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HE DOESN'T SING THE BLUES BUT BOB KOESTER HAS HELPED MAKE MANY OF THE PEOPLE WHO DO.

by David Rothschild. From an article in the Chicago Tribune

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 collector's snootiness.

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 start.

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 enthusiasts.

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 did."

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 pigeonhole."

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 Record Mart.

"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," recalls Iglauer.

"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 Chicago blizzard.

"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, too."

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 of business."

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 says.

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 money.

"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 itself.

"I feel a real responsibility," says Koester. "What's the use of documenting something and then having it become a fifty dollar collector's item?"

 

KOESTER ON KOESTER: `IRASCIBLE'

Like anyone who's run a business successfully for 40 years, Bob Koester has developed his own style.

"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 accurate."

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 company attitude."
 

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