Bob Koester, who died May 12 at age 88, knew what he liked—and what you should like too. For nearly 70 years, he owned Chicago’s Jazz Record Mart (and the Delmark label), and it was completely in character for him to snatch an album from the hands of an earnest young shopper.
In 1968, that shopper was me—I’d picked up a copy of Muhal Richard Abrams‘s debut LP, Levels and Degrees of Light, whose surreal cover painting and saturated colors promised something exotic and strange made right here. I was more than eager to hear it, but Koester—still black-haired, wearing glasses, not graceful, not yet 40—had other ideas. “You can’t understand that,” he insisted from behind the cash register, flapping the Abrams LP in my face, “if you haven’t heard this.” He thrust out The Legend of Sleepy John Estes, adorned with a photo of an old Black man with a guitar that looked like something from Picasso’s Blue Period.
He slid the Estes LP onto the turntable that was the throbbing heart of his warrenlike storefront, then located on Grand at State, upstairs from an el station and between a steam-table diner and a currency exchange. Out came the ancient voice of Sleepy John, groaning about mean rats in his kitchen, while he picked limply at his instrument with backing that sounded like a jug band—exactly the type of folksy stuff I wanted to ignore. I capitulated to Koester and bought it to get the Abrams album, and I listened dutifully to both. Eventually I caught on. The breadth of the Jazz Record Mart’s inventory and of the Delmark Records roster (the label had released both the Estes and the Abrams) spoke to Koester’s capacious but not indiscriminate taste.
Though the JRM’s turntable was presumably there to allow potential buyers to sample sounds before laying down as much as $6 for a new stereo release, Koester frequently disregarded his patrons’ requests to play what he was interested in. He loved the guitar-wielding elders of the Delta blues who’d interested him growing up in Wichita, Kansas, when they provided relief from the white country crooners dominating the area’s radio broadcasts, and he was open to the exploratory and sometimes abstract ideas of the newly formed Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, to whom he’d been introduced by onetime JRM manager Chuck Nessa. But he really favored trad jazz, and he often treated JRM shoppers—representing Chicagoans of every stripe—to music that at the time seemed corny to me. Banjoist Clancy Hayes and his band the Salty Dogs were not universally appreciated.
Koester didn’t care. His approach to retail was idiosyncratic, to say the least—the opposite of Marshall Field’s dictum that the customer is always right. And as it went at the Jazz Record Mart, so did it too at the label financed by the store’s sales. He hired people who contributed their own energies to both, but it was Bob’s empire, and he ran it his way.
Considering the vast amount of good his operations have done for Chicago’s blues and jazz scenes since he moved here from Saint Louis in 1958—good that is now continuing past his death—Koester’s point of view clearly had advantages.
It also had disadvantages, and Reader critic Peter Margasak detailed some of them in 2016, when Koester sold the JRM name and inventory to online collectors’ mecca Wolfgang’s Vault. (Having left expensive downtown real estate behind, two months later Koester opened a shop called Bob’s Blues & Jazz Mart on Irving Park at Kimball.) Bob had arcane protocols for stock control, for Scotch-taping bags, for seemingly everything. Cornetist Josh Berman, who worked in various capacities at the JRM from 1992 to 2009, remembers, “It was crazy town—I don’t think Bob would deny it. He could be very funny about that stuff.”
Kent Richmond, the final JRM manager (he’d come from shuttered rival Rose Records), was shocked and frustrated that Bob’s store tracked merchandise with notations on index cards rather than a computer program, and that despite significant mail-order business Koester was disinterested in building a functional JRM website. Bob rarely took out ads, though he made exceptions for the Reader and for Living Blues, which he’d supported from its launch in 1970. His method of promotion consisted primarily of mailing out a printed newsletter and an obsessively annotated catalog. Still, store and label survived, even thrived.
Koester wasn’t always in the shop, and his more consumer-sensitive employees frequently played major roles in creating the ambience that made the JRM an information center and cultural crossroads as well as a moneymaker. Back in the Grand Avenue days, long before the Jazz Record Mart occupied the most upscale of its several locations (at 444 N. Wabash, across from where Trump Tower now stands), gospel-singing blind guitarist Arvella Gray stood outside the front door busking, and Big Joe Williams or Washboard Hank perched just inside on a stool, kibitzing with anybody who came in. Manager Jim DeJong stuck music obituaries and reviews clipped from newspapers to the walls over the record bins, and he also became a trusted source of information on who was performing when and where, including at venues far from the Rush Street entertainment district—editorial assistants would call him for their music listings.
DeJong, who later ran the jazz department at the Clark Street location of Tower Records, sold music differently than Koester, developing insights into what people wanted and might enjoy exploring further. Koester had slight interest in commercial trends and seldom stocked white or Black pop, rock, and R&B, but when it seemed like everyone coming up the subway steps or getting off the bus in front of the Jazz Record Mart needed Curtis Mayfield’s Super Fly, DeJong kept a box of the LPs under the counter, next to a stack of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue to offer the uninitiated. Koester was fine with that, and with DeJong’s to-the-penny accounting, though he’d sometimes mess up his manager’s buying plans by appearing before a late-Friday bank deposit to raid the store’s weekly income so he could cover a Delmark recording session or some personal expense.
“When we made a record, the Record Mart had to stop buying or not pay the rent,” Koester said with a chuckle during a 2018 video interview for the archives of the Jazz Institute of Chicago, which he’d helped found a half century before. That chuckle suggests he knew he was playing fast and loose, but such self-awareness didn’t turn him into a good businessman or boss. Tales persist of Koester dressing down employees in public or firing them capriciously (as he did DeJong), and he could be rude or crude around bystanders. But people devoted to jazz and blues as a lifestyle stuck with Koester (or were stuck with him), drawn into his orbit by his mix of entrepreneurship and blunt, irrepressible energies.
One of those people was Chuck Nessa, hired to manage the Record Mart in 1965 for $50 per week. He wanted to learn how to make jazz records. Koester believed that the independent labels of the 30s and 40s had “missed bebop” due to their moldy-fig attitudes, and in Nessa he saw a way to help Delmark avoid that mistake. He urged his manager to scout for new music and agreed to sign to Delmark three of the Black south-side players who, inspired by the experimental Western classical music introduced to them by Wilson Junior College professor Richard Wang and the iconoclastic jazz coming out of New York City, had just organized themselves as the AACM to focus on original compositions, expanded improvisation, and artistic self-sufficiency.
One year after Koester’s label released Junior Wells‘s debut album, the 1965 Buddy Guy collaboration Hoodoo Man Blues—which spurred Chicago’s second wave of electric blues and is still the imprint’s best seller—Delmark issued Roscoe Mitchell‘s Sound, followed by Joseph Jarman‘s Song For and Abrams’s Levels and Degrees of Light. The production credits read “Robert G. Koester,” but Nessa clarifies: “Though invited, Bob never attended my recording sessions. He said he didn’t really understand the music but felt it was important, that he ‘didn’t speak the language’ and that he might be a distraction.”
Those albums were widely critically acclaimed and have since been recognized as historically important, but they didn’t sell well, and Nessa quit a year into his JRM job after becoming the butt of a Koester tantrum. He continued producing records, and Roscoe Mitchell and Lester Bowie wanted to arrange a studio session together. But when Nessa came to the store to broach the idea to Koester, he was thrown out. By the time the recording was completed in summer 1967, Nessa still intended it for Delmark, but after suffering another of Bob’s rants he decided to do it himself. With the release of Numbers 1&2, top-billed by Lester Bowie and featuring a lineup that would develop into the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Nessa Records was born.
Blues label Alligator Records has a comparable origin story: erstwhile Koester acolyte Bruce Iglauer founded it in order to record Hound Dog Taylor, after Bob repeatedly turned the project down. The Jazz Record Mart sold Alligator’s releases, of course, as it sold Nessa’s—and whatever else it could procure, often on extended credit. Koester might be temperamental or erratic, but he knew his store needed product the same way his label needed new releases. He bought cutouts to sell at a discount, used collections of vinyl or 78s, and eventually the assets of long-gone imprints such as United, Pearl, Aristocrat, and Sackville, which had catalogs of artists only a deep diver like Koester would recognize as valuable.
Delmark and the Record Mart always seemed to run on a frayed shoestring. Bruce Kaplan of Flying Fish Records used to say he’d studied Koester’s business plan carefully, so he could do the opposite. But Delmark has outlasted Flying Fish, which after Kaplan’s death in 1992 was acquired by Rounder Records (and Rounder in turn was swallowed by Concord in 2010). Once-proud Chicago jazz labels Argo, Bee Hive, Black Patti, Bluebird, Cadet, Ebony, El Saturn, and Mercury are gone. Premonition seems to be on hiatus; Okka Disk and 482 Music have left town.
Southport, Aerophonic, Blujazz, Corbett vs. Dempsey, and International Anthem arguably embrace the Delmark model of low production costs and heavy reliance on self-sufficient ensembles led by locals. Respectfully and amicably bought in 2018 by musicians Julia A. Miller and Elbio Barilari, Delmark continues to operate from offices on Rockwell, following the open-minded, tradition-grounded aesthetic Koester established—though it has embraced technology and platform diversity (including licensing deals with streaming services) as a means to sustain its recording endeavors.
Chicago blues labels Blind Pig, Red Beans, Earwig, and the Sirens all formed well aware of Koester’s successes with west-side bluesmen Magic Sam, Luther Allison, Jimmy Dawkins, Jimmy Johnson, Otis Rush, Lonnie Brooks, and J.B. Hutto. They recognized his commitment to harmonica player Carey Bell and his guitar-slinging son, Lurrie, among other up-and-comers Delmark recorded more than once. Fans everywhere acknowledge Koester’s significant documentation of postwar blues and boogie pianists, whose deep Chicago roots had been overlooked by Chess and Vee-Jay, Delmark’s immediate local predecessors.
Indeed, Delmark’s very first LP release was the 1961 album The Dirty Dozens by pianist Speckled Red, recorded in Saint Louis by Erwin Helfer, who’s since become Chicago’s dean of blues, boogie, and roots piano. (He’s also a former Koester friend, and has nothing good to say today about a man he claims denigrated his talent, strung him along about recording, and once shook his hand while Koester’s own hand dripped with barbecue sauce—which Helfer promptly smeared on Koester’s shirt.) Albums of piano blues from Roosevelt Sykes, Sunnyland Slim, Otis Spann (with Junior Wells), Little Brother Montgomery (on a late-career recording by classic 1920s blues singer Edith Wilson), and others followed.
Bob once confided to me that he and his bride had spent their honeymoon night parsing Red’s famously salacious lyrics. No doubt he lied, though he had in fact met the future Susan Koester because she was a customer at the Jazz Record Mart—one who took Bob up on his offer, freely made to many, to tour south-side blues clubs with him at a time when few white people did so. As Bob liked to put it: “I always say my wife fell in love with Junior Wells and settled for me.” It seems most likely that this woman, who lived with him for 54 years, with whom he had two children, and who is believed throughout her circle of acquaintances to possess a saintly calm, patience, and sagacity, fell for his directness, spontaneity, and enthusiasm for all sorts of musical languages, even if he wasn’t fluent in them. He always found ways to express himself.
“We went to some parties of the AACM musicians,” she remembers, “and I got the feeling the guys like Joseph Jarman and Anthony Braxton really liked Bob. They saw him as a complete nonracist. Bob was just Bob, and expected everybody to be that way.”
The thing is: Bob Koester really loved hearing blues and jazz, and he had strong opinions about players famous and obscure, most of whom he’d seen onstage. He loved going out to hear music regardless of where the clubs were or who they catered to, though he could be sarcastic about “whitey” fashionably “discovering” Black music. He complained in the Internet age about the Napster generation’s assertion that “Music should be free!” He was always expected at jazz events—he showed up in Hyde Park for the AACM’s 50th-anniversary extravaganza in 2015, when he was already well into his 80s—and of course for many years he had a Jazz Record Mart tent at the Chicago Jazz Festival.
Bob Koester became a model, positive or otherwise, and provided opportunities for musicians as well as for nascent producers, critics, and visual artists. Perhaps in spite of himself, he created a space where communities, cadres, and coteries coalesced.
During Josh Berman’s tenure, other clerks included reedist Keefe Jackson, vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, drummer Frank Rosaly, guitarist Joel Patterson, drummer Nathan Greer, and guitarist Steve Dawson; among Koester’s employees in earlier eras were Jazz Showcase founder Joe Segal, harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite, keyboardist and producer Pete Wingfield, guitarist Mike Bloomfield, and pianist Miguel de la Cerna, whose parents had run a newstand at Grand and State. Besides Nessa and Iglauer, future producers Pete Crawford, Steve Dolins, Dick Sherman, and Steve Wagner worked with, for, or around Delmark, where many of them learned their way around a recording studio. John Litweiler, J.B. Figi, and Terry Martin wrote important liner notes for Delmark, introducing the AACM to the world. George Hansen drew hilarious cartoon album art, and D. Shigley and Marc PoKempner took cover photos for the label.
Cliques formed at the Jazz Record Mart, and love affairs no doubt started there. But it was mostly a place to go to listen, browse, and have a chat about music, art, Chicago, life, the weather, the mayor, or anything at all with virtually anybody. Multiple-horn-playing phenomenon Rahsaan Roland Kirk would spend a day there, schmoozing easily with shoppers he couldn’t see. Singer Betty Carter came in to personally sell her Bet-Car albums, as did Alton Abraham, manager for Sun Ra, with a new batch of platters from the boss. Delmark artists showed up for payments. DJs and presenters bumped into each other.
“I met so many people I would never have met,” Berman says. “The Mart was downtown-ish, between the north side and south side, so there was a lot of intermingling. White folks, Black folks, young guys, old guys, women, students, tourists, postmen, cops, annoying people, fantastic people . . . How would you get that today? I have no idea. We were lucky.”
Such luck is still possible. When Koester had a stroke in early December 2020 that landed him in the hospital for a month (and from which he never really recovered), his son, Bob Jr., took over Bob’s Blues & Jazz Mart. He plans to keep it open. “I didn’t realize he was that interested,” says Susan Koester, Bob Jr.’s mother. “But he says he is. I guess retail’s in our blood.”
I had first met Bob Koester Sr. in 1966, on my 16th birthday, lured by a small ad promising post-Christmas discounts across Jazz Record Mart’s whole inventory. I’d hung around there throughout my teens, sweeping the floor, going out for coffee or pizza when sent, filing, or selling—and sopping up as much about music, musicians, and music lovers as I could. I worked there formally for a year or so after college in the early 70s, and throughout the decades I’d return to say hi, buy a couple records, check out the scene. Bob would always tell me I’d gotten fat—definitely so, compared to when he first knew me.
In the past five years, as Koester coped with his increasingly undependable memory, he didn’t always recognize me. I’d identify myself, and then he’d tell me again that I’d gotten fat. But the last time I stopped in at Bob’s Blues & Jazz Mart, before the pandemic, I pushed through the door and he looked up and said, “Welcome home.” He might have said the same to anyone attracted to or immersed in Chicago’s jazz and blues worlds. It was perfectly true. v
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that the Jazz Record Mart and Delmark Records have advertised in the Chicago Reader.