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ESP-Disk’ founder Bernard Stollman dies aged 85

Controversial founder of the legendary New York underground label ESP-Disk’ succumbs to cancer

The death has been announced of Bernard Stollman, the controversial founder of the legendary New York underground label ESP-Disk’. Stollman had been ill with cancer and pneumonia for some time. He was 85.

Stollman was a practising lawyer with few links to the music industry when he formed ESP-Disk’ in New York in 1963. He was an ardent supporter of the Esperanto language movement (the label’s name was a contraction of Esperanto Disko), and ESP's first release was an Esperanto spoken word record. Its second was Spiritual Unity by The Albert Ayler Trio, one of the founding documents of the mid-60s free jazz revolution. Subsequently, ESP defined itself as the archetypal underground label, releasing music by some of the most militant musicians of the new jazz, including Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, Pharoah Sanders, Milford Graves and Frank Lowe, as well as by groups drawn from the scuzziest recesses of the hippie counterculture, such as The Fugs, The Godz, Pearls Before Swine and The Holy Modal Rounders. It also issued further spoken word albums by William S Burroughs and Timothy Leary, as well as licensing the notorious Lie: The Love And Terror Cult featuring studio recordings by Charles Manson.

The label’s uncompromising aesthetic was reflected in its policy that ESP musicians be given total artistic freedom: each of its releases came emblazoned with its now famous motto, "The artists alone decide what you will hear on their ESP-Disk’”. But at the same time as giving unprecedented artistic control to musicians few other labels would sign, ESP became notorious for its laissez-faire business practices, with many of its musicians accusing Stollman of never paying royalties. As Val Wilmer wrote in her 1977 study of free jazz, As Serious As Your Life, “Stollman became simultaneously the most hated and most needed man in the recording industry.”

Stollman financed the label using a family inheritance. Most ESP releases were pressed in small run editions and sold even less. By the time it ceased operations in 1975, the label had released more than 100 albums. Its catalogue was subsequently licensed to a variety of labels, including ZYX in Germany, Calibre in The Netherlands and Abraxas in Italy. In 2005, Stollman, who worked as the Assistant Attorney General for the State of New York until his retirement in the early 90s, relaunched the label in order to reissue its now iconic back catalogue once again, as well as release new music by musicians inspired by the label’s legacy.

The ESP story was told in Jason Weiss’s 2012 book Always In Trouble: An Oral History Of ESP-Disk’, The Most Outrageous Record Label In America. Meanwhile, the label has announced that a memorial service for Stollman will be held in New York in May.