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Bernard Stollman and ESP-Disk’

Albert Ayler BellsOn Friday it will be exactly 50 years since Albert Ayler and his musicians appeared at Town Hall in New York City. On May 1, 1965 Ayler’s quintet gave a performance that was released in part on an album titled Bells: a single-sided 12-inch 33rpm disc pressed on transparent plastic, with the title and the artist’s name overprinted in white. The album comprised two untitled pieces together amounting to a few seconds short of 20 minutes. If you wanted to buy it in Britain, not only did you have to pay the considerable premium demanded for records imported from the United States, in this instance you were paying for something that contained half of the standard amount of music. But what music it was.

I bought it by mail order, and I remember the thrill of opening the package. That was the effect of just about any record on ESP-Disk’, the small independent label that issued albums by Ayler, Sun Ra, the New York Art Quartet, Giuseppi Logan, Gato Barbieri, the Fugs, Pearls Before Swine and other names from the New York avant-garde scene. If the visual style of a Blue Note or a Riverside album perfectly reflected the crisp, clean sound of hard bop, the look of an ESP record reflected a wilder sensibility.

Bernard Stollman, the lawyer who founded ESP-Disk’ in 1964, died last week, aged 85. He had run it throughout the 10 years of its original lifetime and then in its subsequent, rather half-hearted, reincarnations. Stollman was a kind of cultural and political idealist — the label’s name came from his belief in the universal language of Esperanto, and he later claimed that ESP was brought down by the US government “because of our opposition to the (Vietnam) war” — but he came in for criticism from musicians who felt he had not properly rewarded them, particularly in terms of royalties.

During the course of an interview with Jason Weiss, the author of Always in Trouble: An Oral History of ESP-Disk’, The Most Outrageous Record Label in America (Wesleyan University Press, 2012), Stollman explained that for each recording he paid $300 to the leader and $50-100 to the other musicians. “They all shared ownership of the album,” he added, and therein, or so one imagines, lay a world of trouble once licensing agreements started to be made with record companies outside the US. He also claimed: “There is no ESP musician today with whom I can’t communicate amicably.”

Some unquestionably resented him for seeming to profit from their art. But Milford Graves, the great drummer who was a member of the New York Art Quartet on their classic ESP album, and who would start his own label (SRP, with the pianist Don Pullen) later in the decade, put an interesting viewpoint to Weiss:

I look at the positives, he said, because I can’t deal with the negatives of Bernard Stollman. I just know one thing: nobody was recording us in the ’60s other than ESP! And the pay that maybe you didn’t get from Bernard, it neutralises itself because if you had to hire a public-relations person, you were going to have to pay him. So you’re still going to come out to zero. It balances out, a plus and a minus. Now, ESP puts you out. What are you going to do after that? Albert Ayler became what, he started putting out — that’s all through ESP. Myself, through ESP, I came out… Look, ESP publicised us all over the planet, so anybody complaining about Bernard, I have to ask people, You’ve got to check yourself out. That’s over, man. Bernard was a businessman — he wasn’t a charitable organisation… With Bernard, you’ve got to say, “Hey, man, you started something, Look, you did what you did.”

ESP albums had a real counter-cultural charisma, and Bells — poorly recorded and bizarrely packaged (the sleeve of my copy has the word “stereo” redacted by someone with a marker pen in the company’s offices) — had more than most. Its sequence of blaring unison themes, wild collective improvisation and emotionally audacious solos by Ayler, his brother Don on trumpet and Charles Tyler on alto saxophone, with Lewis Worrell almost inaudible on bass through the firestorm set up by the astonishing Sunny Murray on drums, retains every ounce of the impact it must have made on the Town Hall audience half a century ago, and certainly on a teenager opening a package a few months later and three thousand miles away.

15 Comments Post a comment
  1. John De la Cruz #

    HI Richard, Just saying it was 1965…(Typo or maths?). Sadly Ayler was dead by 1975.

    April 27, 2015
  2. Keith Wood #

    I got introduced to ESP in the sixties. It was a revelation. Every album had the ability to tear your head off with new ideas. You were rarely disappointed opening a package. I eventually lost track of the label and moved onto other things. I was sorry to hear of Bernard Stollman passing, he put out some great music.

    April 27, 2015
  3. Richard Harris #

    Wonderful piece. I too remember ordering Marion Brown’s “Capricorn Moon” via NY back then and the local peer hipness of its rarity on arrival. And, of course, the music.

    Worth checking out the comments re Strollman and ESP on the Organissimo web site, in particular from Chuck Nessa. But without him that stuff would not have been recorded.

    April 27, 2015
    • Would you mind sending me a link to that site, Richard? All I seem to get is a website for an organ trio.

      April 27, 2015
      • John Evans #

        A link to that site:

        My own first purchase of an ESP LP was Ornette’s Town Hall 1962, conventionally released in the UK through the Fontana label.

        ‘Rather half-hearted reincarnations’ seems a bit harsh, given the inclusion of some fascinating musician interviews on some of the re-releases.

        April 27, 2015
  4. Richard Harris #

    Yes that’s the one Richard. They also host a jazz forum (the last?) via the same site that has taken in most of the aging survivors of the old Bluenote website and Jazz Corner NY etc. Very informed if often bitterly argumentative. And that’s just Chuck Nessa!

    April 27, 2015
  5. Trevor Barre #

    A reminder of the times when getting a shrink-wrapped import from the States was a. exciting (and reassuringly expensive) experience.
    I well remember getting a copy of The Mothers of Invention’s “Uncle Meat” in 1972 and disappearing into it for several weeks. Does that form of musical enjoyment still exist, in these times of free downloads and YouTube?
    Lovely piece. Thanks, Richard. I still think that Donald Ayler is too easily written off as a musical “primitive’.

    April 27, 2015
  6. Robert Bowden #

    In 1964 I spent my lunch hours in a record store in Bristol where I bought most of my early jazz, far beyond my financial abilities ! One day I walked in and the guy behind the counter said ‘I’ve got something for you ! You like all the far out stuff.’ And he produced 4 albums just received from the States – ESP. Spiritual Unity, the first Pharoah Sanders album, Giuseppe Logan and a solo album by Paul Bley. And months later the notorious single sided transparentTown Hall disc. And I’m still listening to Albert and he still makes me smile every time. Rest in peace Al – and Bernard !!

    April 27, 2015
  7. Matthew Wright #

    Great article. As a schoolboy I hitched to London and bought Ayler’s Spiritual Unity and the Heliocentric World of Sun Ra from Ray at Collet’s on New Oxford Street. It was one of the few places to stock the label in depth.
    A little dubious about them releasing Charles Manson’s Love and Terror Cult but the track “Nothing” on the Fugs First Album remains a treat.

    April 27, 2015
  8. Michael Crane #

    I was a teenager, too, when I first heard ESP records, and they literally changed my life. They were far more exciting and interesting to me in the ’60s than most of the rock music that was happening, though I liked some of that stuff, and loved Miles and Monk, too. The wild album covers you refer to were a major factor in my buying my first ESP-disk, which I remember as being The Heliocentric Sun Ra. After that, I bought every one I could find whenever I could afford it. I still have many of them, some of which I’ve picked up as CDs in later reissues. They sound as good, as exciting, today as they did 50 years ago! I have difficulty listening to criticism of Bernard Stollman for that very reason.

    April 27, 2015
  9. Richard Harris #

    Val Wilmer’s “Serious as your life” has an interesting few pages on ESP, including Noah Howard saying it wasn’t such a great deal but he could read (the contract) and at least it got the album out.

    And thanks again for the piece, Richard. Played Marion Brown’s ‘Capricorn Moon’ again last night. Vamp and all. Sums up an era.

    April 28, 2015
  10. Ken #

    Typo in second sentence. 1965 not 1975. Love your blog!

    Cheers, Ken

    Sent from my iPad


    April 28, 2015

    Thanks for this really nice piece on Bernard Stollman and ESP-Disk. Isn’t it great that so many of these wonderful recordings are available – but what a pity that the same cannot be said of Milford Graves’ and Don Pullen’s SRP label, which you refer to. When I first started collecting jazz records, one of my guides was a superb little book, The Essential Modern Jazz Records (contributions by Max Harrison, Jack Cooke, Alun Morgan, Michael James and Ronald Atkins) and the use I made – and continue to make – of this slim volume can be judged now, many years later, by its well thumbed condition. I have many of the 100 recordings listed in the book, but one that has remained elusive from the late 60s is by Don Pullen and Milford Graves, titled ‘Nommo: In Concert at Yale University’. Max Harrison’s description of the record persuaded me that I needed to have it, but my search for it still continues. I do hope that one of the more enterprising re-issue labels unearths this recording some time soon!

    April 28, 2015
  12. John Evans #

    Worth checking out:

    April 29, 2015

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