Bob Koester - a Giant- and a Wonderful Man - Delmark
I am very, very sad to hear of the death of Bob Koester! About a week ago I stopped in at his store and asked his son about him. From what he said, I thought that he wouldn’t live very long.
I first met Bob at the Jazz Record Mart, then at 7 W Grand (later 11 W Grand, later on Illinois St). I was perhaps 19 or 20 or 21 – and Bob was a most knowledgeable character. He and his wife Sue were fellow members of Blues Amalgamated: Roger K, Wes Race, Becca and Steve T and others at times.
Bob was always generous with his time and much, much more! I loved going to the store/office on Lincoln Avenue – on Friday evenings for movie night: several old cartoons – Betty Boop, Bugs Bunny and much more and a feature movie: Casablanca, and many many more old and great movies.
I remember playing on the floor with Bob, Jr. – as a young child – me plenty of energy – parents- a brief break.
Most memorable – in a not pleasant way – we were watching Magic Slim at Florences, and I took an offer to leave early with Bob and Sue. Helen Dance, the noted jazz critic, was also with us. Shortly after we exited the bar (on Shields in Englewood) two young men held us up at gunpoint.
Several minutes after the robbers had left, Slim (6’8” – 300+ pounds) – came running out of the bar – with his gun – thankfully the gunmen were gone. (They were caught trying to use credit cards of the older/more affluent others than me).
After I left Chicago and moved to the West Coast – I lost track of Bob – for a time. I missed a Blues Amalgamated Reunion at one Chicago Blues Festival, but made it back 10 years later for another memorable reunion.
I remember perhaps 6-8 years ago having breakfast with Bob at a place on Lincoln Avenue just south of Montrose and being at their house and Delmark’s recording studio/office – a few times. Clearly – Bob had done very well – related to how things were in my days as a young adult. He always was welcoming – his blunt – but delightful self.
After I returned to live in Chicago in mid-2018, I began attending some of the Friday night movie nights, which again were most enjoyable. Bob’s memory was slipping, but he still knew a ton of information about movies and blues and jazz music.
Bob’s first two Magic Sam – albums – along with Junior Wells’s Hoodoo Man Blues – Delmark’s greatest – in my mind – will always live in my soul!!!
I have a lot of wonderful memories! I wish the best to Sue and the children.
Bob Koester leaves a colossal legacy in Chicago jazz and blues
For nearly 70 years, he owned the Jazz Record Mart and Delmark Records—and though his businesses could be “crazy town,” they helped nurture thriving communities.
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- Bob Koester in the stacks at the Jazz Record Mart in 2009
- MICHAEL JACKSON
Bob Koester, who died May 12 at age 88, knew what he liked—and what you should like too. For nearly 70 years, he owned Chicago's Jazz Record Mart (and the Delmark label), and it was completely in character for him to snatch an album from the hands of an earnest young shopper.
In 1968, that shopper was me—I'd picked up a copy of Muhal Richard Abrams's debut LP, Levels and Degrees of Light, whose surreal cover painting and saturated colors promised something exotic and strange made right here. I was more than eager to hear it, but Koester—still black-haired, wearing glasses, not graceful, not yet 40—had other ideas. "You can't understand that," he insisted from behind the cash register, flapping the Abrams LP in my face, "if you haven't heard this." He thrust out The Legend of Sleepy John Estes, adorned with a photo of an old Black man with a guitar that looked like something from Picasso's Blue Period.
He slid the Estes LP onto the turntable that was the throbbing heart of his warrenlike storefront, then located on Grand at State, upstairs from an el station and between a steam-table diner and a currency exchange. Out came the ancient voice of Sleepy John, groaning about mean rats in his kitchen, while he picked limply at his instrument with backing that sounded like a jug band—exactly the type of folksy stuff I wanted to ignore. I capitulated to Koester and bought it to get the Abrams album, and I listened dutifully to both. Eventually I caught on. The breadth of the Jazz Record Mart's inventory and of the Delmark Records roster (the label had released both the Estes and the Abrams) spoke to Koester's capacious but not indiscriminate taste.
Though the JRM's turntable was presumably there to allow potential buyers to sample sounds before laying down as much as $6 for a new stereo release, Koester frequently disregarded his patrons' requests to play what he was interested in. He loved the guitar-wielding elders of the Delta blues who'd interested him growing up in Wichita, Kansas, when they provided relief from the white country crooners dominating the area's radio broadcasts, and he was open to the exploratory and sometimes abstract ideas of the newly formed Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, to whom he'd been introduced by onetime JRM manager Chuck Nessa. But he really favored trad jazz, and he often treated JRM shoppers—representing Chicagoans of every stripe—to music that at the time seemed corny to me. Banjoist Clancy Hayes and his band the Salty Dogs were not universally appreciated.
Koester didn't care. His approach to retail was idiosyncratic, to say the least—the opposite of Marshall Field's dictum that the customer is always right. And as it went at the Jazz Record Mart, so did it too at the label financed by the store's sales. He hired people who contributed their own energies to both, but it was Bob's empire, and he ran it his way.
Considering the vast amount of good his operations have done for Chicago's blues and jazz scenes since he moved here from Saint Louis in 1958—good that is now continuing past his death—Koester's point of view clearly had advantages.
It also had disadvantages, and Reader critic Peter Margasak detailed some of them in 2016, when Koester sold the JRM name and inventory to online collectors' mecca Wolfgang's Vault. (Having left expensive downtown real estate behind, two months later Koester opened a shop called Bob's Blues & Jazz Mart on Irving Park at Kimball.) Bob had arcane protocols for stock control, for Scotch-taping bags, for seemingly everything. Cornetist Josh Berman, who worked in various capacities at the JRM from 1992 to 2009, remembers, "It was crazy town—I don't think Bob would deny it. He could be very funny about that stuff."
- Bob Koester at Bob's Blues & Jazz Mart in 2018
- LENI MANAA-HOPPENWORTH
Kent Richmond, the final JRM manager (he'd come from shuttered rival Rose Records), was shocked and frustrated that Bob's store tracked merchandise with notations on index cards rather than a computer program, and that despite significant mail-order business Koester was disinterested in building a functional JRM website. Bob rarely took out ads, except in Living Blues, which he'd supported from its launch in 1970. His method of promotion consisted primarily of mailing out a printed newsletter and an obsessively annotated catalog. Still, store and label survived, even thrived.
Koester wasn't always in the shop, and his more consumer-sensitive employees frequently played major roles in creating the ambience that made the JRM an information center and cultural crossroads as well as a moneymaker. Back in the Grand Avenue days, long before the Jazz Record Mart occupied the most upscale of its several locations (at 444 N. Wabash, across from where Trump Tower now stands), gospel-singing blind guitarist Arvella Gray stood outside the front door busking, and Big Joe Williams or Washboard Hank perched just inside on a stool, kibitzing with anybody who came in. Manager Jim DeJong stuck music obituaries and reviews clipped from newspapers to the walls over the record bins, and he also became a trusted source of information on who was performing when and where, including at venues far from the Rush Street entertainment district—editorial assistants would call him for their music listings.
DeJong, who later ran the jazz department at the Clark Street location of Tower Records, sold music differently than Koester, developing insights into what people wanted and might enjoy exploring further. Koester had slight interest in commercial trends and seldom stocked white or Black pop, rock, and R&B, but when it seemed like everyone coming up the subway steps or getting off the bus in front of the Jazz Record Mart needed Curtis Mayfield's Super Fly, DeJong kept a box of the LPs under the counter, next to a stack of Miles Davis's Kind of Blue to offer the uninitiated. Koester was fine with that, and with DeJong's to-the-penny accounting, though he'd sometimes mess up his manager's buying plans by appearing before a late-Friday bank deposit to raid the store's weekly income so he could cover a Delmark recording session or some personal expense.
"When we made a record, the Record Mart had to stop buying or not pay the rent," Koester said with a chuckle during a 2018 video interview for the archives of the Jazz Institute of Chicago, which he'd helped found a half century before. That chuckle suggests he knew he was playing fast and loose, but such self-awareness didn't turn him into a good businessman or boss. Tales persist of Koester dressing down employees in public or firing them capriciously (as he did DeJong), and he could be rude or crude around bystanders. But people devoted to jazz and blues as a lifestyle stuck with Koester (or were stuck with him), drawn into his orbit by his mix of entrepreneurship and blunt, irrepressible energies.
- Bob Koester's 80th birthday in 2012: Susan Koester is to his right, Bob Jr. behind him, and Bob Stroger and Deitra Farr to his left. Quintus McCormick is crouched in front, Zora Young is at far right, and all the other famous people's names won't fit here.
- MICHAEL JACKSON
One of those people was Chuck Nessa, hired to manage the Record Mart in 1965 for $50 per week. He wanted to learn how to make jazz records. Koester believed that the independent labels of the 30s and 40s had "missed bebop" due to their moldy-fig attitudes, and in Nessa he saw a way to help Delmark avoid that mistake. He urged his manager to scout for new music and agreed to sign to Delmark three of the Black south-side players who, inspired by the experimental Western classical music introduced to them by Wilson Junior College professor Richard Wang and the iconoclastic jazz coming out of New York City, had just organized themselves as the AACM to focus on original compositions, expanded improvisation, and artistic self-sufficiency.
One year after Koester's label released Junior Wells's debut album, the 1965 Buddy Guy collaboration Hoodoo Man Blues—which spurred Chicago's second wave of electric blues and is still the imprint's best seller—Delmark issued Roscoe Mitchell's Sound, followed by Joseph Jarman's Song For and Abrams's Levels and Degrees of Light. The production credits read "Robert G. Koester," but Nessa clarifies: "Though invited, Bob never attended my recording sessions. He said he didn't really understand the music but felt it was important, that he 'didn't speak the language' and that he might be a distraction."
Those albums were widely critically acclaimed and have since been recognized as historically important, but they didn't sell well, and Nessa quit a year into his JRM job after becoming the butt of a Koester tantrum. He continued producing records, and Roscoe Mitchell and Lester Bowie wanted to arrange a studio session together. But when Nessa came to the store to broach the idea to Koester, he was thrown out. By the time the recording was completed in summer 1967, Nessa still intended it for Delmark, but after suffering another of Bob's rants he decided to do it himself. With the release of Numbers 1&2, top-billed by Lester Bowie and featuring a lineup that would develop into the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Nessa Records was born.
Blues label Alligator Records has a comparable origin story: erstwhile Koester acolyte Bruce Iglauer founded it in order to record Hound Dog Taylor, after Bob repeatedly turned the project down. The Jazz Record Mart sold Alligator's releases, of course, as it sold Nessa's—and whatever else it could procure, often on extended credit. Koester might be temperamental or erratic, but he knew his store needed product the same way his label needed new releases. He bought cutouts to sell at a discount, used collections of vinyl or 78s, and eventually the assets of long-gone imprints such as United, Pearl, Aristocrat, and Sackville, which had catalogs of artists only a deep diver like Koester would recognize as valuable.
- Bob Koester in his Delmark Records office in 2003
- MICHAEL JACKSON
Delmark and the Record Mart always seemed to run on a frayed shoestring. Bruce Kaplan of Flying Fish Records used to say he'd studied Koester's business plan carefully, so he could do the opposite. But Delmark has outlasted Flying Fish, which after Kaplan's death in 1992 was acquired by Rounder Records (and Rounder in turn was swallowed by Concord in 2010). Once-proud Chicago jazz labels Argo, Bee Hive, Black Patti, Bluebird, Cadet, Ebony, El Saturn, and Mercury are gone. Premonition seems to be on hiatus; Okka Disk and 482 Music have left town.
Southport, Aerophonic, Blujazz, Corbett vs. Dempsey, and International Anthem arguably embrace the Delmark model of low production costs and heavy reliance on self-sufficient ensembles led by locals. Respectfully and amicably bought in 2018 by musicians Julia A. Miller and Elbio Barilari, Delmark continues to operate from offices on Rockwell, following the open-minded, tradition-grounded aesthetic Koester established—though it has embraced technology and platform diversity (including licensing deals with streaming services) as a means to sustain its recording endeavors.
Chicago blues labels Blind Pig, Red Beans, Earwig, and the Sirens all formed well aware of Koester's successes with west-side bluesmen Magic Sam, Luther Allison, Jimmy Dawkins, Jimmy Johnson, Otis Rush, Lonnie Brooks, and J.B. Hutto. They recognized his commitment to harmonica player Carey Bell and his guitar-slinging son, Lurrie, among other up-and-comers Delmark recorded more than once. Fans everywhere acknowledge Koester's significant documentation of postwar blues and boogie pianists, whose deep Chicago roots had been overlooked by Chess and Vee-Jay, Delmark's immediate local predecessors.
Indeed, Delmark's very first LP release was the 1961 album The Dirty Dozens by pianist Speckled Red, recorded in Saint Louis by Erwin Helfer, who's since become Chicago's dean of blues, boogie, and roots piano. (He's also a former Koester friend, and has nothing good to say today about a man he claims denigrated his talent, strung him along about recording, and once shook his hand while Koester's own hand dripped with barbecue sauce—which Helfer promptly smeared on Koester's shirt.) Albums of piano blues from Roosevelt Sykes, Sunnyland Slim, Otis Spann (with Junior Wells), Little Brother Montgomery (on a late-career recording by classic 1920s blues singer Edith Wilson), and others followed.
Bob once confided to me that he and his bride had spent their honeymoon night parsing Red's famously salacious lyrics. No doubt he lied, though he had in fact met the future Susan Koester because she was a customer at the Jazz Record Mart—one who took Bob up on his offer, freely made to many, to tour south-side blues clubs with him at a time when few white people did so. As Bob liked to put it: "I always say my wife fell in love with Junior Wells and settled for me." It seems most likely that this woman, who lived with him for 54 years, with whom he had two children, and who is believed throughout her circle of acquaintances to possess a saintly calm, patience, and sagacity, fell for his directness, spontaneity, and enthusiasm for all sorts of musical languages, even if he wasn't fluent in them. He always found ways to express himself.
"We went to some parties of the AACM musicians," she remembers, "and I got the feeling the guys like Joseph Jarman and Anthony Braxton really liked Bob. They saw him as a complete nonracist. Bob was just Bob, and expected everybody to be that way."
The thing is: Bob Koester really loved hearing blues and jazz, and he had strong opinions about players famous and obscure, most of whom he'd seen onstage. He loved going out to hear music regardless of where the clubs were or who they catered to, though he could be sarcastic about "whitey" fashionably "discovering" Black music. He complained in the Internet age about the Napster generation's assertion that "Music should be free!" He was always expected at jazz events—he showed up in Hyde Park for the AACM's 50th-anniversary extravaganza in 2015, when he was already well into his 80s—and of course for many years he had a Jazz Record Mart tent at the Chicago Jazz Festival.
Bob Koester became a model, positive or otherwise, and provided opportunities for musicians as well as for nascent producers, critics, and visual artists. Perhaps in spite of himself, he created a space where communities, cadres, and coteries coalesced.
- Bob Koester outside the Jazz Record Mart's final location, at 27 E. Illinois, in 2009
- MICHAEL JACKSON
During Josh Berman's tenure, other clerks included reedist Keefe Jackson, vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, drummer Frank Rosaly, guitarist Joel Patterson, drummer Nathan Greer, and guitarist Steve Dawson; among Koester's employees in earlier eras were Jazz Showcase founder Joe Segal, harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite, keyboardist and producer Pete Wingfield, guitarist Mike Bloomfield, and pianist Miguel de la Cerna, whose parents had run a newstand at Grand and State. Besides Nessa and Iglauer, future producers Pete Crawford, Steve Dolins, Dick Sherman, and Steve Wagner worked with, for, or around Delmark, where many of them learned their way around a recording studio. John Litweiler, J.B. Figi, and Terry Martin wrote important liner notes for Delmark, introducing the AACM to the world. George Hansen drew hilarious cartoon album art, and D. Shigley and Marc PoKempner took cover photos for the label.
Cliques formed at the Jazz Record Mart, and love affairs no doubt started there. But it was mostly a place to go to listen, browse, and have a chat about music, art, Chicago, life, the weather, the mayor, or anything at all with virtually anybody. Multiple-horn-playing phenomenon Rahsaan Roland Kirk would spend a day there, schmoozing easily with shoppers he couldn't see. Singer Betty Carter came in to personally sell her Bet-Car albums, as did Alton Abraham, manager for Sun Ra, with a new batch of platters from the boss. Delmark artists showed up for payments. DJs and presenters bumped into each other.
"I met so many people I would never have met," Berman says. "The Mart was downtown-ish, between the north side and south side, so there was a lot of intermingling. White folks, Black folks, young guys, old guys, women, students, tourists, postmen, cops, annoying people, fantastic people . . . How would you get that today? I have no idea. We were lucky."
Such luck is still possible. When Koester had a stroke in early December 2020 that landed him in the hospital for a month (and from which he never really recovered), his son, Bob Jr., took over Bob's Blues & Jazz Mart. He plans to keep it open. "I didn't realize he was that interested," says Susan Koester, Bob Jr.'s mother. "But he says he is. I guess retail's in our blood."
I had first met Bob Koester Sr. in 1966, on my 16th birthday, lured by a small ad promising post-Christmas discounts across Jazz Record Mart's whole inventory. I'd hung around there throughout my teens, sweeping the floor, going out for coffee or pizza when sent, filing, or selling—and sopping up as much about music, musicians, and music lovers as I could. I worked there formally for a year or so after college in the early 70s, and throughout the decades I'd return to say hi, buy a couple records, check out the scene. Bob would always tell me I'd gotten fat—definitely so, compared to when he first knew me.
- Bob Koester in 2018 with Reader account executive Leni Manaa-Hoppenworth (lower left) and publisher Tracy Baim
- LENI MANAA-HOPPENWORTH
In the past five years, as Koester coped with his increasingly undependable memory, he didn't always recognize me. I'd identify myself, and then he'd tell me again that I'd gotten fat. But the last time I stopped in at Bob's Blues & Jazz Mart, before the pandemic, I pushed through the door and he looked up and said, "Welcome home." He might have said the same to anyone attracted to or immersed in Chicago's jazz and blues worlds. It was perfectly true. v
Tags: Music Feature, Bob Koester, Bob Koester Jr., Jazz Record Mart, Record Mart, Delmark Records, Susan Koester, Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell, Lester Bowie, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Chuck Nessa, Nessa Records, Bruce Iglauer, Alligator Records, Sleepy John Estes, Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, AACM, Clancy Hayes, jazz, blues, trad jazz, obituary, Wolfgang’s Vault, Bob’s Blues & Jazz Mart, Kent Richmond, Rose Records, Jim DeJong, Living Blues, Arvella Gray, Big Joe Williams, Washboard Hank, Tower Records, Jazz Institute of Chicago, Chicago Jazz Festival, Richard Wang, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Hoodoo Man Blues, Levels and Degrees of Light, Numbers 1&2, Hound Dog Taylor, Bruce Kaplan, Flying Fish Records, Southport Records, Aerophonic, International Anthem, Blujazz, Corbett vs. Dempsey, Julia A. Miller, Elbio Barilari, the Sirens, Blind Pig, Red Beans, Earwig, Magic Sam, Luther Allison, Jimmy Dawkins, Jimmy Johnson, Otis Rush, Lonnie Brooks, J.B. Hutto, Carey Bell, Lurrie Bell, The Dirty Dozens, Speckled Red, Erwin Helfer, Roosevelt Sykes, Sunnyland Slim, Otis Spann, Little Brother Montgomery, Edith Wilson, Joseph Jarman, Anthony Braxton, Josh Berman, Keefe Jackson, Jason Adasiewicz, Frank Rosaly, Joel Patterson, Nathan Greer, Steve Dawson, Jazz Showcase, Joe Segal, Charlie Musselwhite, Pete Wingfield, Mike Bloomfield, Miguel de la Cerna, Pete Crawford, Steve Dolins, Dick Sherman, Steve Wagner, John Litweiler, J.B. Figi, Terry Martin, George Hansen, D. Shigley, Marc PoKempner, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Betty Carter, Bet-Car, Alton Abraham, Sun Ra
Bob Koester, who ran Chicago’s Jazz Record Mart, Delmark Records for decades, has died
His store drew legions of jazz and blues fans from around the world. His devotion to the music boosted the genres alive and helped make recordings accessible.
Bob Koester, longtime owner of Chicago’s legendary Jazz Record Mart and founder of the Delmark record label, died Wednesday at 88.
His store drew legions of jazz and blues fans from around the world. His devotion to the music boosted the genres alive and helped make recordings accessible.
Bruce Iglauer, founder of Chicago’s Alligator Records label, has called Mr. Koester “the spiritual godfather of a whole generation of entrepreneurs who put the music ahead of the money.
“Bob deserves a tremendous amount of credit for the popularity of blues in America today, much more credit than he’s ever been given,” Iglauer told the Chicago Sun-Times in 1993. “Without Bob, not only would Alligator not have happened but Living Blues magazine wouldn’t have happened because a bunch of us who hung out at the Record Mart started that. Probably Flying Fish” — another Chicago record label — “wouldn’t have happened because [founder] Bruce Kaplan was part of that crowd, too.”
“He was a one-of-a-kind guy,” his friend John Holden said. “He probably brought more to the Chicago music scene than any other individual in the last 50 years.”
Mr. Koester, who previously had had a stroke, was in hospice care, according to a relative who confirmed his death.
Mr. Koester ran the Jazz Record Mart for decades at various downtown locations, calling it the “World’s Largest Jazz and Blues Specialty Store.” He said high rent contributed to his decision to close in 2016, when the store was at 29 W. Illinois St.
The same year, he opened Bob’s Blues & Jazz Mart at 3419 W. Irving Park Rd., which hosted live concerts and an 87th birthday celebration for him last year.
Born in Wichita, Kansas, Mr. Koester sold records from his dorm room before dropping out of St. Louis University. He and a partner started the Blue Note record shop in that city in 1952, “and we stole the Blue Note label logo for our sign,” he once told the Sun-Times.
A year after opening that record store, he founded Delmark, which grew into a significant label that recorded stars including Junior Wells, Otis Rush, Magic Sam and Big Joe Williams. It also reissued work by artists including Dinah Washington.
“I felt that, if I was going to operate a jazz store, I would do it from the ground floor and do it from a major market,” he said in the Sun-Times interview. “I decided, if I’m going to deal with discounting, I’d better go to Chicago. I moved here in August 1958.”
The following year, he bought Seymour’s Jazz Record Mart at 439 S. Wabash Ave. Over the years, he operated at different locations before reopening on Irving Park Road. He sold Delmark in 2018.
He knew plenty of jazz greats but also a few rock legends. Friends said Mr. Koester told them he was responsible for the name of Iggy Pop’s band, the Stooges. According to the story, Pop had been staying with him when Mr. Koester woke up one night and heard him and his musician buddies playing loud music and bouncing off the furniture in his home. As The New York Times later wrotet, he threw them out, shouting, “ ‘You guys are a bunch of stooges.’ ”
He acknowledged he could be irascible at times. He’d sometimes admonish customers to close the store’s front door so the heat wouldn’t escape.
A fan of classic Hollywood movies, he’d invite friends to his home for screenings from his extensive film collection.
“I wanted to be a movie cameraman, but I got seduced by the music,” he told the Sun-Times.
And though he was a member of the Blues Hall of Fame, he remained self-effacing.
Holden said he would explain his legacy by saying: “I recognized good talent when I heard it.”
The guiding light for many of us on the Chicago blues scene has passed on, RIP Bob Koester. Bob and his Jazz Record Mart/Delmark Records has given information and inspiration to generations of music lovers here in Chicago and around the world. Job well done my friend.
Rick Kreher : The guiding light for many of us on the Chicago blues scene has passed on, RIP Bob Koester. Bob and his Jazz Record Mart/Delmark Records has given information and inspiration to generations of music lovers here in Chicago and around the world. Job well done my friend.
Bob Koester - May He Rest In Peace!
I just got word that Bob Koester has passed on.
I started communicating with Bob in the spring of 1964 via the Jazz Record Mart . When I asked Bob about acquiring some Freddie Keppard and Louis Armstrong records Bob wrote back that he did indeed have some old Freddie Keppard shellac 78s and then Bob advised me to get hip to Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. When I moved to Chicago in 1970 Bob and his wife Sue were the first people to welcome me into the Blues Family/Fraternity.
RIP--I met Bob in Memphis at the Blues Awards Show. This elderly man was next to me at the bar and started a conversation. He found out I was from KC and he was excited as he knew the area well. He introduced me to his entire family, too. Then I saw him receive his award. What a nice man and experienc
Tom: "A Record Man..." Delmark was a touchstone for my young ears, beginning with that first Magic Sam LP, & from there onward. He stopped by our shop on Delmar Blvd here(where his first store was) in the middle 1980s, and it was great to meet him in person---especially when he praised our blues section. 10 years later I enjoyed his company in Atlanta, and I send my condolences to Bob's family.
Bob Koester, known for his famed Jazz Record Mart and founder of Delmark Records, dies at 88
Bob Koester, founder of Delmark Records, the oldest indie label for jazz and blues in the U.S., died Wednesday from complications from a stroke. He was 88.
Koester also ran a retail space, the Jazz Record Mart, that was a fixture and destination point for music lovers, occupying several different downtown Chicago locations before closing in 2016. Almost immediately afterward, Koester would open a new store called Bob’s Blues & Jazz Mart on W. Irving Park Rd.
“When you’ve spent most of your life in the record business, how do you celebrate your 84th birthday? By opening a record store, of course,” Tribune jazz critic Howard Reich wrote at the time, noting that when Chicago bluesman Eddie C. Campbell arrived for the grand opening, “there was no question that musical royalty was paying homage to a man who has championed blues and jazz for more than half a century.”
Born in 1932 in Wichita, Kansas, Koester attended college at St. Louis University before moving to Chicago in the late 1950s and opening his first store.
Alligator Records founder and president Bruce Iglauer was a longtime friend and colleague, and described Koester as “an incredible hero of blues and jazz recording. Junior Wells cut an album for him in 1966 called ‘Hoodoo Man Blues,’ which was the first album ever by a working Chicago blues band. So instead of trying to make singles for the radio, he was making albums that documented what musicians were doing every night. It’s a landmark recording because it’s the first capturing of Chicago blues club music.”
Reich, who retired from the Tribune earlier this year, echoed those sentiments about Koester’s influence. “Bob Koester was a hugely important and singular figure in Chicago jazz and blues,” he said. “It’s hard to even quantify how much important music he recorded, from blues legends like Junior Wells and Magic Sam to Otis Rush, to all these innovative musicians from the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, who were these Chicago music revolutionaries who formed in 1965 and redefined what jazz could be for the whole world. If Bob had not recorded these people at that time, we wouldn’t have these sounds, because the major labels were not interested in that. Whereas Bob Koester was there, documenting it. And that music he recorded went on to become vastly influential in world music. So as a recording executive, his influence is unquantifiable.
“But then too, he had his record store, which he bought in 1959 and it just grew and grew and grew. Before the internet, when you couldn’t just get anything at the touch of a keystroke, you had to go to the Jazz Record Mart to see what he had. It was thousands and thousands of recordings, obscurities and classics. And a lot of people who went on to become noteworthy musicians worked at the Jazz Record Mart during their salad days.”
The record store was also where Koester would meet his future wife, Susan. “When it was located at 7 W. Grand, I was working at the American Medical Association, which was across the street, and I used to hang out at the record store on my lunch hour,” she said. “I was aware that he had recorded Junior Wells and I wanted to go out to Theresa’s Lounge and hear Junior. And then I found out that Bob took blues fans to the South and West Sides every Friday and Saturday night to hear music, so I went out with him and a group. That was probably our first date. I just thought he had a great sense of humor.”
The couple were married for 53 years. At home, Koester would edit albums, but those weekly outings would continue even after he and Susan got married and had their two children, Bob Jr. and Kate.
“In fact, we had a babysitter hired for Saturday nights and she would stay all night because the tours usually lasted until 3 or 4 in the morning,” Susan said. “We’d find the clubs that closed late, and then afterward we would go to Maxwell St. for food. These were people from all over the world and they would stay overnight at our house — some of them wrote to us in advance, and some of them had just wandered into the store and wanted to go out — and by the time we would get home at the end of the night, they would have this look of nirvana on their face.”
Iglauer was a college student in Wisconsin when he first read about Koester in a folk music magazine in the mid-60s. “It was a review of a bunch of blues records and at the end it said, ‘If you ever get to Chicago, go to the Jazz Record Mart and find Bob Koester and he will take you to hear this music live.’ So I talked my college into booking a blues band and then I talked them into letting me find the band. And based on that, I came to Chicago and went to the very seedy, small Jazz Record Mart, which had a wonderful selection of records but certainly was not a fancy store. And that’s when I met Bob Koester, who became my hero and my father figure in life. Very charismatic guy, incredibly knowledgeable about jazz and blues and perhaps the most opinionated person I ever met.”
Iglauer would end up working for Koester as the Delmark Records shipping clerk. While employed there, “I couldn’t convince Bob to record my favorite band, so I started my own record label. I’m not the only person who started a record label while working for Bob Koester, and for the most part he was gracious about the competition. Surprisingly so. Bob kept me on the payroll for about eight months after I released my first record, even though I was competing with him.”
The music industry has gone through so many changes over the last two decades — specifically a shift away from physical media — and Koester “was not happy that you could just get everything on the internet now,” Susan said. “He liked having a record you could hold in your hands and read the liner notes. I guess that’s why he was still working at his store as recently as November.
“When we sold his store downtown, I said, ‘Don’t you want to retire now?’ and he said, ‘No, I never want to retire.’ He loved the back and forth with customers. People would come in looking for something particular and he would try to turn them on to something else that might be similar that he thought might be more important for them to listen to.”
The store on Irving Park Rd. will remain open. “Bob Jr. has taken it over now,” said Susan.
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