Friday, March 13, 2009

A talk with Bernard Stollman of ESP, Part 2

Back in September, I printed the first part of an interview with Bernard Stollman, the man behind ESP-Disk Records, the infamous underground label responsible for some of the first free jazz albums by the likes of saxophonist Albert Ayler, vocalist Patty Waters and pianist Paul Bley. The label also released the Fugs and Pearls Before Swine.
Despite having done a good deal of groundbreaking for independent labels everywhere and documenting some important music that has stood the test of time, Stollman isn't patting himself on the back. He was the "editor of some cosmic publication." He wasn't even a music fanatic before starting the label.

Read on:

How old were you when you started the label?

34, 35. I went to my mother and I said, “Mother, I realize it’s kind of early in my life but I now what I want to do.” Of course I was being facetious. “I’m going to start a record label and I’m going to document this music. If I don’t do it, it won’t be done. It’ll be lost.”
These people are at the peak of their maturity and somebody’s gotta do it. And I decided I’m going to be that person.
In my own mind, I thought of the music publishers in Vienna, in Munich and Hamburg, Germany and Austria, who captured the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Wagner. Without those publishers to capture the music and put it in print, I think that they would’ve been lost too. They did what they had to do, these publishers. I saw a parallel with what I was doing. Someone had to do it.
I reinvented myself to do this. I took it on. Something I felt I could do. I didn’t have a wife or children. I didn’t have any responsibilities outside myself. I didn’t have any particular financial goals other than not starving. I didn’t have any grand tastes or appetites.

I thought I read that you had been a lawyer.

Well I had gone through law school during the Korean War. They called it the Korean police act. It was a war. A preemptive war. It was an American war. But that’s a whole other story.
I decided that if I go to law school, I could avoid the draft. So I went to law school and when I finished law school, the war was over. And I had a profession. There was one small problem. I was fairly convinced that I had very few attributes that would lend themselves to a career in law. I wasn’t a naturally argumentative individual. I wasn’t particularly clever [laughs]. I despised the idea of litigation. And most work that lawyers did I saw as essentially humdrum. I didn’t feel fired up or inspired to be Henry Clay or Abe Lincoln. [Laughs]
The closest I’ve come to any kind of a public vision is when I learned the international language [Esperanto], which was in 1960. It struck me as kind of a humanist thing, which the people who make up the movement are about. They’re not religious people. They’re humanist. Humanists as you know do not exercise religion.
I was a little battle weary from all those years of school. College again – sit in more seats, look at more teachers? So I chased girls.

What kind of music were you listening to?

Totally unplanned, unprogrammed. I had no particular focus. None. I loved classical music, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to a concert. I wouldn’t say I was totally indifferent, but close to indifferent. Music itself did not appeal to me.
The fact that I was in the army after law school and in Europe, I had an awful lot of free time and I could visit museums. And I visited many, many museums all over Europe And I picked up a lot of music concert halls in Paris – I had seven months in Paris – so I went to hear Yehudi Menuhin, caught the Red Beijing opera. I had some very, very diverse experiences there.

I thought you were going to say you grew up on bebop.

I would say my experience with music is not really indifferent, but I wasn’t really caught up in it. I didn’t play an instrument. As a young boy, I played the piano ‘till I was 13. I went through puberty and started high school and that was the end of it. Never touched the keyboard again. By the time I could play “Flight of the Bumblebee” and Chopin, I had had enough. That’s the sum total of my music career.
I wouldn’t describe myself as a consistent devotee of any single sector of music. I did go to concerts in the Village in those first years in the early ‘60s. It was when folk music was having it’s time. I heard many folk artists. And that was easy to assimilate. They’re really down home they play and instrument and they sing. Not very much to think about.
When it came to jazz, my exposure was very sporadic or not at all. I had heard the Adderley Brothers at the Half Spot. I thought it was very lovely. But I didn’t follow it.
I recall in 1960 there was an album I heard, the famous concert of Parker, Gillespie…

Jazz at Massey Hall.

Yeah, and I was blown away by it. I thought, oh this is gorgeous. But again, I had a wide range of interests, if you will. And I didn’t focus on it.
I remember one afternoon I was walking and on East 8th Street in the Village. There was a club rather set back from the street. It was a ground floor club. And some music came out. It was on a Sunday afternoon. And I thought, oh wow what is this. And suddenly Coltrane came through the door. To get some air, he was mopping his brow. He and Sonny rollins were playing. It was just beautiful.
So I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy it. I just didn’t see it as the focus of my time and energy. I never pursued it. I spent a few nights on Mott street where Sam Rivers had his studio, Rivbea. But again I wasn’t devoted to it. I got exposed to it.
But eventually I did get captured, finally. I know exactly what it was. It was Albert.

Albert Ayler? Was he the one that made you think, I’m starting a record label?

That did it.

What about him?

It was …. I didn’t think at all about it. I just experienced it. It wasn’t like I stopped and concentrated on what he was doing. It was washing over me, through me. It was a totally heartfelt cry and it was continuous. It went on and on nonstop until it ended. This man was saying something to me. He was saying a great deal. And I couldn’t put it in words. But he poured his heart and soul into it, and there it was. That’s one way of putting it. It was life or death for him. It was something he had to do. Not even talk about it. That sense of urgency, perhaps in retrospect, that caught me. That’s something to say. When I talk about music or describe where I’m coming from or feel I am, when I’m listening to him today: He had something to say.

Did you have a lot of people coming to court you or solicit you?

To some extent. I’m not swamped by auditions. One might assume I would be. It’s not widespread. But I’m swamped by music nonetheless. Catalogs, products, artists. It’s awesome what’s available to me now. Individual artists or archives, the whole thing has taken off to another dimension.
I might have to change my concentration, my focus because what’s to be done about all this? Perhaps very little. Perhaps all I can do is what I could only do at the very beginning which was just [pause] oh…. I guess you could say just sample what was going on.
These people… they’ve been making music all day long their whole lives! What was I supposed to do about that? You can’t document thousands upon thousands of hours of performing. So I did what I think was probably the one thing I could do. Which was sample it and get those samples out so people could hear them. Help them build an audience for themselves. Which was the most I could do, which was not very much. I didn’t have a booking agency. I didn’t have a promotions department. What I did was quite limited, very rudimentary, very limited, very small. But I did seem to grow legs. Because once you put a record out, people handle it, they copy it, they broadcast it and the word gets out.
But to say I documented it? No! How can you document something that is the output of a creative human being? You can’t.

It’s kind of like a snapshot.

It’s all I could do. At best, and that’s all I could hope to do. I didn’t hope to create some kind of a vast documentary archive. What exactly is my life’s work – I’m not a historian. As such. No, I just wanted to inspire people.

Looking back at the catalog, is there anything you regret releasing?

That’s a very good question and I’ve thought about it, of course. And I answer you this way: There’s not a record that I would not reissue today of all the records I ever did. Now if there were one or two that I thought were not the strongest statement that the artist ever made, I will not admit it. [Laughs]
I’m opposed to an autopsy, if you will, or revisit my judgment from those times. That’s for other people to do. I haven’t deleted a single record in 40-some years. If a record doesn’t draw attention or if it’s not as strong as it could be, then it’s a victim of fate.
But I’m playing God enough as it is by singling people out and saying, Let you be heard. That’s a power trip in itself, which I have to watch out for. I have to appreciate it because I’m human. I’m not god. The work is godlike in that you single out some individual out of the crowd and say, “Here, you come along and we’ll record you.”
So I have to try to be humble about this and recognize that I am a channeler if you will. I’m not making the music, somebody else is.
If I were an editor and Hemingway came to me and I said to him, “You’re a brash young man. You’re obnoxious, a bully and loudmouth braggart, but your words are spectacular, so I’ll put you out.”That’s how I see myself - as the editor of some cosmic publication. That’s all I am. And that’s a worthwhile goal for me.
I never had aspirations to play music or even be a public figure. And I accept the public figure role. It doesn’t move me. I get no thrill out of being identified or recognized. I found out a long time ago that seeing my name in print or being talked about did nothing for me. [Laughs] I got no kick whatsoever out of it.
Did I get some pleasure out of seeing these artists rise and get some recognition? Yes, sure. But I don’t have an overblown ego. I hope not.
It’s been one helluva a trip and I don’t suggest it to anyone. You pay a price for it. I forewent marriage, family, all the things that nature and God if you will seem to assign to us. Life functions, I’ve betrayed them.I didn’t pursue them and it’s given me the freedom to pursue what I did. And I don’t think I particularly deserve praise for it. And I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone else. Ever. It’s a high price to pay.

But you’ve influenced a lot people by what you’ve done.
Well, that’s a bargain I made with the devil. The only offspring I have is an idea. I helped to circulate ideas or awareness.


Bill Chapman said...

I was interested to see the reference to Esperanto here. Speakers of Esperanto are all humanists. "Humanitarian" would be a better word.

Bernard Stollman was certainly a pioneer of Esperanto music.

Anonymous said...

Don't forget that there is now Esperanto music widely available.

Why not use it in the Eurovision Song Contest.

This is a serious suggestion, as you can see from the Esperanto music which is already available at or at

There's even cheesy Esperanto music available! See

shanleymusic said...

And of course the first record on ESP was Ni Kantu en Esperanto which was a selection of public domain songs sung in Esperanto. I once interviewed Tom Rapp from Pearls Before Swine and said that I'd like to hear that album. "Uh, no you wouldn't," was his reply. I heard a snippet on an ESP sampler recently and that was all I needed.

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