Bernard Stollman, Record Label Founder, Dies at 85
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.
A lawyer by training, Mr. Stollman operated as a tenacious outsider to the music business — one thing he had in common with the artists he recorded. The jazz avant-garde of the mid-to-late-’60s, a searching music of political and often spiritual urgency, had few champions in the record industry, and ESP-Disk filled a void just as the movement reached its peak.
Some of the label’s releases are regarded as avant-garde classics, including “Spiritual Unity,” by the tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler; “The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra,” in two volumes; and the self-titled debut album by the New York Art Quartet.
Among the many other uncompromising musicians who recorded for ESP-Disk were the saxophonists Pharoah Sanders, Frank Wright, Giuseppi Logan and Marion Brown; the singer Patty Waters; the pianists Paul Bley, Ran Blake and Burton Greene; and the drummers Sunny Murray and Milford Graves.
At the same time, as a reflection of Mr. Stollman’s interests, ESP-Disk was home to a clutch of underground folk and rock bands — the Fugs, Pearls Before Swine, the Holy Modal Rounders, the Godz, Cromagnon — that pushed against social conventions. A similar spirit extended to several spoken-word albums on the label, including “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out,” by Timothy Leary, and “Call Me Burroughs,” by the novelist William S. Burroughs.
“I didn’t want ESP to be a niche label,” Mr. Stollman explained in “Always in Trouble: An Oral History of ESP-Disk, the Most Outrageous Record Label in America,” by Jason Weiss, published in 2012 by Wesleyan University Press. “Art is anarchistic, and when it becomes categorized, it loses impact. I wanted people who were innovative and inspirational.”
Mr. Stollman prided himself on a hands-off policy with regard to the music’s creation: “The artists alone decide what you hear on their ESP-Disk,” read a slogan on the record sleeves. But he also developed a reputation for not paying his artists fairly. In her book “As Serious as Your Life: The Story of the New Jazz” (1977), Valerie Wilmer wrote that “as far as many of the new musicians were concerned, Bernard Stollman became simultaneously the most hated and most needed man in the recording industry.”
More damning commentary came from some of the label’s nonjazz musicians, like Peter Stampfel of the Holy Modal Rounders and Ed Sanders of the Fugs, who wrote in his 2011 book, “Fug You,” about “a strange, shackling contract” whose flat royalty rate of 25 cents per album amounted to “one of the lower percentages in the history of Western civilization.”
Tom Rapp, the singer-songwriter behind Pearls Before Swine — whose 1967 debut album, “One Nation Underground,” was said to have sold roughly 200,000 copies — said in Mr. Weiss’s book that the band had never received any money from the label.
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Mr. Stollman told Mr. Weiss, “The records themselves were not ever — for any of the artists — deemed to be a significant source of earnings.” He characterized the albums instead as “a vehicle for promotion.”
He also insisted that the label’s antiwar and iconoclastic output had made it a target of the F.B.I.’s Cointelpro program, which he said worked with the main record-pressing plant of ESP-Disk to bootleg the label’s titles and undermine its profits. Mr. Rapp, familiar with this theory, said it was likelier that Mr. Stollman had been abducted by aliens.
But other ESP-Disk artists defended Mr. Stollman.
“Even if they didn’t pay much,” the saxophonist Gato Barbieri said in Mr. Weiss’s book, “ESP made a real effort for musicians to have the chance to play. And I consider that a good thing.”
Mr. Stollman was born on July 19, 1929, in New Brunswick, N.J. His parents, David Stollman and the former Julia Friedman, had both immigrated from Poland in 1920; they met in the balcony of a Yiddish theater on the Lower East Side.
Soon after the birth of Bernard, they moved to Plattsburgh, N.Y., on Lake Champlain, where they established a successful dry-goods store and raised their family. Mr. Stollman is survived by three brothers, Saul, Murray and Steve; and two sisters, Shirley Berman and Sandra Stollman.
His marriage ended in divorce.
Mr. Stollman attended Columbia University and Columbia Law School, and served in the Army during the armistice phase of the Korean War. After his service he began practicing law, stumbling upon work for the estates of Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday, and helping living musicians, like the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and the songwriter Otis Blackwell, on publishing.
But Mr. Stollman didn’t consider running a record label until hearing Mr. Ayler in a Harlem club in 1963, a moment he often recalled in terms suggestive of a conversion story. Mr. Stollman had previously released one album, “Ni Kantu en Esperanto,” a byproduct of his involvement in the universal-language movement known as Esperanto; he called the label ESP-Disk, short for Esperanto Disko. The unintended connotation of extrasensory perception perfectly suited the label’s identity, from the moment Mr. Stollman recorded its second release, Mr. Ayler’s “Spiritual Unity.”
In its original incarnation, ESP-Disk lasted just a decade, and for half that time Mr. Stollman kept it going mainly with funds from his inheritance. After its demise, he returned to practicing law and later worked as an assistant attorney general of New York — “one of 600,” he said in a 2013 interview — based in Manhattan.
The second life of ESP-Disk began with a spate of reissues in Europe and Japan, and gathered momentum when Mr. Stollman struck a licensing deal with the German dance-music label ZYX, which began reissuing the label’s catalog on CD in the early 1990s. A new wave of public interest led Mr. Stollman and others to revive the label formally in 2007, with a Brooklyn office and a program of reissues and new releases by artists like the guitarist Joe Morris.
Part of the label’s rehabilitation involved an adjustment to its royalty rates, though Mr. Stollman always characterized its legacy as honorable. “If you look at it as something different — as a commitment, a calling, an obsession — no, I didn’t make mistakes,” he said to Mr. Weiss. “To regard it as a business would have been preposterous.”
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