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BOB KOESTER in the Jazz Record Mart

From an Article in
Blues Revue Quarterly

by Sandra Pointer-Jones



Hobbies have typically given hours of pleasure to otherwise idle moments. They can be healing devices used to restore tranquility to chaotic lifestyles. Some of these avocations can turn into obsessions, others can grow to become personal empires.

This latter progression is the case of Delmark Records, the independent record label based in Chicago. 1993 marked the fortieth anniversary of the company. It has been four decades of tending a musical hobby that has brought pleasure to millions around the world; music that some say, is the basis of all American music.

The role of a record label is a varied and complicated one. Should the goal of the company be to select commercially popular artists that will increase profit margins and draw investors into buying stock? Or should it have an obligation to the record buying public and produce quality music for their listening enjoyment? Bob Koester, owner of Delmark Records, has run his company based on his love of music from two specific genres, traditional blues and jazz. In the beginning, what he wanted to hear was not readily available, so he created it and made it accessible for himself as well as for others.

When Koester was a child growing up in Wichita, Kansas, popular music was in the throws of the Big Band craze. He spent afternoons listening to Fats Waller, Zutty Singleton, Barney Bigard and Coleman Hawkins on the radio. As a teenager, Koester sought out live performances anywhere he could catch them. At the age of fourteen he witnessed a concert that featured Count Basie, Jimmy Rushing and Illinois Jacquet. Searching for artists such as these became a passion.

"In high school I saw Lionel Hampton. Hamp used to come and play at the Forum. It was for black people but they let whites sit in the balcony. By the last set everybody kinda' forgot about racial barriers. Everybody was out on the floor dancing. I went back there two or three times to see Hamp. Once I went to a place called the Rock Castle Supper Club for a session that involved Clifford Brown. In my last year of high school I heard Lonnie Johnson was in town. I remember Lonnie played violin which seemed to be electronically amplified. I tried to visit him the next day but he left town before I got there. I called him and he said, 'Man I was up all night, call me back in three hours.' Three hours later, Mr. Johnson was checked out. Later on when I met him I kidded him about it. I said, 'you had this starry-eyed fan in Kansas and you screwed him by leaving town, checking out before he could talk with you.' "

Koester began collecting records in high school, but due to the particular type of music he favored he couldn't just go to the local record store and pick up a few discs. To find them he searched secondhand stores and the back rooms of juke box operators.

"A lot of the music I liked was out of print. In those terribly barren years right after World War II the major labels had satisfied the demand for phonograph records by reissues. During the war there was a ban, and after the war the ban was over and there was a big boom and they all jumped on Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, all that shitty pop music of the late forties. It was a vocalist thing so instrumental music was very much out of favor with the American public, the young people particularly. By this time I really zeroed in on twenties' jazz and you just couldn't find it, there was little or nothing in print. I loved jazz, but the blues was part of it. Jazz fans start buying blues records because Louie Armstrong is on this Bessie Smith record, Coleman Hawkins is on this Ida Cox record and eventually the blues gets next to you. To me it was all the same, it was all important."

Because of the mix between the two genres Koester began trading one disc for another. This was the start of a razor sharp business sense. He developed serious skills while on his hunt for out of print records. But an inclination for music was not his only love, he also had a passion for film. In an attempt to further his business skills he based his educational plan accordingly. He enrolled at St. Louis University to study cinematography and business; later he was to go to UCLA or USC for their cinematography programs.

"My purpose for going to St. Louis U. was to take some business courses because I had decided to become a movie camera man, that was my first love. I would go to Hollywood and I would make a little money and in the back of my mind I thought I would, eventually, do a little syndicated series of jazz TV shows and that I would be successful and I would have a jazz label and a jazz record store. I went to St. Louis U. and I just sort of got seduced by the music. My experiences in selling Glen Miller 78s expanded to selling the stuff that I had found in second hand stores."

Koester began selling music out of his dormitory and he joined a newly formed jazz club that boasted as members some of the most talented musicians in and around the St. Louis area. Alas, the lure of the music and a chance meeting gave his life's plan a twist only fate can deliver.

"A jazz club was being organized at the time in St. Louis and I went to the founding meeting. I was a founding member of the group. I remember the first meeting where I heard a hell of a lot of good music. I later found out that some of the best musicians in town were there. Bob Graf was there. Clark Terry was there. Through the St. Louis Jazz Club I was able to do a certain amount of promotion for my business. Eventually I was chairman of the program committee; as soon as I was able to go into bars, I wasn't old enough at first. At the second meeting of the jazz club I met a guy named Ron Fister."

Fister collected pop music of the thirties and forties but he also loved Ellington, Billie Holiday and Mildred Bailey, three of Koester's all-time favorites. This encounter sparked the beginning of K & F Sales, Koester's first record store.

"It worked out pretty well because if we found anything made before 1930 we would buy it so we were able to dispose of stuff that no one wanted. After lugging all my records out to his house he decided this was an inconvenience to him. He found a place that wasn't very big for 40 bucks a month and we opened up a store there."

K & F Sales soon outgrew its building and found a new location, a building that once housed a restaurant. Koester and his partner turned it into the Blue Note Record Shop. After nearly a year he and Fister discovered that they were moving in two different musical directions. They agreed to split up the inventory and Koester moved to a new location at Delmar and Oliver Streets. It was at this settlement that Delmark Records began. In 1953 at the age of 21 Koester recorded the Windy City Six, a vintage jazz group based in St. Louis. The progression had begun. Soon after that first recording Koester and a friend organized a search for musicians of the '20's and '30's living in St. Louis. The search yielded some of the greatest blues ever recorded. Master bluesmen such as Speckled Red, Big Joe Williams and J.D. Short were recorded by the tiny record company. With this block of artists, Delmark garnered recognition and quickly gained respect in the record industry. But success is never easy. After putting out only three LPs, tragedy hit the small company.

"In 1956 or '57 my father accepted a job in Italy and he wanted me to close up and go with him. I decided I didn't want to do that so he gave me five hundred bucks. That was enough to really get us going, so I had covers printed for five titles. Then over the weekend they stopped making ten inch LPs. So I was out of business. "

Koester took full advantage of the demise of the 10 inch format by going around and buying them all from local distributors for a dollar a piece and selling them at regular price with the profits he was able to recoup his losses and continue recording.

"I learned the thing that will screw you as a label will finance you as a dealer. By doing this I was able to get 4 twelve inch LPs out in a period of a year and a half or two years and to pay off most of my debts. We had no forewarning that 10 inches was going out I went down to Columbia Records on a Friday night and bought 10 inch LPs for $2.10 and went back Monday and was able to get them for $1.00."

Because of his experience as a record buyer Koester understood the value of music that had been recorded but not issued, or recordings that were out of print. Through his many connections he has acquired some very important master recordings. "We had the opportunity to buy the George Lewis masters recordings made for a major corporation for a school transcription program. Buying masters was from then on, forever on my mind. We bought sometimes one master, sometimes three or four. The most commercial acquisition was the United because we got good source on virtually everything. I was afraid of the United deal because I had heard that there were silent partners. I can say the same thing for the Apollo; they were both cases where I made fairly good deals because of this rumor. | wasn't willing to pay a hell of a lot for it I was going to have to deal with that kind of a gamble."

Koester has procured shares of the Regal masters and with them came the Parkway sessions of Little Walter and Muddy Waters. These sessions were recorded before Walter went with the Chess label. Recent acquisitions include Lonnie Brooks, Carey Bell, Sunnyland Slim, Jimmy Reed, Magic Slim and Jimmy Rogers. Acquisitions are an important part of Delmark; they lend the company a certain amount of financial freedom and enable it to continue recording artists of its choice. It was the prospect of buying the Paramount masters that led Koester to Chicago.

"That was a very thrilling prospect; all of Ma Rainey, all of Blind Lemon, Louis, Dodds, etc. etc. That was probably the main reason I came to Chicago. I decided I'd better be closer in touch with what was happening."

In August of 1958 he arrived in Chicago and set up shop in the Cathedral Building on Wabash Avenue. This location was not satisfactory and the business did not take off.

"It was a cash register, some shelving, some old 78s and used LPs, not any real inventory. It needed whatever investment I could get. I didn't have the money to rehab it but we did clean it and three months later we painted it they said we had to leave."

Koester began to search for another spot . A friend loaned him the money toward the purchase of Seymour's Jazz Mart located in the Roosevelt University Building. Seymour Schwartz, a song writer and trumpet player was the previous owner who wanted to devote more time to his music so he sold it to Koester. Delmark enjoyed this tenancy until 1963 when renovations at the Roosevelt U. Building caused the company to move.

Delmark quickly relocated to Grand Avenue setting up here until, once again the location became unsatisfactory. By the early 1970's company tape files were growing at an accelerated pace and space was limited. Koester's only employee at the time was Bruce Iglauer, now owner of Alligator Records.

"Bruce came in and worked at the store and Delmark. Delmark was in the basement of the store which was smaller than the front end of our present store. We were at 7 West Grand. It was about 600 square feet upstairs and maybe another 50 or 100 square feet in the basement. I had one room in my apartment that was the Delmark tape file and editing room My wife and Bruce Iglauer worked with me. If somebody came calling somebody had to go to lunch to make room for them cause it could get pretty crowded down there. We just needed more space."

The flourishing record company was again uprooted but this time Koester had a master plan. He was determined to find stable ground. Koester thought long, and hard and finally made the decision to cash in his life savings and make a down payment on the building at 4243 N. Lincoln Avenue. This move was quite different than the others; Instead of shilling all his eggs to one basket he split them. Using the newly purchased building as the Delmark offices and making a small jump from 7 W. Grand to 11 W. Grand, he established two distinct units. It was then that the Grand Avenue location was christened The Jazz Record Mart. With his inventory in tow he made the transition, taking his trusted and valued employee with him.

Koester has a reputation for capturing budding young music fans and putting them under his wing; lighting a fire within them to be in the music industry. Iglauer was one of the first but not the last.

"I had a lot of respect for Bruce's judgment. We used Bruce when we would do record dates. Bruce would be the guy in the studio and I'd be the guy in the booth. He could catch the nuances of what was going on and come back and report. You know, snitch on the musicians."

Iglauer happened upon Koester's name during the sixties when blues was beginning to enjoy a revivalist period. For fans that were into vintage blues Bob Koester and Delmark was a major source of information. As a young college student Iglauer took full advantage of this source. He remembers how he gained first knowledge of Koester and his company.

"I first read about Bob In 1966. I was more of a folk music fan than a blues fan. I went up to a folk music festival in Toronto called The Mariposa Folk Festival and picked up a magazine called Hoot and there was a review of a bunch of blues records. At the end of the review it said If you ever go to Chicago and want to hear some of this stuff live look up Bob Koester at the Jazz Record Mart and he'll take you out to clubs you would otherwise never hear about. "

When Iglauer wanted to hire a blues band for a college function he remembered the article in the magazine and immediately set out for Chicago. He was so taken by the charm and hospitality of the record company owner that he made several trips back to the city. Frequenting the Chicago clubs with Koester Iglauer often stayed overnight and slept on the floor. After college Iglauer moved to Chicago to "be around the music". The Jazz Record Mart became a hangout for him and eventually his place of employment.

"I was doing anything and everything I was told to do; getting coffee helping people set up equipment. In January of 1970 at a session for Jr. Wells' South Side Blues Jam, two of the musicians Fred Below and Ernest Johnson came to the session in some friend's car. The friend had jumped a stop sign or red light and had been stopped by the cops. He didn't have a license so they threw everyone in jail. My job was to go down and bail them out. I was learning everything I could about recording technology, how to deal with musicians, about mixing, and he let me do that."

Koester was a mentor for Iglauer. He did not teach with the soft strokes of a tutor but with the strong hand of a master. His commanding presence was straight and to the point. Iglauer states that he was not malleable when it came to the inner workings of the business.

"He berated his employees constantly. He was a real tough guy to work with; he kept real odd hours. You couldn't do anything to please him. I'd pack a carton and he'd throw it across the room to see if he could make it break open because I had done a bad packing job. I got all the shit work but that was okay, I certainly wasn't complaining. We had screaming arguments all the time and he almost fired me a number of times. What he did was right. My whole attitude was Bob knows everything I know nothing. For someone who was just a schleper employee he gave me a lot of space and I appreciate it. He doesn't know how much I appreciate it."

Because Iglauer learned the business in this manner Delmark Records became a major exponent of Alligator Records. It was partially because of the learned appreciation of the music and its artists that Alligator Records came about. Iglauer suggested that Koester record Hound Dog Taylor, a local musician. Koester explains that he sidestepped the suggestion because of cash flow problems.

"I had really scraped and scrimped to get my money to get the down payment on the building. When he wanted me to record Hound Dog Taylor I demurred cause I just didn't have the bread."

Bruce Iglauer and Alligator Records is not the only company or person that Koester and Delmark Records is responsible for propagating into the music industry. The list includes: Chuck Nessa of Nessa Records and the distribution company Master Takes; Jim O'Neal of Rooster Records and Living Blues Magazine; Michael Frank owner of Earwig Records; and the late Bruce Kaplan of Flying Fish Records. All of these individuals have been at one time early in their career a part of Delmark Records or an employee of the Jazz Record Mart. Chuck Nessa played an important part in expanding the Delmark jazz catalog. He is one of the living examples of the generosity and talent-seeking abilities of Koester.

"Chuck used to come in from Iowa City where he was going to college and expressed an interest in coming to work and wound up producing some of our AACM albums."

Nessa explains that it was Bob who wanted him to work at the record store. "In 1965 was going to school at the University of Iowa and started coming to Chicago and going out to blues and jazz clubs. Bob, in those days was a guide of sorts taking people out to places like Sylvio's on the westside and Theresa's. After about four or five visits he suggested I come to work for him running the record store. I wasn't interested in running the store but I was interested in how records were made. So I said 'If you let me make some records I'll come and work in the store for you.' And he said 'Okay'. I went away and I'm sure he though he'd never see me again. One day I showed up and said. 'Here I am', he said 'Oh! okay' and he honored it. He gave me a job for $50 a week and I produced some records for him"

The story gets twisted between the two parties involved but the results are the same. Nessa produced part of the AACM Avant Garde series. The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians encompassed a group of musicians who had not been recorded yet and were part of a serious jazz movement occurring in Chicago. The AACM consisted of noted jazz musicians such as Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Muhal Richards Abrams, Anthony Braxton and Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre. The Delmark recordings were the first for this group and Koester acknowledges that these sessions played a large part in his jazz catalog.

"During the period that Chuck Nessa was affiliated with us we did the Avant Garde scenes; Roscoe Mitchell and those guys. That's probably the biggest claim we make in the jazz field."

Though Nessa does not confess it, the records that he produced under the Delmark label are an essential part of recorded jazz history .

Another industry bigwig that passed through the influences of Koester and his company is Amy van Singel. Amy worked at the Jazz Record Mart and would have gone on to become an integral part of Delmark had she not chosen to go with Living Blues magazine. Koester openly expresses his affection for his former employee.

"Amy was a very shy girl, at least at the beginning of her career. I kind of miss Amy's presence on the scene. I m very proud of her; she really was a mainstay of the magazine Living Blues."

Michael Frank, owner of Earwig Records, was directly influenced by Koester and his record company. Earwig is a resounding tribute to what can be absorbed from Koester and Delmark. Frank talks of the overwhelming effect that Koester had on him.

"The first time I asked Bob for a job was when I was getting ready to finish college. I was in Pennsylvania and I wrote him a letter asking him for a job. I had just about every Delmark blues album there was and some jazz. I guess I thought it was more than a one or two person company. So he wrote me back this sort of hodgepodge of a letter which part of it was personalized to me and part of it was a form letter. From what I recall it wasn't even all the same typing. He had a part of a form letter and he typed the first and last part and just threw it together and sent it to me. That was my first reality of what Delmark was."

Frank came to Chicago for a blues weekend in 1970. While there he went to the Jazz Record Mart to meet Koester and see the store where a large part of his collection came from. In 1972 he moved to Chicago and began to hang out with Koester. While going to the different blues clubs the acquaintance grew into a close friendship. Frank's memory fails him as to who asked the vital question but it was asked.

"At some point I can't remember if I asked him or he asked me first, but I started working at the record store and we became friends."

As friends Koester and Frank shared some wild times together, some that called for the removal of clothes.

"In the early seventies there was a bunch of us that used to go out to the clubs. Sometimes we'd get pretty drunk. Bob as he drank got more and more wild and louder and more risque and more verbose. He was fun. The craziest thing we did was in 1978. There was this club called Else Where on Clark St. (in Chicago). It was the second club owned by Bill Gilmore who owns Blues and Blues Etc. There was this female vocalist Arlene Brown playing at this club. She had a local single called I'm a Streaker. It was a smaller club so they couldn't afford to hire her whole revue which in bigger clubs she'd have male streakers. Bob and I decided to streak her show. We figured we liked her record we liked her and she should be able to have the whole effect of her show. She started into this song and Bob and I went into the men's room and corralled this Japanese blues fan to watch our clothes. We took off our clothes and danced from the men's room around into the other room up to the front of the bandstand and back through the room and then out. Amy van Singel took a picture of it and published it in Living Blues. People in the audience didn't know what was going on, but we talked to Arlene afterwards and she thought it was neat. We did it out of tribute and respect to her."

It was not only the wild times that were important; Frank speaks highly of Koester as a mentor and a role model for the independent record label. Noting Delmark's impact on recorded music, Frank has this to say regarding the importance of the label.

"A lot of us have started labels and gone into the music business directly after working with or for Bob; learning from him. We would not have ever gotten to that point if we were not blues fans who bought all of his records. All of the blues label heads that I know started out as fans. Some musicians, some fans, or both. And as fans we bought records and Delmark was putting out records that nobody else was putting out. If he hadn't been doing that, there would have been a big missing part in the scene. The label's impact is that it expands the body of work of recorded blues and jazz significantly in terms of creating records that are very important in the history of the genre. Some of the most important records in blues and jazz are on Delmark. Some of his records are classics; like Magic Sam. He was a total unknown, but 'till this day, largely because of his records that Bob put out, he is acknowledged as one of the greatest blues musicians of the modem era. Big Joe Williams was recorded a lot and some of the best records he made were on Delmark. That's what's important about him, he has created records that will stand up in the history of recorded blues as some of the greatest records of all blues recorded"

Koester is able to capture the true soul of the artists because of his genuine affection for them and their music. As has been stated previously, one of Koester's favorite pastimes was to go out and hear the music as it was being created. One particular club that he frequented, Theresa's on Chicago's westside, featured harmonica whiz Junior Wells. Wells and Koester established a friendship and out of it came several hits including Hoodoo Man Blues, the largest selling album recorded by Delmark. Wells vividly remembers when Koester asked him to record on his label.

"Bob came around to the clubs where I was playing. He came in, heard me and asked me if I would be interested in doing some recordings. I told him 'I don't know. Right now I'm not under contract with anybody ' So we were hanging out and decided we would try it. I have done things with other people but I wasn't getting what I wanted out of them. So for me, getting really attached to Bob was nice. He always gave me what I liked; which was the freedom of the studio. Whatever I did was alright. He didn't try to tell me this and that there, like a lot of studios or recording companies you go into".

In light of the freedom of movement that Koester gave to Wells he was able to re-record Hoodoo Man Blues. Originally recorded on 78 for another label it was destroyed by an irate disc jockey. It hurt Wells badly enough that he decided to never again record that particular song. Koester using cunning and courage made it possible to release the smash hit. Wells recants the sneak attack.

"When I did this particular thing for Bob he asked me to do Hoodoo Man and I said. 'No! I don t want to do that tune again.' He said, 'Just try it' I said, 'No' getting angry, 'I don t want to try it!!!' So me and Buddy Guy was recording and messing around waiting for them to get things together. Buddy said, 'Try this Jr.' He started playing and I went to singing it. I didn't even know that Bob had really recorded it. So after we had finished doing the other things Bob said, 'Jr. could I play something back for you? I want you to listen to this.' He said 'I hope you don't get mad with me.' And I said, 'No, I m not going to get mad with you.' So he played it back and he said, 'What do you think?' I said, 'I like it.' It had that thing it didn't have on the first recording when I made it. I sounded real good. I never would have thought it would have been the number one LP for all these years. That makes me proud of it. I'm glad he sneaked it in on me."

Wells is of the older generation of the blues and though Koester prefers an older traditional sound he does not close his eyes to younger musicians who have that feel. He is consonant in the way he feels about the artists he chooses. He looks for a particular quality and leans toward the more customary sound of the blues. Dave Specter, one of Delmark's newer artists explains that even though he is of a younger generation his style of music is what Koester looks for in a recording artist. "We play the more traditional styles of Chicago Blues and West Coast blues and that's one of he things that Bob Koester mostly looks for in his artists and the people he records. He definitely favors the more traditional styles as opposed to the blues rock styles that are more common today."

Specter denotes the significance of Delmark from an artist's point of view. He also reiterates Koester's policy of letting the artists be and do what they feel is necessary to complete a recording.

"It is one of the most important labels. They've recorded some of the classic modern Chicago blues and country blues. He's very easy to work with. He let me bring in the songs I wanted to do and the people I wanted to play with. He keeps a very low profile in the studio. I have a lot of respect for the label just in terms of them being a more artistic non-commercial label."

Commercialism was definitely not on Koester's mind when he recorded Jimmie Lee Robinson, the former sideman for the legendary Freddy King and Little Walter. Robinson was backed up by the ice Cream Men. Scott Dirks, harmonica player for the band tells a story that Koester recently walked into Lillys, a small club in Chicago, and heard Robinson and the band. "He said, 'Wow this guy sounds great I've got to record him.' Pretty soon we were in the Delmark studios recording." The Lonely Traveller was released early in 1994.

When Koester likes a sound or an artist, he sets the wheels of recording in motion. But these are not whims. Trust his judgment; Koester has been at this longer than most.

Delmark Records has had a hegemonic presence within the blues industry. It is known throughout the world by true blues fans as well as browsers of the genre. Some of the most prolific blues ever recorded have come about as a direct result of Delmark sessions. For the last four decades the record company has captured on vinyl, tapes, and lately CDs the rare essence of the blues. Within the traditionally solid styles of the genre, Delmark has amassed a vast quantity of newly released and reissued material.

There are many independent labels scattered across the United States and throughout Europe that have a more than satisfactory catalog, but few have gotten started purely for the love of rare music. Almost none continue to operate for this reason. Most start off with noble intentions. Because blues is part of the oldest and most significant of all American music it can evoke a feeling of truth and accentuate the many injustices of the world. Immediately a hero the label owner steps up to right the wrongs and give the artist a shot at what he or she deserves. But somewhere along the way the original intent gets lost and the poison apple of commercialism taints the plan. Delmark however seems not to have bitten from the forbidden fruit. Delmark is consistent, lying close to the line of traditionalism.

Iglauer and Frank who are both self-admitted products of Koester and his company stand behind the previous statements. Both express the fact that Koester does indeed keep to his purpose of recording the classic sounds of the blues. Frank reflects on this and how Koester influenced him the most.

"A lot of the artists on the label are older. Before he recorded Magic Sam and Jimmy Dawkins he recorded people like Big Joe Williams. He influenced me in that we both try to capture the music the way it is. He doesn't have any preconceived notions of what the music should sound like when recording somebody. He just tries to capture the music how it is being played without special effects."

It has been mentioned that Koester came into the record business because of his love for music. In this way he is doing what he wants not always attending to tasks that have to be done. Iglauer goes further saying that it is not the business of recording that Koester is interested in.

"Bob was never very interested in running his business as a business. Bob made tons of deals that were never put on paper. It was just too much trouble. He wasn't good about sending out statements, making collections or doing the financial end of the work. None of that interested him. He likes the music. He likes the fun. He's doing it for love."

Meticulous nurturing of a hobby can be a labor of love.

For more info on Bob Koester and Delmark Records, check out this tribute page




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