Tuesday, April 21, 2015

RIP Bernard Stollman, ESP-Disk's founder

One of the most dramatic scenes in It's a Wonderful Life comes in the part where George Bailey has no identity and he sees his widowed mother running a boarding house. Frank Capra really plays up the pathos, filming half of Jimmy Stewart's shocked face at close view. Behind him, Clarence the angel says, "Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?"

I thought about Clarence's observation when I heard that Bernard Stollman, the eccentric found of ESP-Disk records passed away yesterday at the age of 85. He lost a battle with colon cancer that had spread to his spine.

ESP was the first American label to give Albert Ayler due recognition. Even though Broadside initially issued the Fugs' debut album, ESP later reissued it and brought it to more people, and released their self-titled second album (which is arguably their best one). Pearls Before Swine. The Godz. Paul Bley. Patty Waters. The list goes on and on. And on. And it includes albums that maybe should not have been released. But they were. The world is a little stranger for it, in a good way. Who knows how many outsider artists were motivated to make music based on what they heard on that label?

It all comes back to Stollman's eccentric vision. He started the label because of his commitment to promoting the Esperanto language. (That's what the label's name represented.) The first album was Ni Kantu en Esperanto, an album of insipid traditional songs sung in Esperanto. I once talked to an ESP act and expressed a desire to hear it. He responded, "No, you don't."

It could have stopped there. But Stollman heard Ayler and put his support behind him, thus providing the first serious platform for what would be called free jazz. He released what was Henry Grimes' only solo album for decades. Giuseppi Logan. Marion Brown. Sunny Murray. Oh wait - I'm getting carried away again.

Stollman might not have been the best businessman, but I'm not here to discuss that. I'm here to give thanks to one man's crazy idea that inspired countless others in its wake. And to encourage others to do the same. You never know how many people you're going to reach when you put a piece of art out there. No, that's not the point, but it can be a significant side effect. So, thanks, Bernard, wherever you are. Ripozi en paco.

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