ESP-Disk’, a record label started in New York in 1963 by Bernard Stollman, unleashed a sonic blast of free-form rock ‘n’ roll, free jazz, ur-freak-folk, poetry, and experimental music until the end of the decade, a blast that would leave a mark on the next two generations. ESP introduced the world to, among others, The Fugs, Pearls Before Swine, the Velvet Underground, and the Holy Modal Rounders, and widened the audience for Albert Ayler, Sun Ra and Pharaoh Sanders. In 2012, Jason Weiss published Always In Trouble, an oral history of the label, which has been resurrected and is again releasing its back catalog and exciting new music. PKM spoke with Jason Weiss about the label, its history and significance.
While the music scene over the past half-century has been dominated by major record labels, the most interesting, groundbreaking work is more often done by small, independent operations. One of the most idiosyncratic, and important, of these small labels was ESP-Disk’, started in 1963 by a lapsed lawyer and Esperanto-advocate named Bernard Stollman with the initial goal of capturing the “free jazz” movement then shaking up New York City.
In its earliest, half-decade incarnation, ESP-Disk’ released an astonishing 125 albums of free jazz, spoken word, rock, folk and other unclassifiable material, some of which—like Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity, the Fugs’ first two albums, and Pearls Before Swine’s One Nation Underground—are now considered cultural treasures.
The Fugs’ “Nothing”, from their ESP-Disk’ debut album:
ESP was also the label on which the Velvet Underground’s first recording appeared (on a sampler called The East Village Other, with the aptly-titled track “Noise”).
Velvet Undergound “Noise” from ESP’s The East Village Other album:
Free jazz was the musical equivalent of Jackson Pollock’s contemporaneous “action painting.” Traditional notions of form, content and melody were jettisoned to make room for “pure expression.” At its best, it was nearly overwhelmingly intense and, at some point, ceased to be “jazz” and became more like proto-psychedelia. At its worst, it was unredeemable noise. ESP-Disk’ opened its doors to all comers and was lucky enough to find the likes of Ayler, Pharoah Sanders, Sun Ra, Sonny Simmons, Frank Wright, Ornette Coleman, Giuseppi Logan, Burton Greene and Steve Lacy on the welcome mat.
“Spirits” from Albert Ayler’s ESP album, Spiritual Unity:
From the vortex of that musical moment, Jason Weiss pulled together a fascinating oral history, Always In Trouble (2012). Even those who’ve never heard, or heard of, free jazz will be charmed by this odd and affecting collection of voices of firsthand witnesses. While many of the musicians made little money from ESP work—as the title suggests, the label was pursued by all kinds of “trouble”—some launched careers and all helped redefine modern music.
Stollman resurrected his label in 2006 to make available decent CD reissues of the back catalog and pay some of the long overdue royalties to the survivors. He died in 2015 but lived long enough to see the label back on solid footing. Stollman’s philosophy was to release whatever struck his fancy or, as Weiss notes, “He functioned more by instinct, circumstance, opportunity and by following his own eclectic cue.”
After his initial free jazz phase, Stollman moved into folk and rock with “little discernible pattern or design.” Again, luck smiled on him, bringing Pearls Before Swine (led by Tom Rapp), The Fugs, Holy Modal Rounders, Godz and Cromagnon (a garage rock band from Connecticut) to his door.
“Uncle John”, a blistering antiwar anthem by Pearls Before Swine, off their ESP-Disk’ album:
Stretching the boundaries even further, he released material no one else would touch, like Sings by Charles Manson, simply because, as Stollman tells Weiss, he “thought the songs had a peculiar kind of individuality…I saw [Manson], in a sense, as a political victim as well as a psychopath.”
Despite all the trouble that dogged the label, there’s a reason ESP-Disk’ recordings still hold listeners spellbound 50 years later. It’s as simple as the motto that was on the back of every album: “the artists alone decide.” While that may seem to be a recipe for chaos, it often worked with Stollman’s shoestring operation, usually with just the one studio engineer, Richard Alderson, who got off one of the book’s better lines: “Sun Ra is Duke Ellington on acid”.
Author of a previous book about Steve Lacy, Weiss is most interested in ESP’s jazz legacy, but those who love experimental rock are lucky to have such an intrepid detective on the case. Not only did Weiss track down Stollman and some of the surviving musicians, he found the album cover artists and photographers who took part, and helped make ESP-Disk’ something special.
PKM spoke with Jason Weiss about Stollman, ESP and its legacy.
PKM: ESP founder Bernard Stollman lived long enough to see your book about his label. What did he think of Always In Trouble?
Jason Weiss: Bernard was pleased with the book, overall. Actually, he recruited me to do the book—I think he’d asked at least one or two writers before me—which he proposed as being done by him and me both. A young musician who’d been a student of Steve Lacy’s in his last couple years (at New England Conservatory of Music) had brought Bernard my Lacy book (published by Duke Univ. Press in 2006), so after reading my intro he called me. He even paid me a very small stipend the first couple months. But as I thought about it and looked into the matter, I understood that I should be talking to a lot of musicians and others besides just interviews with him, and also that in my view it should be an oral history, because any given story would inevitably have different perspectives and that generally doing the detective work to arrive at a sort of definitive version of anything wasn’t really so interesting. Bernard was open to others expressing their complaints or criticisms, up to a certain point at least. I showed him the final manuscript and he did want me to take out two or three things, which I did, as he felt they were either unfounded or excessive. So, at first I was speaking about the book as a project with him, but after a couple months I realized it was my book, not ours. A few passages in my interviews with him are actually writings by him incorporated into the text, but not enough for him to think or claim that he had co-written the book. That is, he sat for about a dozen interview sessions, and handed me ten or twenty pages of his own writings on such matters for me to go through, and also gave me contact information for maybe half the people I interviewed.
PKM: The first ESP record I ever came upon was that sampler The East Village Other, which had a cover like an underground newspaper and featured an eclectic lineup of the Velvet Underground (their first appearance on a record), Allen Ginsberg, members of the Fugs and Holy Modal Rounders, hangers on at Warhol’s Factory gossiping and Andy himself allegedly appearing on “Silence”. That blew my teenage mind. How did you stumble upon ESP or develop such an interest in ESP that you wanted to write a book about it?
Jason Weiss: ESP was the first appearance for a number of interesting artists, but I did not know that about the Velvet Underground. I grew up on the Jersey Shore and in my early teens I became aware of The Fugs, whose first two records were released on ESP. My best friend used to play “Boobs a Lot” when we were in our early teens.
I was also vaguely aware of the East Village Other, had a couple of issues of that underground paper. At the same time, as a teenager, I got to the Fillmore East a couple of times. That venue used to be a Yiddish theater, then the Village Theatre, where the big jazz acts like John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor would play. In the 1970s I became more aware of ESP simply through the connection with the jazz world. It was all slowly accumulating in my teenage mind. By the mid-1970s, I was aware of the saxophonist Steve Lacy who had an album on ESP. So, I had known about ESP for quite a while before I got the phone call, which came out of the blue, from Bernard Stollman. I knew from talking to some jazz people that ESP had an uncertain reputation, shall we say, because of their finances and relaxed business practices.
PKM: Were ESP-Disk’ and Albert Ayler/free jazz primarily East Coast things? After all, this pre-psychedelic jam music was not the sunny, day-glow, LSD-tinged jam music of the Bay Area.
Jason Weiss: Yes, ESP had much more of a NYC consciousness. The thing with the West Coast people who got involved with ESP was that they had all come to New York, where they came under that influence. People like Sonny Simmons.
During the first wave of the ESP label, from 1963 to the end of the decade, there was that continuum from pot to LSD going on. And that definitely had an influence. I’m not aware that Bernard ever did drugs but you could see the influence in the music. In the late 1960s, you would see folk music bleed into jazz in musicians like Tim Buckley. I interviewed Peter Stampfel [of the Holy Modal Rounders] for the book and he was talking about how much speed they all did, which turned that folk and traditional sound into what is now called freak folk.
A Holy Modal Rounders’ track from a 1965 live recording released by ESP:
PKM: The ESP Disk’ offerings/catalog was esoteric but much of it was accessible if you opened your ears. What was it that connected all these recordings, despite their disparate musical genres? I mean, on the surface, Tom Rapp/Pearls Before Swine and Sun Ra could not be more dissimilar in style, yet there was a sense of adventure and mystery about their music.
Jason Weiss: Bernard was never really a big music maven. He went totally by instinct. He had known Moe Asch, who founded Folkways Records, which became the model and aesthetic for him. He saw that it didn’t take a whole lot to put out a record, that you could do it on a shoestring. It was precisely because he was not of the music world or of the business world that worked in his favor. He didn’t have to run anything by anybody. If he liked an idea, he ran with it.
PKM: Remind me again of the significance of that little quote mark at the end of ESP-Disk’…
Jason Weiss: Bernard had a fascination with Esperanto, and ESP stands for Esperanto, not extra sensory perception. The mark at the end of disk’ is where the ‘o’ in disko, the Esperanto word for record, would have gone. The apostrophe marked the absence of the ‘o’. He started the label with one record originally, which was a demonstration of Esperanto in several literary forms. Even at the end of his life Bernard had side projects, one of which was a computer-type multi-translator which used Esperanto as an interlanguage, like a waystation between languages I think. There was a crackpot element to some of his obsessions but that’s OK.
PKM: Right. The world could use more crackpots like Bernard Stollman. Speaking of Steve Lacy, you published a book about him, didn’t you?
Jason Weiss: Yes, Steve Lacy: Conversations, published in 2006 by Duke University Press. All through the 1980s, I lived in Paris, where Steve had relocated. Lacy was a fascinating man. As a young man, he came up with older New Orleans musicians playing with them on the Lower East Side from when he was 16. From there, he connected with Cecil Taylor, which led him to Thelonious Monk [Lacy briefly played in Monk’s band, and Monk’s music became a permanent part of his repertoire]. Eventually, Steve took the free improvisational aspect of avant-garde and gave form to it.
Mostly, though, Steve and I talked about books. He was a real thinker. He died of liver cancer in 2004. I remember when his wife [singer/violinist Irene Aebi] told me of his diagnosis the year before, the idea for a book came into my head then. So I pulled together 34 interviews that covered his career. Half were in French, which I translated, but three of the interviews I had conducted. And I shaped the story of his life that way, augmented with a lot of library research.
“Forest” from Steve Lacy’s The Forest and the Zoo album on ESP-Disk’ album:
PKM: A long period of time lapsed between when Bernard Stollman shut down the ESP Disk’ label and then revived it in 2006? That was long enough for every single one of the first wave of ESP albums to become collector’s items on eBay or Record Goldmine, wasn’t it?
Jason Weiss: I don’t know about that. I go the WFMU record fare in Brooklyn every year and 90 percent of it is vinyl. I am amused by the young and old who are pawing through all this vinyl. Different vendors will have some on display and I’ve seen one or two ESP disks going to $90 or so. There were many different pressings made of the early albums, and it’s not always clear which were the ones that could be deemed “collectible”, so I don’t think these discs ever went for a king’s ransom. There was one album by Albert Ayler [on which he performed the legendary “Bells”] that would now be considered rare, pressed by ESP on red vinyl.
The problem was that Stollman would sell licensing rights to parts of the catalog and the musicians would learn of their albums being sold in Japan and Europe under new editions and not receiving any of the money. There was no way to know how to get the money to the artists. These other labels never provided any sales and royalty reports, so there was no way to know what was owed, and the licensing fees he got mostly went back into the business.
That set the musicians being pissed off at Bernard, thinking he was living large on their work. But I saw the way he lived, though. He was not living lavishly. For most of his last decade, the ESP offices were in a former laundromat in the Bed-Stuy part of Brooklyn, and Bernard lived in an interior room.
Thurston Moore and Byron Coley did a lot of work with documenting the ESP catalog, and were working on a project that has not, to my knowledge, materialized. The label itself got revived for ten years before Bernard died. He started it again, mostly in the CD format, to reissue the back catalog in a proper organized way and to put some new material. Basically he wanted to keep it going but he really didn’t have a hands-on connection to the label. Steve Holtje, a composer and a good guy, took over with Bernard’s blessing and has been putting out some good new stuff.
PKM: What of the new releases and artists of the present-day ESP Disk’ label do you like or would recommend?
Jason Weiss: One of the new albums is one that I produced, called NewImprovised Music from Buenos Aires. I had long been writing about Latin American writers and finally decided to go down there to meet them in person. While I was there I came upon a group of musicians in their 30s to their 50s who were doing really interesting musical work. I proposed an anthology to Steve and he gave it the go ahead. It has just come out now.
There are a number of new artists and releases worth checking out on the new ESP-Disk’ label.