- Thomas Smith
It's July 10, 1964. The location is Variety Arts, a tiny, low-budget recording studio near Times Square, where 35-year-old Bernard Stollman sits in the reception area. In the nearby live room, saxophonist Albert Ayler, bassist Gary Peacock, and drummer Sunny Murray are playing as the tape rolls. The engineer has left the control room door open so that Stollman and singer-composer Annette Peacock, then Gary's wife, can hear the session. The sounds come surging in like a hard rain. The music is primal, elastic, frequently dissonant, and marked by a frayed cry that conjures the deepest gospel blues. Stollman, who hired the musicians and the studio, is elated. He turns to Annette, dazed, and says, "What an auspicious beginning for a record label!" And how. Released that year as the Albert Ayler Trio's Spiritual Unity, the recording stands as a landmark of free jazz and the first officially recognized title of Stollman's ESP-Disk Records imprint.
One of the most influential record companies of all time, ESP-Disk deserves mention alongside names like Sun, Chess, Folkways, Blue Note, and Impulse! (the latter actually features many former ESP artists). Its releases famously bear the legend "The artist alone decides what you will hear on their ESP-Disk"—a radical concept in the years predating the indie explosion. In addition to more works by Ayler, ESP produced ground-shattering albums by artists like the Fugs, Sun Ra, Pearls Before Swine, Ornette Coleman, the Holy Modal Rounders, Pharoah Sanders, and William S. Burroughs, as well as archival efforts by Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, and Yma Sumac. Such was ESP's reputation as the world's hippest and most artistically uncompromising label that its vocal followers have included the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin (Stollman maintains the latter wanted to record for ESP but was inked to Columbia by her manager Albert Grossman). Stollman's vision has also been a powerful touchstone for dozens of underground labels that have followed in ESP's wake.
"I first became aware of ESP when I lived in the USSR," says Leo Feigin of Leo Records in Jason Weiss's book Always in Trouble: An Oral History of ESP-Disk, the Most Outrageous Record Label in America (Wesleyan University Press, 2012). "At the end of the 1960s, a friend showed us a record that was pressed on transparent vinyl with music on one side only. That record was [1965's] Bells, by Albert Ayler. The music was absolutely shattering. By that time we were listening to Impulse! and Blue Note records, but this was something else, absolutely shocking!"
The oldest of five children, Stollman grew up along the shores of Lake Champlain in Plattsburgh, from where his Polish immigrant father and Lithuanian immigrant mother operated a chain of women's clothing stores. "They'd met in the balcony of a Yiddish theater in the Lower East Side," says Stollman, who describes Plattsburgh as a paradise. "My father only sang for pleasure by the time I came along, but as a boy he'd been part of a group that toured with a traveling cantor." When he was 16 the family moved to Queens, from where Stollman, still not yet much of a music fan, later attended Columbia University and Columbia Law School. "I hadn't expected to become a lawyer, but the Korean War was happening then and I figured I'd be drafted if I didn't find a career."
Stollman was drafted nevertheless, although the notice came when the war had entered its armistice phase. After being stationed in Germany and France (his legal background helped land him a position in Paris at NATO's Claims Office, which handled claims by French citizens against the U.S. Army), he returned to America and passed the bar. It was while he was working as an unpaid intern at a practice handling the estates of Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday that he first fell in love with jazz. "It was the spirit of the artists themselves, as people, that attracted me," says Stollman, who did legal work for Dizzy Gillespie, Mary Lou Williams, and others. "They came across as major figures, serious, heavy-duty people." Another revelation was the discovery of Esperanto. "I was struck by the idea of a universal language," he recalls. "I didn't even know there was one until I heard some people speaking it in a coffeeshop. They offered to teach it to me, which took all of three hours. It's very easy to learn. Utopian, yes, but practical." To help his newfound cause Stollman decided to use his inheritance to start a label that released Esperanto-based recordings, and in 1963 ESP-Disk—short for Esperanto Disko—was born. While ESP 1001, Ni Kantu en Esperanto (Let's Sing in Esperanto), an album of songs and poetry, didn't spark the linguistic revolution he'd hoped for, it provided Stollman with an invaluable introduction to the world of making records.