Burn Baby Burn is one of those mysterious LPs shrouded in rumor and legend, with a muddled backstory that's been handed down for four decades: In November of 1968, two Cleveland musicians — trumpeter Norman Howard and searing saxophonist Joe Phillips — recorded the disc for ESP-DISK', an iconoclastic free jazz and experimental rock label.
The title supposedly refers to the infamous inner-city riots of that year, when Cleveland and a long list of American cities literally combusted with alienation. Tired of getting shit upon, of institutional racism, of police harassment and brutality, black people took to the streets. Musicians took to their instruments.
Over Burn Baby Burn's eight tracks, Howard, Phillips, and their accompanying rhythm section channel that rage, firing off sonic bullets and squealing with paranoia. And when they're not razing Cleveland to the ground, the quartet descends into some of the most ominous and haunting jazz ambience of the modern era.
But for reasons that have long been unclear, ESP didn't release Burn Baby Burn, and Howard and Phillips apparently dropped off the face of the planet. Then ESP closed shop.
A short essay on this Cleveland treasure appeared in "Great Lost Recordings," a 2004 cover story for the English music magazine The Wire. Burn Baby Burn, according to writer David Keenan, "stands as the major unreleased document of late-'60s energy music." That's a major statement, because the '60s stands as free jazz's high-water mark, the heyday of John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, and C-Town's mythical Albert Ayler, a revolutionary sax man who died in 1970.
Fortunately, in 2005, ESP restarted, and the label finally released Burn Baby Burn this year. Unfortunately, this doesn't mean BBB has now been found or that it's any less a mystery.
Sure, the mass-produced CD, available on Amazon.com, is a vast improvement over the record's only other manifestation: a limited-edition cassette from the '80s. But unlike 2004's Holy Ghost — an über-informative 10-disc retrospective and book about Ayler, put out by the archival specialists at Revenant — ESP's package fails to shed any real light on Howard and Phillips, or Cleveland's free music scene, one of America's most fertile in the '60s.
Phillips (who converted to Islam and adopted the name Yusef Munim Phillips) contributes some enlightening reminiscences of mid-'60s Cleveland and its allegedly corrupt police force. But the liner notes are as jumbled as a bowl of alphabet soup. It's damn near impossible to discern who's writing what; the label broke Phillips' words up and mingled them willy-nilly with other artists'. (That said, we do learn that Henry Rollins is a huge fan of Burn Baby Burn. His imprint, 2.13.61, tried to release it in the late '90s, but failed.)
The screwups aren't surprising. ESP-DISK' has long been seen as a shadowy and controversial underground label. Over the years, several of its artists, including '60s folk-icon Peter Stampfel, have claimed that owner Bernard Stollman failed to pay royalties, released recordings without permission, and pulled other stunts.
When I call ESP's Brooklyn office, it's Stollman himself who answers. But he only casts more shadows when I ask about Burn Baby Burn and the 40-year delay of its release. He claims he didn't release the album in '68 because the "Nixon administration" ran the label out of business for its anti-war stance.
But The Wire's Keenan says Stollman is rewriting history. The mercurial label owner didn't release BBB the first time around, Keenan says, because he thought it too primitive. "If Stollman is gonna re-release it, he can hardly admit that he rejected it at the time," he says via e-mail from the U.K. "Time scale-wise, there were things recorded later that went out on the label, so saying it got shut down by the 'Nixon administration' seems like a canny bit of mythology and historical rewrite."
Of course, the best people to answer this are the two musicians who actually made Burn Baby Burn: Howard and Phillips. But no one can put me in touch with them. Stollman says Howard still lives in Cleveland, but is basically unreachable; supposedly, he too converted to Islam and changed his name. Phillips lives in Florida, Stollman says; he offers to contact him for me, but I never hear back from him or the saxophonist. Even respected music writer Roy Morris says he'll forward my contact info to Phillips, but he can't promise a response.
Their silence raises interesting questions: Did their problems with ESP sour them on the music biz? Or does this violent music represent painful times they've basically avoided since '68? If pain is the issue, Howard and Phillips aren't the only ones; there are numerous musicians, artists, and activists still grappling with what went down during that volatile era.
Either way, Burn Baby Burn is a landmark in the local music scene, and we should acknowledge it as such — even if we can't thank the Clevelanders who made it.
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