by David Rothschild. From an article in the
Chicagoans may be passionate about sports
and politics, but in their wake some of the city's less
obvious pleasures often are overlooked. Take, for
example, the Jazz Record Mart, situated at the southwest
entrance to the State and Grand subway stop.(
Note: The store has since moved a few blocks to 444 North
Wabash ). A throwback to another era, the store
has a creaky aura, a ragged glory about it that ensnares
the casual music lover and bears the jazz fanatic's
stricter standards without "hep cat" pretense or
At the Jazz Record Mart, you stand as good
a chance of stumbling across vintage long-play vinyl
copies of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys' western swing
hits, or Martin Denny's ersatz Polynesian restaurant
lounge classics, as you do seminal works by Morton,
Ellington, Gillespie or Davis. And if you're looking for
blues records, the Jazz Record Mart is the place to
The man behind the Jazz Record Mart's
weathered eclecticism is owner Bob Koester-colorful
Wichita, Kansas-born jazz and blues enthusiast,
seat-of-the-pants record retailer, producer and walking
compendium of record industry history.
Mentor, impresario, father figure-Koester
was a major force in the blues revival of the mid '60s,
and a nurturing influence on blues musicians and
The Jazz Record Mart was a nexus of
blues-related activity. Musicians such as guitarist Mike
Bloomfield and blues harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite
worked at the Mart, as did future blues label and club
owners Bruce Iglauer (Alligator Records), Michael Frank
(Earwig Music), Pete Crawford (Blues, Etc.), Chuck Nessa
(Nessa Records) and Amy van Singel and Jim O'Neal
(Rooster Blues records and Living Blues magazine).
Many others made the trek to the Chicago
blues mecca during that time, often winding up sleeping
on Koester's couch. Among them, oddly enough, was
proto-punk rocker Iggy Pop.
Koester led the charge of discovery into
the South and West Side blues clubs before the blues had
migrated to the North Side: "We would form up at the
Mart. If a guy was from out of town and needed
transportation I didn't mind, but I always hated the fact
that a lot of Chicagoans who knew the layout-I mean how
could you get lost on the South Side with the numbered
streets and everything-felt that they had to have a great
white hunter to go down there with them. And I didn't
even carry a gun!"
The 61-year-old Koester also stands at the
helm of Chicago's Delmark Records label, among the oldest
existing independently owned labels still controlled by
its original owner. This year, Delmark celebrates its
40th anniversary of recording and reissuing
collector's-quality jazz and blues albums. The 1993
Chicago Blues Festival opens on the evening of May 28
with a tribute to Delmark and features such long-time
Delmark artists as Junior Wells, Jimmy Dawkins, Robert
Jr. Lockwood and Mighty Joe Young.
Like the Jazz Record Mart, Delmark appeals
to aficionados, but it is also the sort of label that can
get people who weren't previously jazz or blues fans
hooked for life.
Unlike the major record labels, with their
revolving door policies at the top executive level and
decisions made by committee, independent labels such as
Delmark usually mirror the temperament of their owners.
Thus, Delmark's progress has paralleled Bob Koester's
development as a music producer and label head. Delmark's
musical legacy is in many ways a direct reflection of
Koester's personal tastes, which initially favored
dixieland-or traditional-twenties jazz.
Delmark's first project with the Windy City
Six dixieland band was recorded in 1953, when Koester was
living in St. Louis and running his Blue Note Record
Shop. During that time, Koester also recorded neglected
acoustic blues musicians like Sleepy John Estes, Big Joe
Williams and Speckled Red.
Though his initial life's plan was to
become a successful cinematographer and maintain a store
and label as sideline hobbies (both his brothers are
Hollywood cameramen), once Koester was bitten by the
studio bug, it became his life. "It's fun to make
records," says Koester. "It's a way to get into the
music; I know more about the music than I would ever have
known as a listener because I wouldn't have done the
required reading I'm sure. I'm not that avid a reader,
except about film."
The fledgling record producer's notions of
what music deserved to be documented changed and grew
with time, but the drive to get it all down on tape
remains his prime motivation to this day. Today Delmark
maintains a reputation for recording musicians who would
otherwise be overlooked by larger, star-driven record
companies. Without Delmark, music by these artists would
probably never see the light of day.
Koester moved to Chicago in 1958. While the
Blue Note Record Shop had been making money off the dying
78 rpm record format-buying the records for a dime and
selling them for a dollar, or "graveyard
wholesaling"-Koester was drawn to Chicago's bigger market
by a letter from a benefactor who was preparing to retire
and wanted to sell his record store.
"He thought I would be the right person to
have it," says Koester. "He said he would make it
feasible. He knew I didn't have a lot of capital and he'd
help out. I had that letter on the wall, just a
one-paragraph letter. It ended: `Get going young fellow.'
That was my motto."
In 1959 Koester purchased Seymour's Jazz
Record Mart at 439 S. Wabash Ave. Soon Delmark's musical
scope began to expand. Taking the advice of bebop
champion Joe Segal (who was then an employee at Seymour's
and is now the owner of the Jazz Showcase, a Chicago jazz
fixture), Koester recorded albums with more modern jazz
artists, such as Ira Sullivan, John Young and Art Hodes.
"I always accepted bop as part of jazz but I didn't
really understand it," says Koester. "Actually, I have to
credit Joe with that."
Horn player Sullivan recalls, "Working in
the music store with Joe had quite an influence on him.
It was, you know, `Hey, why don't you get out of the
moldy fig era and modernize a little bit?' And he
Strangely enough, for a label run by a
traditional jazz enthusiast, Delmark is best known for
its modern urban blues and avant garde jazz recordings.
This is a credit to Koester's intuitive, open-minded
approach to jazz and blues, as well as his willingness to
follow the advice of his peers. "Someone once said to me
that my tastes are the last part of me that's still
Catholic," jokes Koester. "I have so many things that I
like and I'm not terribly picky within each category or
In 1965, two years after Seymour's had
moved to 7 W. Grand Ave. and had been renamed the Jazz
Record Mart, Delmark recorded Junior Wells' "Hoodoo Man
Blues," considered by many to be one of the most
significant post- World War II blues records. (At
approximately 60,000 copies sold to date, "Hoodoo Man
Blues" is Delmark's most popular album.)
Delmark also recorded key blues albums by
Magic Sam, Jimmy Dawkins, J.B. Hutto and others during
that time, and is widely recognized for having recorded
the first albums by artists from the Association for the
Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), the mid-'60s
avant garde jazz collective headed by Muhal Richard
Abrams, Joseph Jarman, Roscoe Mitchell and Anthony
Braxton. Koester was guided in his discovery of the AACM
by journalist friends and otherwise musically inclined
consultants such as Chuck Nessa, John Litweiler, Terry
Martin, Pete Welding and Jerry Figi.
"AACM was crying to heaven to be recorded,"
recalls Koester. "I knew I would never get a chance to
record-outside of Art Hodes and a few guys-really great
guys from the '20s or '30s. They all lived in New York.
So I felt that I had to record the music of our time.
That was the AACM."
Because Koester was at the center of the
'60s blues revival, young musicians and enthusiasts
traveled to Chicago in hopes of working at the Jazz
"I came to Chicago with nothing, except
this desperate hope that I could get a job with Bob
Koester," recalls Bruce Iglauer, now head of Chicago's
Alligator Records blues label. "I read about Bob in a
folk music magazine I picked up in Toronto in 1966. And I
never forgot, because I thought he sounded so
interesting." Iglauer got a job at the Jazz Record Mart,
and later at Delmark (which at that time operated out of
the basement of the Jazz Record Mart).
"The Jazz Record Mart was like a bridge
between the blues world on the South and West Sides and
the growing world of white international blues fans who
hung out at the Jazz Record Mart, who came here to find
out about gigs, musicians," says Iglauer. "There were
little signs, pieces of paper taped to the walls about
various gigs at ghetto taverns. It was an incredible flow
of musicians through there because it was one of the few
ways that they could get a break. There weren't a lot of
companies recording Chicago blues at that time, so
musicians came to hang out at the Jazz Record Mart in
hopes of attracting Bob's attention."
If there is any trademark Delmark sound, it
could only be described as spontaneity. Koester is known
as a musician's producer who gives artists plenty of
freedom in the recording studio. "When I worked for him,
Bob's style was more of what we used to call the `four
hours and a bucket of beer' school of production,"
"The first session I went to was only six
days after I came to Chicago. It was for an album called
`Junior Wells South Side Blues Jam.' A lot of the songs
were improvised or changed in the studio. It was a funny
session. The phone rang and it was the drummer who had
been driving to the session with a friend, and his friend
had run a stop sign or a red light and had been stopped
by the cops. The friend had no license, so both the
friend and the drummer were in jail. My first job was to
go down and bail out the drummer and get him to the
recording session, which I did in the middle of a January
"As a producer, I'd say Bob gives the
artist a whole lot of head room to create what they want
to create. He has a good deal of respect for his artists
and he wants things in the studio to be a lot like a
party. I think that he puts spontaneity over finesse very
often, which is true of what happens at the blues bars,
Bluesman Junior Wells: "When I did `Hoodoo
Man' for a guy a long time ago on a 78 (record), he took
it over to the radio station and asked them to play it.
They threw it on the floor and broke it, stomped it. When
I started recording for Bob, he wanted me to do the
`Hoodoo Man' and I really wasn't interested in doing it
because of the disappointment from what happened to me
when I was much younger. He kept talking to me about it,
so I tried it and I'm proud of the record now, because
it's been the number one LP for about 20 or 30 years, you
know. Bob was the type of person, he just made everything
so easy, you couldn't help but to get something good from
it. He just let you go with it."
In 1971, Koester finally bought a building
at 4243 N. Lincoln to house the Delmark offices. In its
larger space, the label continued to expand its retail
and catalog business. During that time, the label also
acquired the master tapes to the recordings of the
United/States, Pearl, Parkway and Regal independent jazz
and blues labels, which added girth to the Delmark
catalog without incurring huge recording expenses. At the
start of the '80s, the Jazz Record Mart moved from 7 W.
Grand Ave. to its present, expansive location at 11 W.
Grand. In order to finance the move into larger quarters,
Koester suspended Delmark's recording activities.
Then came the unexpected. "I hired the
wrong guy to manage my store," Koester says. "He had his
own agenda. He was planning on opening a store and he was
turning my employees and my customers and some of my
suppliers against me. He was deliberately over-ordering.
Little things like that. He came close to putting me out
Following the setback, Koester managed to
stay afloat the old-fashioned way-by graveyard
wholesaling now-obsolete, vinyl LPs. Since the
introduction of the compact disc, Koester has traveled
all over the U.S. and Canada, buying up perfectly good
but unwanted LPs at fire sale prices. Once again, the
Jazz Record Mart has provided the financial means for
getting Koester back into the studio to document his
favorite music. "Wanting to record somebody will make me
very cold-blooded about how I run the store, in how I
organize it and so forth. I might be a sucker as a label
owner. I'm not going to be a sucker as a retailer," he
In November 1991, Delmark opened its new
offices at 4121 N. Rockwell, complete with an in-house
24-track recording studio. Since then, Delmark has
stepped up its recording and reissuing activity, under
the steady command of the label's general manager, Steve
Wagner, who has been with Delmark since 1987. Like the
people who worked at Delmark or Jazz Record Mart before
him-Iglauer, Frank and many others-Wagner has learned a
lot about running a record company from Koester, and now
he's applying some of his own ideas to the running of the
label. With Koester now in self-described
"semi-retirement" (except for producing), Wagner has
taken on the label's day-to-day operations.
Forty years is a long run for any business,
much less an independent record label and jazz record
store. What's the secret to Delmark's success?
"It's pure stubbornness and unwillingness
to face the facts of bankruptcy," says Koester. "Delmark
was always a playboy's label. I was never a playboy but
it was a playboy's label, kind of a hobby. Delmark is
equipped to deal with low sales expectations. And with
our low expectations, I have the luxury of recording
things that really stand little chance of making
"When I go in the studio to do a record, I
don't figure `Well, we're going to sell about five
thousand of these.' I figure `Well, we're going to sell
about five hundred of these." Not many jazz projects will
crack a thousand the first year but we'll just put them
in the catalog and let them sit there."
Koester's insistence on keeping all his
records in print, and his continued faith in a record 10,
20, even 40 years down the line, is a statement in
"I feel a real responsibility," says
Koester. "What's the use of documenting something and
then having it become a fifty dollar collector's
KOESTER ON KOESTER: `IRASCIBLE'
Like anyone who's run a business
successfully for 40 years, Bob Koester has developed his
"He's terribly argumentative, he hardly
says anything nice about anybody but he's just as
generous as hell," says Alligator Records' Bruce Iglauer.
"He almost fired me a number of times, mostly for good
reasons. And at the same time he was extraordinarily nice
to me. It's hard to explain. Bob will snarl at people. He
used to break 78s over his employees' heads."
In self-defense, Koester offers, "This is
my excuse: I'm absent-minded and I'm afraid I'll see
somebody's doing something wrong and I'll forget to tell
them quietly later, when the customers or the other
employees aren't around. So I bellow it out.
"The word is irascible. A few years ago it
was curmudgeon. I think I like curmudgeon. That sounds
kind of folksy, witty, voice of experience. Irascible
ain't quite as nice but it's probably a little more
But there's another side to Koester, too,
as Michael Frank, who runs the Earwig label, knows.
"I learned from Bob to give back-to give my
knowledge and advice to other people who want to learn
about the music business, without asking anything in
return. Bob's always given very freely of his time to
people like me, fans or people who want to come and
talk to him. He will take hours out of his time to
talk to somebody. That's not true of every producer or
label owner. When you call Delmark on the phone
without having to go through a lot of layers. Now he's
got more employees than he ever had but still, it's a