Bob Koester
The Monarch of Delmark
by Scott Barretta
Bob Koester's Delmark label has been the standard-bearer for independent jazz and blues labels since 1953.

Shrink-wrapping albums must be about the least glamorous task in the record business, but find Bob Koester on an average work day and he's just as likely to be doing that as supervising a recording session.

It's been a long time since Delmark Records was a one-man operation and he had to do everything, but the dean of Chicago blues and jazz recording still works a six-and-a-half-day work week and continues to ungrudgingly perform what he calls the "shit work" of the business. As someone who has hand-built and kept afloat an independent label for more than 40 years, Koester knows well that success and survival require close attention to the details. Or as he puts it, "I'm not an employee, so no job is a menial task."

Koester doesn't get out to see live music as much as he used to, but as someone who's been actively checking out and recording the jazz and blues arena for the last five decades he's got enough memories to supply an army of music fans. The artists he has waxed over the years make up a real "Who's Who" of the blues world: Magic Sam, Otis Rush, Roosevelt Sykes, Jr. Wells, Buddy Guy, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Jimmy Dawkins, J.B. Hutto, Big Joe Williams, Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, Carey Bell, Luther Allison, Yank Rachell, Sleepy John Estes, just to name a few.

Magic Sam

On the jazz side, Delmark runs the spectrum; its catalog -- equally as large as the blues catalog -- contains everything from vintage New Orleans jazz to pioneering recordings of the '60s Chicago avant-garde movement.

Although many of the greats Koester has recorded have passed on to blues heaven, he's not stuck on the "good old days" -- there's still too much recording to be done. Delmark has benefited from the recent blues resurgence and has expanded both physically -- the Delmark House, with its 24-track studio, was purchased five years ago -- and in terms of its catalog, which is growing rapidly in both number and diversity.

Since the purchase of the new studios on the North Side five years ago, Delmark's rate of releases has increased dramatically, and the annual output (including CD releases of catalog material) now equals about what the label released in its first decade and a half. Because of serious economic problems throughout the '80s, a decade when Delmark released little new product, it has been late in reissuing back catalog on CD. This process will soon be complete, leaving that much more room available for new recordings.

Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup

The size of Delmark's staff has expanded to five full-time workers, including Susan, Koester's wife of more than 30 years, who had worked part-time for the label for years before hanging up her social-work job several years back, and Steve Wagner, in-house producer and Delmark's manager since 1987. Koester has put his full trust in Wagner to run the operations and points to Wagner's management skills as one of the most important elements to Delmark's success in recent years.

One of the main reasons for Delmark's ability to survive as an independent label in a field which sees so many go under -- aside from consistently high quality records and artists -- is the downtown Jazz Record Mart (JRM), which Koester acknowledges is his "bread and butter." Stocked with perhaps the broadest range of jazz and blues compact discs anywhere, the store also has a large selection of new vinyl, including Delmark's back catalog as well as thousands purchased by Koester at bargain rates following the introduction of the compact disc.

If there is a center to the blues scene in Chicago it is here, at 8,000 square feet the "largest jazz and blues record store in the world" and a mecca for out-of-town blues visitors. The new location on Wabash Street is just around the corner from the 7 and 11 West Grand Street locations that housed the JRM operation (and Big Joe Williams, who lived in the basement at 7 West Grand) since the early '60s. The new, modern facilities lack the funky atmosphere of the last two locations, but after 40 years of cramped working space, leaky roofs, damp basements and uneven floors, Koester isn't sentimental about the change.

Over the years the JRM has served as a training ground for many jazz and blues producers, writers and label owners, and in this regard it is difficult to overestimate Koester's role in shaping the last four decades of blues recording and documentation. Living Blues magazine was started, with seed money from Koester, in the basement of the JRM by a group that included employees Amy van Singel, Bruce Iglauer and Paul Garon, while the Delmark operation became the blueprint for how to run an independent label.

Blues label owners who got their start after having learned the ropes from Koester as JRM employees include Iglauer, who recorded his debut Hound Dog Taylor album for his Alligator label while working at the Mart; the late Pete Welding of the Testament label; Don Kent of Mamlish; the late Bruce Kaplan of Flying Fish; Pete Crawford of Red Beans; Amy van Singel of Rooster Blues and Michael Frank, whose Earwig label perhaps most closely follows Koester's tradition of recording older, less-commercially viable artists. Last year Koester's role as a mentor and pioneer in the independent record business was formally recognized when he was elected into the Blues Foundation's Blues Hall of Fame.

Koester accepts 1996 Handy Award
The history of Delmark Records stretches back to 1953, when Koester began selling jazz 78s by mail from his college dormitory room in St. Louis, but he traces his lifelong passion for jazz and blues back to a live radio broadcast of Fats Waller he heard as an 11-year-old in Wichita, Kansas. The young Koester was soon haunting local record bins and seeking out the occasional live show, and among the acts he recalls with enthusiasm are the Count Basie Orchestra with Jimmy Rushing, Lonnie Johnson and the Lionel Hampton Orchestra, whom he caught several times at a hall where whites had to sit in the balcony.

His budding passion for records soon led him beyond the record stores to jukebox distributors and second-hand shops, as well as to "junking" for used 78s in Wichita's black neighborhoods. Like other jazz enthusiasts of the time, Koester regarded blues as a sub-category of jazz and collected a wide range of music, but he also attributes his emerging eclectic taste to the relative scarceness of records in town. "If you lived in Wichita and it was black and secular, you bought it."

In 1951 Koester left for St. Louis University to prepare for a career in cinematography, but his life-course was changed by the city's vibrant live music environment and wealth of used records.

"St Louis was a fucking gold mine," he recalls. "I had a route every night. After my last class I would hit the second-hand stores. After the first year Ron [Fister] and I started this little record store [K&F Sales] right off the campus. We found this little tiny place for 40 bucks a month. But it was closed in the afternoon while I was around hittin' my route."

In 1953 Koester made his recording debut with a 10-inch by a local trad jazz band, christening his label Delmar after the swinging street in town bearing that name (the "k" was added later due to trademark problems). In describing his inspiration for his operation, Koester points out that the formula is obvious. "It came from Commodore, a record store that taps the till to do record dates. It's an old classic formula: Keynote, Musicraft, Commodore, Prestige."

Koester also began his career as an activist for jazz and blues in St. Louis, promoting concerts by local artists and publishing a short-lived magazine, The St Louis Jazz Report, whose first issue features a shot of a young Little Mac Simmons playing with Robert Nighthawk at East St. Louis' Red Arrow Inn.

Koester's eventual move to Chicago was prompted through a trip he made there in 1958 to buy masters, but which resulted instead in his purchase of Seymour's Jazz Mart and becoming an advocate for the Chicago scene. The recordings of Speckled Red and Williams were not released until the early '60s, when Delmark began its Roots of Jazz blues series. New material for the series included the debut revival recordings of Sleepy John Estes and Yank Rachell, who Koester had helped locate in Brownsville, Tennessee.

Ironically, Estes' brother worked in a store next to Koester's first Chicago location, something which he only learned after he first brought the bluesman to Chicago. Although he had noted the brother's last name before, Koester never seriously considered the idea that they might be related and suggests that if he had only once jokingly called the man "Sleepy" he might have found the Brownsville blues crew years earlier.

The name of the series -- Roots of Jazz -- reflects Koester's continual emphasis of the close relation between jazz and blues and, more generally, the time of Delmark's founding. A white audience for the music barely existed when Koester began releasing blues. "We've never pretended we're selling [blues] to a black audience," he readily admits. Initially, the intended market was jazz fans interested in the music's history and folkies who bought the few folk blues records available on labels such as Folkways. Again, Delmark can be seen as similar to Prestige and Riverside, jazz labels which started blues series in the very first years of the blues revival.

Koester was pleasantly surprised by the relative success of the first acoustic blues records but disappointed with the relative lack of attention folkies gave older blues artists during the '60s folk revival. As he remembers, "1964 was the year that the folk infrastructure paid lip service to blues, then they went on to protest. The people who operated the folk infrastructure were very interested in protest, and when they found out that blues singers generally didn't do that much protesting -- that they were more interested in talking about sex -- they kind of disdained the whole blues thing.

"I remember having folk music concerts downstairs from that great icon of the folk planetary system, the Old Town School of Folk Music. I couldn't get 'em to come in free to hear Big Joe Williams. They were up there talking about Big Bill and Leadbelly, and they wouldn't go downstairs to listen to Big Joe or Sleepy John."

After 10 records of older artists, Delmark made an abrupt change in 1965, releasing Jr. Wells' classic Hoodoo Man Blues, with Buddy Guy on guitar. Hoodoo Man was the first full-length, studio album of a working electric Chicago blues band and presented a much more contemporary portrait of Chicago blues activity than the handful of electric blues LPs then available, which were largely collections of previously released singles.

As when he first released a country blues record, Koester was uncertain whether there was an audience for such a record. "I thought of the Jr. Wells record as kind of a daring thing, paying extra sidemen and music that the folkies wouldn't like. But I guess they were a little ahead of me. I mean, I was selling Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf records to young white kids, but most of 'em were wishing that the bass player and drummer were absent so that they could hear Wolf's guitar licks."

The Wells LP signaled a new direction for Delmark. Prior to Hoodoo Man Blues, the West Side style was scarce known to the white public, and over the next number of years Koester introduced Wells' Cobra Records labelmates Magic Sam and Otis Rush as well as the debuts of Luther Allison, Jimmy Dawkins and Carey Bell. The trend continues today, with the acclaimed recent debut album from Jimmy Burns.

Koester's approach to blues from a jazz background is reflected in the breadth of Delmark's catalog, his use of Delmark jazz artists as blues horn arrangers and in his championing of blues piano and stand-up vocalists. He explains his own attachment to blues piano and the blues more generally in generational terms: "[For] most of the jazz fans of the '40s who got interested in blues it was one of two things: They bought a Bessie Smith record because Louie Armstrong or Joe Smith was on it or a Pinetop Smith record because you liked boogie-woogie. And we were really more interested in piano than we were guitar.

"One thing that really bugs me about whitey's approach to the blues, and it's not totally a racial thing, is the failure to accept and listen to blues piano. You really haven't come to grips with blues until you can appreciate Peetie Wheatstraw, Walter Davis and Dr. Clayton. They are vitally important artists. And the reason nobody appreciates it is that nobody is listening to the lyrics; we're all looking for guitar licks. That's why we don't buy piano records, which I find appalling."

Koester is just as outspoken on the primacy of vocals in blues. "Although it's nice to have whites out there buying our records, they often miss the point of the whole exercise. Blues is a verbal and vocal music, and they act like they were at the opera and were expected to listen to the orchestra more than the singing."

Needless to say, Koester is not one to chase the latest trend in the market. He disdains those who cater to contemporary fans' preference for "stinging" electric guitar blues. Or as he expresses his business philosophy in his typical blunt manner: "I record what I fucking want to, and then I try to find a market for it ... I don't record somebody cause I think they're gonna be popular this year. I don't really look at the market when I decide to record. Very few jazz labels do. If that were the case, Blue Note never would have opened their doors."

This is an abridged version of the Bob Koester article.

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This page © 1997 by Blues Access, Boulder, CO, USA.