In the upcoming March issue, JazzTimes will present its annual “In Memory Of” feature, in which prominent artists pay tribute to those who passed in 2015. As a preview, trombonist Roswell Rudd recalls Bernard Stollman, founder of the groundbreaking ESP-Disk’ record label, which gave a home to many uncompromising artists beginning in the mid-1960s.
We had a nucleus of artists-Pharoah Sanders, Milford Graves, Giuseppi Logan, John Tchicai, myself and others-looking to record, and Bernard gave us that opportunity [at ESP-Disk’], which was so propitious because the music was still developing. It was the beginning of something new, and it was so important to have a cornerstone like this. We were young musicians and, yeah, we’d like to record, but we didn’t want any interference. And Bernard didn’t interfere. That’s what made it possible [for us to do what we wanted to].
The first recording we did for him [New York Art Quartet, 1964] brought us an audience, particularly a contemporary audience, and also an audience overseas. People in other parts of the world got interested in it and helped us to get out and play for them, outside of New York City.
It was great to have that recording. We had tried [going to the major labels], so it was great what Bernard did. For a lot of us, it was a real solid start. I still have the album and still hear it occasionally and it puts me right back in that time.
I think Bernard lost money with the label; he was in it for the music. That can’t be stated enough. Occasionally I would go up and see him in his office or run into him at a concert and he was always on the positive side. I remember him really being there and being focused on the music. I remember his dedication. That’s why I remember him coming to concerts; it wasn’t just the recording studio and the connections. There was more to him than that; I think he saw beyond.
There was an esoteric rock group, the Fugs, and he did their first recording too. Anybody that would give a home to the Fugs and the New York Art Quartet, Giuseppi Logan, Pharoah Sanders, had to be a part of it.
Bernard really heard the strength that we all had. [He knew that] there was a movement, or a shift, going on, and he understood what improvisation meant; he most certainly did. He was an innovator in that sense. He was alone in doing what he did.