Bernard Stollman, founder of the New York independent jazz and alternative music label ESP-Disk, died Sunday night after a prolonged battle with colon cancer that had spread to his spine. He was 85.
ESP-Disk, which Stollman started in 1964, was founded on the idea that “the artists alone decide what you will hear on their ESP-Disk,” a maxim that was printed on every release. The artistic freedom that the label allowed appealed to free jazz musicians like Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman, Henry Grimes, and Paul Bley. Ayler’s Spiritual Unity and Coleman’s Town Hall, 1962, both released on the label, are widely considered free jazz classics.
ESP-Disk’s relatively expansive roster also included underground rock acts like the Fugs, the Godz, and Pearls Before Swine. Though Stollman shuttered the label for financial reasons in 1975 (he continued to work as a lawyer, eventually serving as the Assistant Attorney General of the State of New York), he was able to relaunch the label to reissue vintage recordings in 2005.