Remembering Bernard Stollman, Founder of ESP-Disk

courtesy/ ESP-Disk
courtesy/ ESP-Disk

I was saddened to hear of the passing of Bernard Stollman. As a New York Times obit by Nate Chinen begins:

Bernard Stollman, whose staunchly independent record label, ESP-Disk, provided an indispensable chronicle of the free jazz of the 1960s, and a series of provocations from the psychedelic counterculture, died on Monday in Great Barrington, Mass. He was 85.

The case was heart failure related to complications of prostate cancer, his brother Steve said.

In tribute, here’s a 2010 piece I did for The Wall Street Journal:

The sign outside the Universal Outreach Ministries of Deliverance on Bedford Road, just off DeKalb Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant, quotes Scripture. The one across the street, atop a nondescript storefront, says this: “You never heard such sounds in your life.”

That promise issues from the home of ESP-Disk’, a music label that inspires near-religious fervor among those who prize experimental music, especially freely improvised jazz. And this modest outpost—record shop in front, offices at rear—marks the second coming of the company started by Bernard Stollman in 1964, as unlikely a development as the label’s initial launch.
Together with the nonprofit arts organization Issue Project Room, ESP will mount an Albert Ayler Festival at Roosevelt Island’s Riverwalk Commons on Saturday. The event arrives three days shy of what would have been the late saxophonist’s 74th birthday. It also marks 46 years to the day since Ayler stepped into the tiny Variety Arts Recording Studio, just off Times Square, with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Sunny Murray, for ESP’s first jazz session. The resulting album, “Spiritual Unity,” is perhaps the best expression of Ayler’s singular music and a touchstone of the creative revolution Mr. Stollman’s label helped document.
Mr. Stollman first heard Ayler perform at Harlem’s Baby Grand Café in 1963. “He just blew me away,” Mr. Stollman recalls at his Brooklyn office, looking bright-eyed despite his 80 years. “I went up to Ayler and said, ‘I am starting a record company, and I would like you to be my first artist.'” A Columbia law school graduate, Mr. Stollman had done some legal work for musicians—including saxophonist Ornette Coleman and pianist Cecil Taylor—and got drawn into a moment of artistic ferment. “I could sense very quickly that these people were spiritual,” he says. “They were deep. They weren’t entertainers, they were composers and artists, and their music was everything to them. I picked up on that seriousness. I fed off that. I’d found a need to fill.”
With funding from his parents, and a motto of his own creation—”The artists alone decide what you will hear”—Mr. Stollman put out 45 albums in his first 18 months, by the likes of Mr. Coleman, pianist Paul Bley, tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and pianist-bandleader Sun Ra. Again largely by chance, Mr. Stollman met rock and folk musicians whose ideas fell beyond the mainstream. As anti-Vietnam War sentiment heated up, incendiary recordings like the Fuggs’ songs “CIA Man” and “Kill for Peace” got ESP noticed. As these recordings climbed the Billboard pop charts, they brought ESP needed cash.
But in 1968, Mr. Stollman says, “the phones stopped ringing.” His hits had been bootlegged, he says. Mr. Stollman treaded water until 1974, when he closed up shop—just months before federal antibootlegging laws were enacted.
Mr. Stollman reinvented himself, taking a legal job with New York state’s transportation department and ending up as an assistant attorney general. After retiring in 1991, his thoughts returned to ESP. He began licensing reissues to foreign labels. After losing both his parents in 1998 and gaining an inheritance, he set out in 2005 to resume U.S. operations. In 2008, ESP began recording new artists for the first time in 45 years.
“For the first year, Bernard said no to almost all our ideas,” says general manager Tom Abbs, who is also a bassist (Mr. Stollman’s current staff are all working musicians). “Then slowly he started to see that we were trying to re-create what he did in the ’60s—documenting the scene around us.”
The new CD, “Colorfield,” from Joe Morris, an accomplished and distinctive guitarist, lends credence to Mr. Abbs’s vision. The association has resonance for Mr. Morris. “It means a lot to me,” he says, “to be connected to things that are foundations of what I do.”
ESP plans 10 new releases this year, says Mr. Abbs, to complement its active reissue program: Some highlight fresh voices; others, like the recent Sun Ra release “The College Tour, Volume One: The Complete Nothing Is…,” enrich legacies with previously unreleased material. The label also sponsors monthly performances at Manhattan’s Bowery Poetry Club and in its Brooklyn store, some featuring bands it hasn’t yet signed.
Ayler’s body was found floating in the East River in 1970—ruled a suicide despite rumors of murder. His legacy, including eight memorable albums for ESP, remains vital, as will be made clear by saxophonists Giuseppe Logan and Marshall Allen, among others, on Roosevelt Island this Saturday. And ESP, once down for the count, rides again. “It’s as if after nearly a half-century,” says Mr. Abbs, “Bernard has come full circle.”


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