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.
Remembering Delmark Records Founder Bob Koester
NPR’s Scott Simon remembers Bob Koester, founder of the indie jazz and blues label Delmark Records, who died this week at the age of 88.