In the early ‘60s, New York city-based lawyer Bernard Stollman embarked on a bold venture, launching the wholly independent music label ESP-DISK’. With an ethos founded on the phrase “The artists alone decide,” and albums stamped with the motto, “You’ve never heard such sounds in your life,” the label released works from intrepid jazz legends such as Sun Ra, Pharoah Sanders, Albert Ayer, and Ornette Coleman, as well as rabble-rousing and mind-bending suites from the likes of the Fugs and William Burroughs. Harnessing an improvisational and freewheeling spirit, Stollman granted artists complete freedom of expression.
Unfortunately, in a period rife with socio-cultural and political tensions, the label’s unconventional practices, and its challenging and frequently confrontational releases, caused it to fold in 1974. Author Jason Weiss’s Always in Trouble: An Oral History of ESP-Disk’, the Most Outrageous Record Label in America, offers an in-depth examination of the ESP saga, focusing on insiders’ recollections of the label’s rise and fall. Weiss presents an eye-opening tale of commercial reality colliding with imaginative ideals, and the book works equally well for long-time ESP fans or curious novices. His oral history slant illuminates a highly creative scene filled with visionary musicians.
ESP released 125 LPs between ‘64 and ‘74, and was renowned for its forward-thinking roster. The label’s eccentric aesthetic was set by releases from Albert Ayler, the Pharoah Sanders Quintet and the New York Art Quartet in 1964, and things only got weirder and more subversive as the label’s outsider jazz and underground freak-rock radically countered prevailing trends. Always in Trouble is filled with absorbing anecdotes divided into two main sections: interviews with Stollman, and with over three-dozen renegade jazz and folk artists affiliated with ESP.
The first 77-page section contains wide-ranging interviews with Stollman. They cover his childhood, revealing his family’s fiercely independent spirit, and his arrival in the legal field. Initially, he dealt with artist’s legal issues, but after attending free jazz events Stollman decided to launch ESP, with a certain naïve but determined ambition. His entry into the world of label owner was as spontaneous as many of the artists he recorded. Family wealth allowed him to pursue his vision (something the majority of the label’s artists could only dream of).
Stollman’s back-story is of course crucial to establishing the label’s essence, and Weiss draws plenty of reflective and at times brutally honest recollections from his interviewee. Stollman’s comes across as a tenacious individual as he recounts the label’s struggles with licensing, royalties, distribution, bootlegging, government wiretapping, marketing, and commercial realities (and his realization early in 1968 that the label was in serious trouble). The interviews also cover Stollman’s decision to wrestle back control of the label’s legacy in the ‘00s, and the lengths to which he and his employees have gone to re-establish the label’s reputation.
Of course, Stollman’s memories tell only one side of the ESP narrative. The second part of the book, a collection of interviews from the label’s artists tells an altogether different story.
Since the label’s inception, Stollman was struck by a clear desire to never do things by the book. Sadly, it appears that included the actual bookkeeping. The artist’s interviews include complaints about unpaid (and even uncalculated) royalties. The negative commentaries are by no means a tirade against Stollman’s business practices, but they do present a conflicted history. Many artists justly credit Stollman with inspiring their own desire to foster independent careers, going to great lengths to emphasize the positives of their ESP experiences.
Label gripes aside, interviews with the likes of Giuseppi Logan, Montego Joe, Roswell Rudd and Roscoe Mitchell, along with many others, evoke a wonderful sense of time and place, their vignettes revealing glimpses of their own musical pathways. Though many of the interviews are succinct, they provide context to the jazz, folk, rock and literary scenes of the ‘60s and ‘70s, showcasing the interactions (and the benefits and conflicts therein) between idiosyncratic individuals who performed for a brief period under the same banner.
The personal stories from all sides of the ESP tale recall a time of great social and musical upheaval, and the only issue is that their brevity leaves one hankering for such themes to be explored further—although, entire discographies are available to answer those questions.
Always in Trouble is not the definitive biography of ESP, but that was clearly never Weiss’s aim. He set out to present an array of viewpoints, to shine a light on a complex story, and in doing so he made it abundantly clear that for all the trouble and strife Stollman and his ESP artists shared a common sense of frustration with societal and musical norms. As with any oral history, the truth is elusive, but the multi-perspective arc is part of the attraction, and who doesn’t love a little dramatic intrigue? As Stollman notes, “my commitment to document the music was total,” and Weiss weaves a tale with similar devotion, ensuring that the crucial role of ESP in the annals of freethinking, independent music is never obscured by bitterness or regret.