Bob Koester's six decades of jazz and blues, Chicago style

Bob Koester

Bob Koester owner of the Jazz Record Mart. (May 14, 2013)

Let's raise a glass to Bob Koester, the single-minded Chicagoan who this weekend celebrates a remarkable anniversary: 60 years of producing jazz and blues recordings.

Koester's Delmark Records may not be the biggest indie in the country – or even in Chicago – but it's widely acknowledged as the longest continually running jazz-blues label in the country. Beyond this feat of endurance, Delmark has had an outsized impact on music across Chicago and around the world.

If you've ever listened to Junior Wells' "Hoodoo Man Blues" or Magic Sam's "West Side Soul," landmark albums of the mid-1960s, you owe a thank-you to Koester, who recorded them. At about the same time, Delmark began to cut groundbreaking recordings by members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a Chicago collective that altered the course of jazz.

Were it not for Koester, Bruce Iglauer's Alligator Records, Michael Frank's Earwig Music label, Chuck Nessa's Nessa Records, Jim O'Neal's Rooster Records and Living Blues magazine might not have emerged, for all these individuals, and others, got their start working for the master.

Have you ever picked up a hard-to-find recording or rare boxed set at the Jazz Record Mart? Yes, Koester founded that, too, and still runs it.

Add it up, and the resume is somewhat mind-boggling.

"I think I started with a boggled mind right away," says Koester, whose label will celebrate the anniversary with concerts Sunday and June 2 at the Old Town School of Folk Music's Szold Hall. "You have to have a boggled mind to get into this business – more today than when I started."

Certainly a lot has changed since Koester began making recordings in St. Louis in 1953 and re-settled here five years later. He sums up the most recent troubles in a single word: download. Illegal downloading has reduced his record business to "about a third of what was in the old days," he says. And by old days, he means just before the good old 1990s.

It's the Jazz Record Mart – with its unmatched inventory of CDs and historic LPs at 27 E. Illinois St. – that keeps Delmark alive, says Koester. Yet he never has considered pulling the plug on the venerable label.

"I'm stubborn," says Koester, who turned 80 in October. "If I wanted to quit tomorrow, what would I do with a building of inventory and a studio?"

Instead, Koester toils six days a week, dividing his time between the label and the record store, two institutions as intertwined with this city's cultural identity as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra or the Lyric Opera of Chicago, though a tad less affluent and celebrated.

"It's so huge, it's hard for me to summarize what Bob has achieved," says Alligator Records founder Iglauer. "He's an absolutely crucial source in documenting and in creating an audience for acoustic and electric blues, jazz of all eras – some of the most challenging jazz that Chicago has created.

"'Hoodoo Man Blues' was the first album by a working electric Chicago blues band – it helped define the sound of contemporary Chicago blues in the mid-1960s in a way that really hadn't been done before. He was absolutely crucial in the founding of Living Blues magazine – he mentored those of us who were the original editorial staff and literally loaned us the money to start the magazine."

Koester estimates that Delmark's volume has dropped about 70 percent compared to 15 years ago, even including the revenue the label generates from legal downloads. But, clearly, Koester never has been in this for the money. A mega-seller for Delmark approaches 10,000 copies, and that's rare; if Koester moves 2,000, he considers himself happy. Or, as he once put it to me, "Hey, you know my motto: 'There's always room at the bottom.'"

But there's a business model in here somewhere. In essence, "I keep two sets of books," says Koester. "One in my head and one for the IRS."

He does not mean that he's withholding any information from the tax collector but, instead, that he amortizes his recordings – in his head – over the course of vast stretches of time. So even if he loses money on a release in the first few years, the classic nature of many of Delmark's albums means they might generate income literally decades later. Wells' "Hoodoo Man Blues" still sells about 6,000 copies a year (4,000 CDs, 2,000 LPs), producing revenue to support more recent loss leaders.

Moreover, licensing of Delmark recordings can bring sudden windfalls for the label and the artists, alike. The 1985 movie "To Live and Die in L.A.," for instance, used what Koester calls "four needle-drops" – quick snippets of Delmark records – and paid approximately $20,000 for the privilege. That's a pittance by Hollywood standards but a jackpot for Delmark, the funds enabling Koester to acquire the inventory of other labels that had gone out of business.

This delicate, intricate financial ecosystem has made it possible for Koester to record everything from jazz visionaries such as Muhal Richard Abrams and Ken Vandermark to jazz conservators such as ragtime genius Reginald Robinson and the Fat Babies; from vintage blues masters such as Speckled Red and Big Joe Williams to later figures such as Big Time Sarah and Dave Specter.

If there are far fewer stores and distributors than there used to be, if the business has "gotten tougher in recent years than it ever has been," that does not seem to have diminished Koester's desire to document and proselytize for jazz and blues. On the contrary, the increased adversity only seems to have intensified Koester's commitment to music he has dedicated his life to.

He points out that after the first couple of years that a record has been out, artists often sell more albums from the bandstand than on the world record market, a source of revenue that has become increasingly important in recent years.

As he looks back on 60 years in the music business, he says, "I'm sort of proud of the artists that we've recorded and brought on to better things." He cites "Hoodoo Man Blues" and "West Side Soul" as particularly meaningful achievements, and not only because both maintain "stupendous" sales (by indie label standards).

"What bothers me is that other Junior Wells records, which I think are just as good, don't sell nearly as well," adds Koester. "One's doing 6,000, the other is doing 400."

As for the future, Koester harbors no illusions. He's "not terribly" optimistic about the business, he says, but that doesn't mean the sky is falling, either.

"I think we can survive," he says. "I think it'll carry on after I'm gone, at least for awhile.

"The family," adds Koester, referring to his wife Sue and son Bob, both of whom work alongside him, "might want to sell it. I tell them to do whatever you want.

"I'm not going to retire. To what – watch television?"

Decidedly not.

"Delmark Records 60th Anniversary Celebration" features Big Tim Sarah & the BTS Express, with guests Demetria Taylor and Sharon Lewis, 6:30 p.m. Sunday; and the Linsey Alexander Blues Band with guest Willie Buck at 6:30 p.m. June 2; at the Old Town School of Folk Music's Szold Hall, 4545 N. Lincoln Ave.; $20; 773-728-6000 or oldtownschool.org.

To read more from Howard Reich, go to chicagotribune.com/reich.

hreich@tribune.com | Twitter @howardreich

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