Bernard Stollman dies at 85; founded avant-garde record label ESP-Disk

Obituary: Bernard Stollman, founder of the avant-garde label ESP-Disk, dies at 85

Bernard Stollman, the founder of ESP-Disk, a persistently independent record company that chronicled a full range of the challenging, inventive music of the 1960s, has died. He was 85.

The cause of his April 20 death in Great Barrington, Mass., was complications of cancer, said his brother, Steve Stollman.

ESP-Disk albums, which reached from avant-garde jazz to contemporary classical and radical rock, were released with a slogan that read "The artists alone decide what you hear on their ESP-Disk."

It was an appealing promise to the young artists of the '60s, when few major labels were receptive to the far-ranging sounds and rhythms of the avant-garde in all its many shapes and forms.

Stollman launched his company in 1963, reportedly after hearing tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler, one of the earliest adventurers in an area of unrestricted improvisation that came to be known as free jazz.

Deeply impressed by an Ayler solo appearance at a Harlem club, Stollman approached him and said, "Your music is beautiful. I'm starting a record label, and I'd like you to be my first artist."

But Stollman's first release was not an album with Ayler. It was "Ni Kantu en Esperanto" ("Let's Sing in Esperanto"), a collection of poetry and songs in the international language. His fascination with the language explains the "ESP" in his label's name.

He followed the Esperanto recording with Ayler's "Spiritual Unity" in 1964. It led a parade of ESP-Disk releases that totaled 125 albums over the next decade.

In addition to Ayler, Stollman's jazz recordings included releases from many exploratory artists such as Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, Paul Bley, Pharoah Sanders, Bob James, Giuseppi Logan, Sunny Murray and Gato Barbieri.

In the musically eclectic territory beyond jazz, Stollman's albums covered a broad area encompassing the Fugs, Jean Erdman, Patty Waters, Tuli Kupferberg, the Godz, the Holy Modal Rounders and Pearls Before Swine.

Stollman also released spoken word albums by Beat novelist William Burroughs and counterculture icon Timothy Leary.

"I could sense very quickly that these people were spiritual," Stollman told the Wall Street Journal in 2010. "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."

ESP-Disk prospered until the late 1960s, then was kept afloat by financial support from Stollman's parents. His mother even worked in the office.

Stollman told the Wall Street Journal that bootlegging of his hits ruined his business. He closed shop in the mid-1970s and revived his law career, working as an assistant New York attorney general.

"He felt horrible about it," Steve Stollman said about his brother's move out of the music world, "but he got a pension out of it."

In 1992 Stollman licensed the ESP-Disk catalog to a German company, which reissued all the titles on CD. Similar agreements were made with other European companies, and ESP-Disk returned to business on its own in 2005.

Bernard Stollman was born July 19, 1929 in New Brunswick, N.J., to David and Julia Stollman, both immigrants from Poland. He was the first of their seven children.

In a conversation with the website All That Jazz, Stollman described his father as a "child vocal prodigy, an improvisational singer who toured Europe with another young boy and a cantor until his voice changed with adolescence and World War I erupted."

Stollman studied at Columbia University and Columbia Law School and served in the U.S. Army. Early in his law career he worked as an intern for a firm handling the estates of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and other jazz artists. He became proficient in assisting musicians with copyright and contractual questions.

His adventures in the avant-garde music business were chronicled in the 2012 book "Always in Trouble: An Oral History of ESP-Disk, the Most Outrageous Record Label in America" by Jason Weiss. His first record "was just an exercise," Stollman told Weiss, "and I had no thoughts of doing anything beyond that."

Stollman had no children, and his marriage ended in divorce. He is survived by three brothers and two sisters.

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