Delmark’s dynasty: Chicago label celebrates 50 years

May 9th, 2003

By Mark Guarino

Daily Herald Music Critic

In an era where small labels burn out before they even get fired up, it is magical that Delmark Records is a half-century old.

The Chicago independent celebrates its longevity this month. Not only is it rolling out a four-disc box set of vintage blues and jazz from its vaults, the label is also being toasted through several special events at this year’s blue festival at the end of this month. (A CD release party for the boxed set, plus two separately sold blues and jazz collections is at Buddy Guy’s Legends tonight.)

Delmark monarch Bob Koester is responsible for nurturing an entire generation of blues musicians as well as inspiring vital players in the blues and jazz worlds who would later steer the music in further directions. Koester introduced dignitaries like Junior Wells, Magic Sam, Otis Rush, Big Joe Williams and Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup to the world; he also gave early jobs to burgeoning icons like Charlie Musselwhite and Mike Bloomfield as well as Bruce Iglauer (future Alligator Records president), Michael Frank (future Earwig Records founder) and Jim O’Neal, who would later publish Living Blues Magazine.

Paired with the Jazz Record Mart, the longtime jazz and blues specialty store downtown, Koester’s tiny but mighty empire is a testament to the passion and perseverance it takes to run a small business, especially one built around music. The label is not strictly for aficionados – Delmark spreads the umbrella to include gospel, ragtime, Dixieland, electric and acoustic blues and traditional avant-garde jazz.

“To me, blues is a part of jazz,” Koester says. “Everything comes to jazz and comes from jazz.”

Koester says the entire endeavor is a result of wanting to get out of Wichita, Kan., where, as a kid in the 1940s, he discovered and became enamored with big band swing. That kicked off a lifetime passion for record collecting. He went to St. Louis University to pursue film but ended up running a small record store. And in 1953, he recorded his first session with a local jazz band (Delmark came from Delmar, the street he lived on). He started searching out forgotten blues and jazz players and in 1959 moved his operation to Chicago where he purchased Seymour’s Jazz Record Mart, the city’s only jazz specialty store, for $1,500. The owner wanted to jump ship and play music for a living and Koester saw Chicago as a bigger market for discount wholesaling. Koester would find a rare 78, buy it for a time, then turn it around and sell it for $1.25.

Koester moved the store to 7 W. Grand Ave. in 1963 (it’s now at 11 W. Grand) and finally dropped Seymour’s name from the title (“it came up earlier in the phone book”). The store remains Koester’s “daily bread” since many of Delmark’s 350 titles only sell a few hundred copies. He remains committed to keeping them all in print based on one fact: “it it’s any good, it should stay available.”

“When I came up in Wichita, I heard Jelly Roll Morton, but there were only 10 sides available,” he said. “Even an extremely popular artist like Glen Miller, who was the Elvis Presley of 1941, there were only 16 sides available.

A result of that commitment is a treasure trove of neglected artists who are given a second life. An essential part of Delmark’s catalog are the masters of defunct jazz and blues labels (United, Regal, Apollo and many others) Koester acquired and reissued over the years. His efforts helped keep lost albums by Sun Ra, Memphis Slim and others in print.

When Koester arrived in Chicago, the blues scene “was uncharted.” He started seeking out artists to record but knew you “weren’t going to find them by looking into the Tribune.”

Instead, he went by word of mouth.

“There would be guys playing little bars without signage outside, possibly because they didn’t have a permit,” he said. “One guy tells you about another guy and pretty soon you discover the whole West Side scene.”

Initially Koester record country blues artists like Big Joe Williams, Sleepy John Estes and Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup at a time when folk blues artists were being “rediscovered” by the white folk movement.

In 1965, Koester recorded what became a benchmark in electric blues history: “Hoodoo Man Blues” by Junior Wells and featuring a young Buddy Guy on guitar. The first full-length electric blues band album that put a spotlight on the West Wide scene, it ended up selling a quarter-million copies and remains Delmark’s biggest seller.

The advent of rock helped move blues titles in the late ’69s with some bands like the Grateful Dead covering songs by Koester’s artists. He even had Iggy Pop and the Stooges show up at his doorstep looking for direction.

Artists like Crudup – who wrote Elvis Presley’s hit “That’s All Right” – didn’t necessarily benefit from the exposure.

“Nobody wanted to hire him,” Koester said. “In Boston, where the folk music was booming, they wanted young white guys. It was explained to me it was not racism, it was ageism. A young college kid can identify with a guy up there his age.”

Aside from blues, Delmark is also responsible for documenting Chicago’s avant-garde jazz movement, starting in the late ’60s with members of growing jazz collective Advancement of Creative Musicians. Delmark exposed artists like saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell and trumpeter Malachi Thompson to European audiences. Today the label is home to respected modern jazz players like trumpeter Rob Mazurek, tenor saxophonist Ken Vandermark and Kevin O’Donnell’s Quality Six featuring fiddle playing auteur Andrew Bird.

Delmark’s offices and in-house studio are located at the same North Side warehouse along the Chicago River, although Koester, 72, admits the economy’s been rough and business is down 50 percent from four years ago. The label stopped recording new artists and is renting out its studio to make additional income. He insists on remaining independent, although he’s received many buy-out offers over the years.

“I guess I’m a snotty little guy who wants to have his own way,” he said. He has no plans to retire.

He expects to continue teaching whoever wants to learn about the music that guided his life.

“It was amusing. Yesterday someone came into the Jazz Record Mart looking for the Smashing Pumpkins,” he said. “I had to tell her we don’t sell rock ‘n’ roll, but I’ll give you the fathers of rock ‘n’ roll.”

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