Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

The History of ESP-Disk’

It released free-jazz touchstones in the ’60s, faded away amid claims of raw dealing in the ’70s, then reappeared in the 21st century, retaining its old artistic ideals but “with better royalty payments.”

From left: William Parker, Ivo Perelman, Matthew Shipp, and Bobby Kapp (photo: Peter Gannushkin)
From left: William Parker, Ivo Perelman, Matthew Shipp, and Bobby Kapp (photo: Peter Gannushkin)

“IF YOU ROB ME, I’LL KILL YOU”

Like many independent labels, ESP often ranked art before commerce. As Holtje puts it, “Bernard was in almost equal amounts charming and infuriating. He was probably the worst businessman imaginable. But he had nothing but good intentions.”

Stollman’s unique approach to A&R included signing artists strictly on recommendations from other musicians. In my 2009 conversation with him, he claimed to have documented the late Giuseppi Logan solely because drummer Milford Graves had endorsed him. He didn’t meet the multi-reedist until Logan’s first recording session, in what was a bit of a prophetic moment in regard to Stollman’s business dealings. “[The band was] walking into the recording studio. They didn’t come towards me. They were at a distance,” Stollman recalled. “Giuseppi passed and from that distance, about 20 feet away, he said clearly, ‘If you rob me, I’ll kill you.’ Kind of an inauspicious beginning to a relationship. It got better from there.”

By his own admission, Stollman’s most significant misstep came when he released an album of Fugs outtakes without the band’s permission, making it the one time the artists alone did not decide what went on their ESP-Disk’. The group left the label soon after and retained the rights to their ESP albums.

The label’s notorious history was chronicled in Jason Weiss’ 2012 book Always in Trouble: An Oral History of ESP-Disk’, the Most Outrageous Record Label in America. Within its pages, numerous artists reflect on the opportunity the label gave them to document their art. Many complain about unpaid royalties. And Stollman himself presents a defense, insisting that money was lost because the Mafia printed and distributed bootleg ESP albums. (To that, Pearls Before Swine founder Tom Rapp quips, “My real sense is that [Stollman] was abducted by aliens, and when he was probed it erased his memory of where all the money was.”)

ESP released its last album in 1974. Stollman went back into the legal profession, eventually becoming the State of New York’s assistant attorney general. He would license most of the catalog to European labels Base, ZYX, and Abraxas/Get Back over the next two decades, giving a new batch of thrill-seekers the chance to discover these strange and unusual albums.

In 2005, after retiring, Stollman revamped the label, hoping to “go backwards and forwards at the same time,” he told Weiss. But by the 2000s, the record industry had changed drastically and ESP needed some time to get up to speed. At that time, Holtje was working in a Brooklyn record store. A former employee in the American office of the Black Saint/Soul Note label as well as a recorded pianist, he had also edited the vast 1998 reference book MusicHound Jazz: The Essential Album Guide. Stollman first hired him to write liner notes for an ESP album by Oscar Brown, Jr. and Maggie Brown, then brought him on as label manager.

Holtje saw where belt-tightening was needed. By doing smaller pressings, more of the budget could go toward new releases and reissues, many of which now appear on both vinyl and CD. Although records still have higher production costs, they have other benefits. “I like vinyl—not because it sounds better,” Holtje explains. “It sounds different. It’s warmer. The packaging is larger. I like vinyl because it forces you to pay attention to it.”

Mike Shanley

Mike Shanley has been a lifelong resident of Pittsburgh and gladly welcomes any visitors to the city, most likely with a cup of coffee in one hand. Over the years, he has written for several alternative weekly papers and played bass guitar in several indie rock bands. He currently writes for the bi-weekly paper Pittsburgh Current and maintains a blog at shanleyonmusic.blogspot.com.