In Passing: Bernard Stollman, Iconoclast Founder of ESP-Disk

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ESP-Disk was one of the most far-out labels of the 1960s. Bar none. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

What other label would release LPs by Timothy Leary, The Fugs, Giuseppe Logan, Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman, Burton Greene & Patty Waters, and Pharoah Sanders—not to mention Bob James’s first wild album, Explosions. People remember the 1960s as being about The Doors, Hendrix, and Janis Joplin, but let’s not forget ESP-Disk. It was the wonderful lunatic fringe on the other side of the coin.

ESP-Disk was the brainchild of Bernard Stollman’s (b. 1929–2015) inquisitive mind. Not some proto-hippie but rather an optimistic realist, Stollman’s 1964 debut album for the label was Ni Kantu en Esperanto or Let’s Sing in Esperanto, a compilation of poetry and songs in the universal language, which he hoped would promote world peace and harmony. This was at a time when ICBMs from the Soviet Union were pointed at us, and our ICBMs were pointed east. The back jacket covers of every ESP-Disk LP released after Let’s Speak came with the following instructions: “Mendu tiun diskon ce via loka diskvendejo au rekte de ESP.” Google translation: “Order this disc at your local record store or directly from ESP.” (Pretty impressive that Google Translate does Esperanto isn’t it?)

sun ra signed #2It all began when Bernard Stollman met Albert Ayler in 1963. After seeing him perform at a Harlem club before the saxophonist’s untimely death, Stollman approached Ayler saying that he wanted to start a record label and told him, “Your music is beautiful,” and asked Ayler to record for him. The following year, he released Ayler’s Spiritual Unity after Ni Kantu en Esperanto.

I always loved the ESP album art: Sun Ra, Giuseppe Logan, and other 1960s avant-garde music pioneers’ album covers had these wonderful psychedelic woodblock prints (top). Sun Ra’s Heliocentric Worlds LP features images of Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Galileo, and other cosmologists and cosmological diagrams surrounding Sun Ra. I have a copy of the album, which he personally autographed for me as “Le Sun Ra” when I interviewed him back in the 1980s.

Chronicling the misadventures of ESP-Disk. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

For the curious, author Jason Weiss chronicled Stollman’s misadventures in his 2012 book titled, Always in Trouble: An Oral History of ESP-Disk, the Most Outrageous Record Label in AmericaI haven’t read it myself, though I’m sure it’d be a fascinating read. And for anyone lucky enough to get their hands on a copy, there was also a 1967 catalogue of ESP-Disk’s complete LPs, which has been out of print for a long time.

Prior to founding ESP-Disk, Stollman graduated from Columbia Law School, after which he interned for a firm handling the estates of top jazz artists such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Billie Holiday, helping them with copyright, contractual, and other legal issues. It was during this time that he developed a profound love for jazz.

Stollman was a visionary who was probably too far ahead of his time. Bootleg copies—home taping onto cassettes—of his ESP-Disk albums eventually wrecked his business, and the avant-garde label closed its doors in the 1970s. In the early 1990s, ESP-Disk was revived when German and Japanese labels began reissuing the original catalogue on CD. By 2007, Stollman’s operation was back in full swing signing and recording new artists.

Here is tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler, whose challenging music so entranced and inspired Bernard Stollman to start ESP-Disk. Warning:  this is not smooth jazz or dinner music.  Its power and honesty makes it in some ways more akin to punk.

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The Albert Ayers Trio’s Spiritual Unity.

Timothy Leary’s Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out.

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