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Dignity, Conviction, and Mrs. Stollman’s Checkbook

Always in Trouble: An Oral History of ESP-Disk’, the Most Outrageous Record Label in America

By Jason Weiss
Wesleyan, 2012

For Bernard Stollman, it was love at first sight:

Elmo Hope was at the piano, with his trio, on an elevated stage. I sat and listened to them. Several minutes later, a small man in a gray leather suit, holding a large saxophone, brushed by me and jumped up on the stage. He had a black beard with a little patch of white in it. He was not introduced and, ignoring the trio, he began to blow his horn. The other musicians stopped and looked at him. No words were exchanged. Elmo Hope quietly closed his piano, the bass player parked his bass, the drummer put his sticks down, and they all sat back to listen. He was playing solo, and he kept right on playing for twenty to thirty minutes, just a burst of music. It seemed like a second; it was no time at all! Then he stopped and jumped down from the platform, covered with sweat. I approached him and said, “Your music is beautiful. I’m starting a record label, and I’d like you to be my first artist.” And a small voice in the back of my head said, “Oh, you are, are you?”

The saxophonist was Albert Ayler, and the label became ESP-Disk’, which from 1964 to 1975 released 125 albums, most successfully by underground rock bands like the Fugs and the Holy Modal Rounders, most memorably by some of the seminal artists of avant-garde jazz, such as Ayler and his epochal Spiritual Unity, the recording that resulted from Stollman’s spontaneous offer. It’s a catalogue of dizzying scope that still has cultish devotees straining for superlatives, and its influence on jazz can’t be overstated. It was also an unholy mess of a business operation.

Always in Trouble, an oral history of the label by Jason Weiss, is powered by the friction of Bernard Stollman’s twin legacies – production of sui generis records and relentless ineptitude in practical business matters. It’s an important book, not just in documenting a unique cultural moment and a unique achievement, but in exploring the contradictions inherent in any creative enterprise, and whether these forces can ever be reconciled. A series of interviews, first with Stollman, then with artists, it’s a mishmash of recollections that seesaw between the personal and the professional, the passionate and the pragmatic, by turns fascinating and exasperating, leaving the reader, as Stollman left many of his artists, feeling both grateful and disappointed.

A lawyer by training, Stollman’s initial foray into recorded music was as an Esperanto proselytizer. After doing volunteer legal work for Folkways Records and seeing how little was required to run a record label, formed Esperanto Disko (shortened to ESP-Disk’) and released Ni Kantu en Esperanto (Let’s Sing in Esperanto), a collection of songs and poems meant to promote the international language. “The record was just an exercise,” Stollman says, “and I had no thoughts of doing anything beyond that.” But as a young lawyer, he had rented a room in the law offices of a firm whose clients included prominent jazz musicians. He found them “interesting people of depth and dignity, more sympathetic than the average run of humanity,” and that, coupled with his reluctance to pursue a conventional practice, led to legal work for the likes of Mary Lou Williams, Dizzy Gillespie, and Ornette Coleman. Then he saw Albert Ayler, and further smitten by the groups in Bill Dixon’s seminal October Revolution festival, he simply approached any artist he found interesting and offered them the services of his label.

Stollman’s was a radical concept. He gave musicians creative carte blanche, from the material they recorded to the album’s cover art; he had them sign a two-page contract (most industry contracts ran up to forty-five pages) for only one record, so that they could consider offers from larger labels if the album proved successful; and he gave them joint ownership with ESP, allowing for an equal partnership in contrast to the standard arrangement where a label has sole ownership of an album. It was, as he says, “a new standard for the treatment of artists,” and it’s remarkable to consider what resulted from one man’s enthusiasm, his mother’s money, and forty-five minute recording sessions.

Many of Stollman’s tales are almost comically innocent, and have the concision of parables. Describing the creation of Spiritual Unity , he says, “I directed Albert to the Variety Arts Studio. He arrived with his trio: Gary Peacock and his then wife Annette and Sunny Murray… There was no discussion. The engineer was lanky, blond, and low-key, one of the owners. They filed into the recording studio, and the session began. The engineer left the door of the control room open, while Annette and I sat outside listening.” In explaining how Gato Barbieri’s career was launched, he explains, “… I was lying on the office couch, and suddenly Gato Barbieri was there with his wife, Michele. They looked down at me and said, ‘Karl [Berger] 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.” Perhaps finding that exchange too convoluted, Stollman streamlined the process. As Alan Sondheim recalls, “I think Bernard said, Do a record. So, we gave him a tape and that was it!

While making records was easy enough, ESP’s stewardship was more problematic. Essentially, Stollman didn’t pay anybody. Well, some people got a little, like Sonny Simmons, who received a payment after he threatened to throw Stollman out a window and Stollman’s mother begged him off, brandishing her checkbook. If you couldn’t find and cajole Mrs. Stollman, forget it. But with Bernard Stollman, nothing is ever simple; while his non-payment to artists is inexcusable, it’s worth noting his admission that, “I knew from the start that I was woefully incompetent and not suited to deal with both the creative side and the business administration side,” as well as a comment he makes about providing legal services to Ornette Coleman: “He never paid me for my services. In fairness to Ornette, I should mention that I never billed him.” So, shyster, or just financially obtuse? Couple this with artists having unrealistic income expectations from albums that usually sold between five hundred and a thousand copies, and you have to wonder how much more ESP could have achieved if Stollman had just hired a bookkeeper. Understandably, Weiss makes much of this financial negligence, and it is an essential conflict in the label’s history, but those more interested in a good Milford Graves story than phantom royalties will find ‘Did Bernard pay you?’ an irritating leitmotif. The question is posed, answered, reposed, reiterated, and by the time you get to expendable comments from Roscoe Mitchell and Evan Parker, neither of whom recorded for ESP or had any insight into Stollman’s business practices, you’ll be begging for another Albert Ayler anecdote.

But duality being Always in Trouble’s running theme, the topic does also provide for some hilarious moments. Stollman, previously forthright about his lack of acumen, expands on the topic by offering wholly unsubstantiated conspiracy theories. Peter Stampfel of the Holy Modal Rounders recalls asking,

“Gee, how come we never got any royalties?” And [Stollman] said, “Well, didn’t you read the contract? The contract says that all rights belong to me. You have no royalties ever, ever, ever. The publishing is mine. You don’t own the songs anymore. We don’t owe you anything.” And then he explained that he had to do that because whenever you get a hit record, the Mafia would make bootlegs of them and ship their bootlegs instead of his. And therefore it was, “too bad, guys, but because of that I have to rip you totally off.”

Irresistible to imagine the hapless mafioso trying to make his vig by bootlegging Marzette Watts albums. But La Cosa Nostra was nothing compared to the Johnson administration. Stollman’s explanation for why ESP went out of business? “The government closed my business because of our opposition to the war.” That proposed licensing agreement with Phonogram? “The agreement was cut short after two years, presumably under pressure from the U.S. government… There’s no doubt in my mind today that the American government pressured them to do this because of our opposition to the war in Vietnam.” Still unconvinced about the bootlegging? “No federal laws against bootlegging existed at that time. The Johnson regime had found a way to silence our criticism of the war in Vietnam.” Need at least something resembling proof? “I moved from 156 Fifth Avenue, where our offices had been, to an apartment house at 300 West 55th Street, on the top floor, in 1969. I engaged in a telephone conversation with someone, and I used an obscure phrase. Then I got a call from a prominent music industry lawyer, asking me whether I wanted to take on a client. As we chatted, he used the identical phrase. The likelihood of a coincidence was very remote. I concluded that the government was monitoring my phone calls. And he was in on it.”

We’ll have to wait for the fifth volume of Robert Caro’s Johnson biography to fully resolve this one, but until then, perhaps an insider’s view will hold you over:

Tom Rapp: “We never got any money from ESP. Never, not even like a hundred dollars or something.”

Weiss: “Bernard had said that in 1968 they had a big bootleg problem that more or less shut them down.”

Rapp: “Right, the Mafia and the CIA.”

Weiss: “You’ve heard the story, obviously.”

Rapp: “Yes, I have. My real sense is that he was abducted by aliens, and when he was probed it erased his memory of where all the money was. I think that probably makes as much sense as the Mafia and the CIA.”

If you’re wondering at this point how ESP managed to last ten years, join the club. The artist interviews only help so much. Weiss’s task was formidable, conducting these interviews forty-something years after the fact, and the results are predictably erratic. Whether from reticence, age, or bitterness, enigmatic responses like Sonny Simmons’s, “We would take felonious chances to keep this music going,” or Giuseppi Logan’s “I was out of touch with everybody, with all music. A bomb fell on me,” go unexplained. Since both endured years of homelessness and Logan spent much of his life institutionalized and drug addicted, one is left wondering if their comments are literal or figurative.

Weiss notes that in interviewing the potentially fascinating Jean Erdman – dancer, choreographer of The Coach with the Six Insides, John Cage collaborator, and wife to Joseph Campbell – “I had sent her a copy of the ESP recording [of The Coach] to help refresh her failing memory, but we could not get very far,” and many of the interviews feel similarly unfortunate, haunted by opportunities lost in the passing of time. We get a taste of the experience, but aside from the occasional lucid anecdote, we’re left with a hodgepodge of elliptical references, flashes of excitement (“We were going to cross into a never-never land!”) and intent (“It’s not about if it’s good or bad. I’m saying, Do you have conviction? Are you sincere in what you do?”) and the often irrelevant detritus of memory (“Spiritual Unity…was recorded by an engineer known only by his first name, Joe”, “The Sony engineer who spotted and corrected the problem, Ken Robertson, was a direct descendant of Karl Marx”). For fans of these artists, it’s a titillating peek, but as with everything else regarding ESP, the ambiguities run deep.

Still, you get the feeling that even the most complete testimony would have left a great deal unresolved, and while it might exceed the scope of this project, one wishes that Weiss had taken a more active role in connecting this pastiche to a larger context. He notes in his introduction that “the force, as well as the rage, that characterized free jazz in its original period of growth was also bound up, often enough, with the political issues of the day, notably the civil rights movement and the massive protests against the Vietnam War.” Very true, but he doesn’t expand on this, and aside from Stollman’s unelaborated allusions to war opposition, we’re left not knowing how any of these societal factors affected the label and its cast of characters. Even the more light-hearted, only-in-the-1960’s anecdotes beg for context. There’s a bizarre story of mistaken identity concerning Stollman dating Barbra Streisand after looking her up in the phone book, and whatever your feelings on the Beatles, it’s hard not to be delighted when Yoko introduces Stollman to John Lennon, who says, “Oh, yes. Paul has the Sun Ras.” But, as with so much of the book, aside from some provocative glimpses into the era, all we’re left with are the clashing facets of Bernard Stollman’s personality.

Which, it seems, have been tempered by age. After ESP folded, Stollman made his living as a lawyer for the New York State Department of Transportation and the Mental Hygiene Bureau, and following his retirement, the end of his marriage, and a decade or so of itinerancy, he brought ESP back. Since 2005, he’s been reissuing old classics and releasing new music, while systematically calculating owed royalties and making restitution, one artist at a time. The rebirth of the label, along with Always in Trouble (which was begun at Stollman’s instigation), makes for one strange redemption story—of a confounding man with a complex legacy, returning to his calling after many “lost years,” perhaps still unable to make sense of things, but wiser, contrite, and with a vision for the future. And hopefully imbued with a little more business savvy.

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Steve Danziger is managing editor of Fiction magazine, teacher at City College, member of the Terranova Theater Collective, volunteer at the Housing Works Bookstore, and loiterer at the Hungarian Pastry Shop. His fiction has appeared most recently in The Coffin Factory, and will be in upcoming editions of Locust and Anemone Sidecar.