no idea what he sounded like, but he was very impressive in his bearing and demeanor, and I trusted Karl’s judgment. He had just recorded for ESP. It was...
5. Decline and Fall
I had a team of four, including the shipping clerk and his assistants, who were the Godz. We had three albums on the charts by the Fugs and Pearls Before Swine. One was at position 30 on the pop charts. We were hot. Th en, I received a call from an industry figure associated with Warner Brothers—that Warner wanted to buy our label. And I said no. One morning, weeks later, the phones stopped ringing and the orders stopped coming in. Obviously, something was...
6. On Individual Artists
Albert produced four records for ESP: Spiritual Unity, Spirits Rejoice, Bells, and New York Eye and Ear Control. Spirits Rejoice was done in Judson Hall [September 23, 1965], which we rented solely for recording purposes. W. Eugene Smith, the famous photographer, came by and took pictures of the session. So did Guy Kopelowicz, the Associated Press photographer from Paris, a good friend of the label. ESP recently acquired tapes of Albert’s last performances in 1970, at the
7. About Some Records
Jean Erdman, who is ninety-two and retired in Hawaii, was a very creative choreographer who had produced a theatrical performance piece based on Finnegans Wake. Her husband, Joseph Campbell, was a famous scholar and an authority on James Joyce. She had brought together a number of talented performers, and the music was composed by Teiji Ito, who was married to the...
8. A Word or Two on Recording Engineers
Art Crist was on staff at Bell Sound Studios. Whatever we did at Bell Sound, he engineered. I knew that Art was a jazz pianist, and very accomplished, but his role with us was strictly as an engineer. He was sympathetic, and musicians seemed to like him....
9. Close Encounters in the Music Business
Mike Wallace had an interview show on television [PM East/PM West] in 1961, and one of his guests was a tall, slender young woman, whose movements and gestures were beguiling. She was funny, wisecracking, and I thought she was attractive. I found her phone number in the directory and called her. The time was about midnight. She took the call, and I told her who I was. She responded...
10. A Short History of Licensing
Phonogram wanted a European distribution deal. There was a buzz about ESP, and they liked that. The director of the company came to New York, and we struck a deal for our folk-rock albums. They released Jerry Moore, Pearls Before Swine, and the Fugs....
11. In the Wilderness
The area, like much of upstate New York, was economically depressed, and local lawyers were not responsive to my overtures to join them. We struggled for five years to make ends meet, until my wife suggested I take the state and federal civil service exams. My grades were acceptable, so I visited various state agencies in Albany. In 1979 I was hired to an entry-level position as a staff lawyer...
When plans for relaunching ESP began to take shape in 2003, I hired Michael D. Anderson, Douglas McGregor, and Rob Lake. Mike was a music historian, radio personality, and musician who had toured with Sun Ra as a member of the Arkestra. Doug had just graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in accounting and skills in audio engineering. Rob had just graduated from...
II ESP-Disk’ as Lived and Witnessed
It was Walter Bowart who organized the project. He was a painter and bartending at Stanley’s on Avenue B [at East 12th Street]. We all used to hang out at Stanley’s, get into fights, and drink. Painters, writers, Amiri Baraka, Hubert Selby Jr., all came in there. Th is Polish guy ran it, Stanley Tolkin. He was a patron of the arts. We were all down and out. We didn’t have any money; we’d...
Around the time I made my Heartplants album , which has gone down in history as the first European record of our own thing, we heard Giuseppi Logan on ESP; the Ornette Coleman concert at Town Hall; and, I guess, Pharoah’s record; and the Fugs....
I think it was when we had the Jazz Composers Guild; the label started about
the same time. We met Bernard when he came to one of our concerts. Th en
Sunny Murray and others told us about it, and we got involved.
Albert Ayler was the first one that he recorded; when he started to do Albert, then it became known. I knew Albert from Scandinavia, so it was probably...
I was twenty-three, the oldest in the band by a couple of years. Th ere was a club back then, Folk City; for about six months I used to play there just by myself. But I’d always go visit Larry—he lived on 11th Street between Second and Third; Jimmy lived on Avenue D and 7th Street—and then walk over to Folk City. We’d always get our guitars out and play, so they came with me. That was the first..
Th e alto player, Allan Praskin, graduated from high school just in time to make the Zitro record. He later left the country and has been over in Eastern Europe, I think, for years and years. Bruce Cale, the bassist, was from Australia; he and I went and played with Zoot Sims for a while, shortly aft er that album. I’ve lost track of him. Warren Gale, the trumpeter, was born in L.A. but resided with the rest of us in New York for a time, before settling in San Francisco and joining...
I came to New York, me and my ex-wife, the trumpet lady Barbara Donald, in 1966. We drove all the way from Los Angeles to New York City. Psychedelics, revolution, all kinds of shit was happening. I was in the mix. So, the word went out among musicians like myself that were playing something different and new, inspired by a lot of other forerunners of this great music. Byron Allen, another alto player, told me this in his home: “Sonny, they’ll make an album of...
The first time I played with Albert, I wasn’t really familiar with his
music. So he came over, and he just played; that’s how we rehearsed.
He was there one afternoon.
I was also doing work with Jimmy Giuffre then, and I had been out on the coast with Prince Lasha and Sonny Simmons...
Through the New York Art Quartet, it was through Roswell Rudd and John Tchicai. We had a recording date, in 1964, and that was with Leroi Jones, or Amiri Baraka. I had never seen Bernard Stollman; that was my first meeting of Amiri Baraka. I went to the studio. Lewis Worrell and myself, we had this partition, at Bell Studios. All I knew was that Roswell and John said, “There’s a great...
Around 1966 I was hanging out at Shakespeare and Company Books in Paris, where I met Joel Zabor [drummer and later novelist, as Rafi Zabor, The Bear Comes Home], who was on my ESP records. Steve Stollman was there, and he put us in touch with Bernard. I was playing saxophone then, unbearably badly—I was trying to play everything at the time. Th en Joel went off to Copenhagen...
Somewhere I had read about the Fugs, and I thought, This is great. I went to the local record store and ordered a couple of Fugs records. They came, and they were funny, and they were on ESP. Friends and I would just sit together and play music occasionally, so we put together a tape, and we sent it to ESP. We said, You have the Fugs. We’re not just like the Fugs, but you might be interested....
I was associated with a couple of studios as either a freelance percussionist or as a writer. Bernard’s artists were flying through there, and there were all of these off -the-wall, iconoclastic groups, whether they were supposed to be jazz or pop or whatever, that I found myself associating with either as a writer or as a percussionist or sometimes drummer. So, that’s what happened. I know they had...
I started listening to the first releases when they came out in 1965. Some I really loved a lot, especially Albert Ayler, Spiritual Unity. Also, the New York Art Quartet. I thought it was a very advanced move for ESP to do those recordings....
All I remember is that Paul Haines called my attention to Albert Ayler, by telling me that there was this amazing tenor sax player that I should hear. We went to some place uptown in the ’80s, where we heard the trio with Gary Peacock and Sunny Murray, and it certainly did knock me out. It was fantastic....
The writers who listened to me and liked my playing, they inspired me to be better, and I inspired them to keep listening. LeRoi Jones opened the door for me; he introduced me to the world. He was a very beautiful and very smart person. I’ve been reading some of his latest books....
Th at story is true in part, but I was also really good friends with David Hancock, who had previously recorded Spirits Rejoice for ESP. He was kind of a mentor to me, because I was pretty much beginning my career when I started working with ESP. David was the kind of engineer who recorded everything with only two ribbon microphones; more than that was a sin to him. So, his...
I think it was the Jazz Composers Guild, somehow he was a part of that. I was in the October Revolution concerts, and Bernard was there. He came down to my place on Chambers Street and we had a meeting. I don’t know if John was there or not, but I described to him what we were doing. John and I had been improvising with Milford and a couple of different bass players—at the end of ’63 we started doing this, and we did it through the spring and summer of ’64....
I don’t think so, because he wasn’t involved with ESP at that time. I heard about ESP records, but I don’t know what influenced me to connect with them. Most of the records I heard were avant-garde—Marion Brown, Albert Ayler, all those people....
It must have been Spiritual Unity that made me aware of ESP. We were already listening out for Albert Ayler. After that, I heard most of the records as they became available. It clearly required a paradigm shift to accept that this was an inevitable next step in the evolution of the music....
I was involved with the Jazz Composers Guild, with Bill Dixon, when he did the October Revolution. Burton Greene and I had a group called the Free Form Improvisation Ensemble [a 1964 recording of the group was released by Cadence Records in 2000], and we were playing some small concerts, including the Music of Our Time series that Norman Seaman was doing at Town Hall. Bill came to our concert and suggested that we play at his festival. Th e group was...
I had been in a mental institution for three years straight, and the next time I got caught they put me in there for two years. And the next time, I had to stay in there for eighteen to nineteen months. I lost my wife, my family, everything. Everybody left me. I was homeless. I had a home. It’s still in my name, but she got it. That was in Virginia....
I heard bluegrass in ’56 when I started college. I first heard the Ramblers in ’58. I recognized what they were doing as what happened before bluegrass, and that suddenly seemed a lot more interesting than bluegrass. When I heard the Harry Smith anthology, I felt it was on me to keep all those—I assumed—totally dead people and the amazing tradition alive. Thousands of other people my age had precisely the...
He put an ad in the Village Voice, “people looking for a cosmic solution to life and artistic pursuits,” etc., etc. I was staying, at the time, on 72nd Street and looking to get out of there any way I could. I saw the ad, and there was a piano on the upper floor—that was all I had to hear; I was over there in a minute. We worked out with the Free Form group continuously. We practically lived together;...
The Coach with the Six Insides: Jean Erdman and Van Dexter
It was one of my husband’s favorite books, and when he was writing [with Henry Morton Robinson] A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake , he would read to me out loud everything he was writing. So, that’s how I found out about Finnegans Wake. I probably couldn’t have understood it if I had read it by myself. That’s the book you need: then you have an enjoyment instead of a feeling of desperation trying to figure out what it’s all about....
I first became aware of ESP when I lived in the USSR. At the end of the 1960s, a friend of ours showed us an LP that was pressed on transparent vinyl with music on one side only. Th at record was Bells, by Albert Ayler. Th e music was absolutely shattering. By that time, we were listening to Impulse and Blue Note records, but this was something else, absolutely shocking!...
These friends of mine made a record for ESP before I did, Bruce Mackay and Tanya Mackay—both eventually became filmmakers as well. Th en I went down to New York and somehow bumped into Bernard Stollman, who heard me sing at a café in Greenwich Village. I ended up becoming a member on staff at ESP. I would work in the oả ce; at the same time he was preparing me to make an album, because he thought that the stuff I was doing was original. I had been...
The first thing was the Fugs, because when I was a kid in New Haven, in the early ’70s, I had a lot of friends who were into Frank Zappa and edgy kind of rock. The Fugs played in New Haven a couple of times. And from that, I heard Albert Ayler, probably around ’71. Spiritual Unity was the first thing I heard. I remember thinking it was kind of crazy, but very intriguing....
Around 1969–70, we used to go down to Sam Goody’s record store in Manhattan. They were selling all the monaural records for ninety-nine cents—or fortynine cents. And Sam Goody’s had the entire ESP catalog. I didn’t have much money, but I would buy what I could, and at one point I did have the whole catalog, including two or three ESP sampler albums. What was intriguing about...
Probably when I was in college, in the early to mid-’80s. In Montreal, I had a professor who found out that I was a musician and interested in jazz and more experimental music. He played me Albert Ayler’s stuff , and that was the first time I had heard Ayler. I’m pretty sure that...
I started professionally with an orchestra playing bebop in Buenos Aires when I was sixteen. I am seventy-six now, so that was sixty years ago. Later I had my own group there. We played every Monday, made a small record. I’ve worked with a lot of different people, different kinds of music. I was a very good sight reader—in Italy, when I didn’t have money, they asked me to play a concert of...
They weren’t regular, but we started a series. Actually, I was writing for Down- Beat at the time, and I started calling for concerts in nontraditional spaces, because the club owners were not ready for what had developed, the new music. So, we held concerts in the loft there. We all lived in the same building—Archie Shepp, myself, and Marzette Watts, who was the last person to come in. He had...
Michael D. Anderson
It was the summer of 1975. A friend of mine, Russ Musto, was the program director for radio station WRTI-FM at Temple University in Philadelphia. One afternoon while I was visiting Russ at his home, he played me Pharoah Sanders’s first recording, then went to Sonny Simmons, Staying on the Watch, and then to Noah Howard. I said, What is this label? Th e music was incredible. This...
Th ere was myself, the bass player Peter Bennett, another guitar player, Vinnie Howley, also Mark Payuk, Peter’s brother, Jimmy Bennett, and Gary Leslie. They were on pretty much all of the record. We all did overdubs, different things—handclaps, chanting, different sound effects....
I did the CD for me. My husband put it out on the label he runs with friends in Sweden. Then we came to New York for two months; that’s when Bernard called. He heard me on Myspace, and asked if he could sell my CD! The first I heard of ESP-Disk’ was when he called....
When I arrived in New York, it was on an invitation to do a concert with Marion Brown. At that particular time, it was a theater on Second Avenue called the Village Theater, which was very productive for the music. Th ere was a series of concerts, and it was quite an honor because all the main people were doing these concerts—Trane, Albert, Ornette. During that period, it was a relationship...
Before I got busted [as a teenager, he did some time in prison], I got into rhythm and blues, going to concerts, dancing with the music. It was the only outlet I had. I even had a partner one time—like the Nicholas Brothers—I’d make the routine. Then after I got stabbed in a gang war when I was eighteen—a very bad wound [left side below the ribs], I was supposed to die but I didn’t—and after I...
I had translated Dore Ashton, the art historian, and she said I should meet two friends of hers: one, she said, was an electronic genius, Richard Alderson, and the other a promising photographer, Larry Fink. Those two people were my very first guides in New York. When I arrived at Richard’s studio, he was recording Marion Brown. I sat through the recording, and aft er that I met Marion,...
In 1965. I came to New York to play music—I was involved with the free scene at the time. But like many musicians on that scene, I had mentors. Jaki Byard was one of them. In composition, I was studying with Noel DaCosta, who was one of the founders of the Society of Black Composers. At the same time, I was also performing....
Yes, the anthology was important to me. I learned a lot from it. Joseph Spence felt incredibly right to me, like a delightful puzzle. I liked his percussive handling of the guitar and the decoding of his words, which was as intriguing as it...
I lived in that maid’s room too, aft er he moved out. It was Erich Fromm’s maid’s room before him. And later aft er I moved out, Peter Shaffer bought it. So, I was encountering Bernard while he was putting the label together in my parents’ apartment. And then, he got me a job at the Village Vanguard. He was Ornette’s lawyer, and he got me this job as the headwaiter. I took over from a guy who had...
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