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

April 6, 2013

By Jason Weiss
(Wesleyan University Press

Review By Ken Waxman

Visionary, charlatan, crook, naïf – these are just a few of the epitaphs applied to Bernard Stollman who founded the legendary ESP-Disk record label in the early 1960s. Interviewing Stollman and almost three dozen ESP artists, Jason Weiss tries to make sense of its history.

An attorney with aspirations towards art and entrepreneurship, Stollman made ESP a full-fledged imprint after hearing tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler. By chance he had stumbled upon a fertile jazz scene, rife with players who lacked recording opportunities. Soon ESP provided many of the era’s most important musical innovators with the freedom to record without interference. ESP jazz artists included Ayler, Burton Greene, Milford Graves, Paul Bley and Sun Ra plus rockers such as The Fugs and Pearls Before Swine.

Then problems arose. Most musicians insist they never received royalties for sessions which were subsequently licensed around the world. Some are sanguine. “If nobody was going to record you then where would you be if it wasn’t for ESP … putting you out there?” asks drummer Graves. Others are harsher. Pianist Greene: “Nobody expected anybody to get money out of the deal … [but] every time I heard he leased stuff … I said ‘What’s going on?’ He said ‘They burned me’… I said ‘Look Bernard you weren’t born yesterday.”

In essence the truth about ESP Disk and Stollman is revealed by inference. Despite the label’s and its artists’ subsequent fame, contemporary radio programmers, record stores and the general public didn’t buy in, or buy in great quantities. Plus, while Stollman loved signing new acts and releasing records, he ignored day-to-day business dealings. A first-class talent scout, by leaving the minutiae to others he was ultimately the author of his own – and the label’s – checkered reputation.

As today a resuscitated ESP-Disk repackages its past as it tries to rectify its spotted history, Weiss` volume captures its initial impact on the nascent experimental scheme in its participants own words.

–For The New York City Jazz Record April 2013