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NewCityNet Koester's Mark

Delmark Records Turns 45

By Mitch Myers

FEBRUARY 8, 1999:  If you happen to be in the Jazz Record Mart at 444 North Wabash and you see owner Bob Koester, wish him a happy birthday.

Not for him, mind you, although the man did turn 66 recently.

Congratulations should be directed towards his baby, Delmark Records, which is celebrating its 45th year. In a city loaded with small record labels, Delmark is a benevolent granddaddy of sorts. Beginning when there was still a great mystery surrounding jazz and blues, Koester chose the lifestyle and career of promoting the music he loved, a choice he has never regretted.

Born in Wichita, Kansas, Koester attended St. Louis University where he fell in love with traditional jazz. These were the days when 78s were just starting to be replaced by 10" records and Koester began selling old and deleted albums out of his dorm room. The practice of buying and selling the distressed stock of other stores, labels and distributors is one that endures at Delmark and the Jazz Record Mart. If you walk into the store, you're apt to bump into a stack of vinyl selling for one dollar.

Sitting in the Delmark office at 4121 North Rockwell near the corner of Western and Irving Park, Koester's world is far different from when the label, the store and related musical activities all existed under one roof. Down the hall there is the warehouse, a listening room, rooms filled with the master tapes of countless recording sessions and even a studio where jazz singer Francine Griffin and engineer Paul Serrano are listening to her forthcoming Delmark release. While the idea of having both a record company and a record store may sound rather novel, this was not the case when Koester opened. "Ours is pretty much the oldest formula in the jazz world and one that I consciously emulated," Koester admits. "The first jazz label in the United States was Commodore Records which came out of Commodore Music Shop in New York City. Prestige Records had a place called the Jazz Record Corner and their first records were on the Jazz Corner label."

One can imagine that Bob Koester made many musical acquaintances since he first bought Seymour's Jazz Record Mart in 1959. People like Joe Segal (of the Jazz Showcase) were of invaluable help to Koester in those early years, and as time passed almost every jazz and blues musician in the city passed through the Record Mart's doors. Harmonica great Charlie Musslewhite used to work at the JRM and employee Bruce Iglauer eventually formed Alligator Records. In the mid-sixties, an group of advisors consisting of Chuck Nessa, Terry Martin, John Litweiler and Jerry Figi insisted that Koester record the then-fledgling free jazz scene of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Delmark soon released groundbreaking albums by AACM stalwarts like Joseph Jarman and Roscoe Mitchell. "I simply went from my knowledge of the history of jazz. I knew that I was not going to find another Jelly Roll Morton. I loved traditional jazz but if I wanted to get a Louis Armstrong-caliber musician on Delmark it would have to be something new." Not everyone who has hung out at the JRM went on to fame. Strolling down memory lane, Koester mentions forgotten fringe-dwellers like Washboard Hank and Boogie-Woogie John. Still, legend has it that a young man named James Osterberg came to Chicago from Detroit in hopes of becoming a blues drummer and slept in the JRM basement for a time. You may recognize Osterberg by his current stage name, Iggy Pop.

There have been four previous locations (and one satellite) of the JRM before the Wabash site, most notably two on West Grand. While the store grew, Delmark kept releasing records by bluesman like Jimmy Dawkins, Junior Wells and Robert Nighthawk as well as contemporary players like Dave Specter. On the jazz side, Koester has enjoyed essential early releases by Sun Ra, traditional works by George Lewis and Arnett Cobb, and recently acclaimed albums by Ari Brown and Malachi Thompson.

"Essentially, the label is a hobby and the business is for real at 444 N. Wabash." says Koester. "We try to be businesslike here at the label but we're still a little bit subsidized by the store." For a weak sister, Delmark Records doesn't do all that bad. "With the next album release there will be 257 titles in the Delmark catalogue," Koester says with pride. "I'm not going to claim that they are all classic works of art but some of them are and most of them are worth hearing. That's the good side of a jazz label. You don't sell big numbers and you never sell really big numbers and don't even think about the charts". With the Delmark/Jazz Record Mart family thriving and well into its fifth decade, it's clear that life in the music business does not always have to do with making hit records. It can also be about doing something that you simply enjoy.

The 2-CD set, "Delmark Records: 45 Years Of Jazz and Blues" is available at the Jazz Record Mart.

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