Bob Koester's six decades of jazz and blues, Chicago style. I read this article in the Chicago Tribune earlier this week. On May 14, 2013, by Tribune
Let's raise a glass to Bob Koester, the single-minded Chicagoan who this weekendcelebrates 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.
[bloggers note - I find that hard to grasp. Vinyl record collectors - who he sells to from his store on not the folks who download song files. They would be the last people to do that - since what they (we) collect are - Vinyl Records. I think Koester equating why his record business (the store and or the label) and the technology that allows for downloading is faulty.]
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.