Bob Koester, Revered Figure in Jazz and Blues, Dies at 88
Bob Koester, who founded the influential Chicago blues and jazz label Delmark Records and also owned an equally influential record store where players and fans mingled while looking for new and vintage sounds, died Wednesday at a care center in Evanston, Illinois., Near his home in Chicago. He was 88 years old.
His wife, Sue Koester, said the cause was complications from a stroke.
Mr. Koester was a key figure in Chicago and beyond, posting early efforts by Sun Ra, Anthony Braxton, Jimmy Dawkins, Magic Sam, and numerous other jazz and blues musicians. He captured the sound of Chicago’s lively blues scene in the 1960s on records such as Hoodoo Man Blues, a highly admired 1965 album by singer and harmonica player Junior Wells with guitarist Buddy Guy.
“Bob told us,” Play me a record like you played at the club last night, “recalled Guy in a 2009 interview with the New York Times, and somehow caught the electric feeling of a live Performance 1. In 2008 the record was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Around the same time, Delmark took up early examples of avant-garde jazz, which pianist Muhal Richard Abrams and other members of the Chicago Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, founded in 1965, generally proclaimed the high-volume style.
“If he thought something mattered, he wouldn’t think about whether it would sell,” Ms. Koester said over the phone. “He wanted people to hear it and know the meaning.”
Howard Mandel, the jazz critic and author, said in a telephone interview: “He was following his own star. He wasn’t interested in trends at all. “
For decades, Mr. Koester’s record store, Jazz Record Mart, provided enough financial support to allow Delmark to make records that did not sell many copies. The shop was more than a point of sale for Delmark’s artists; It was packed with all kinds of records, many of them from collections Mr. Koester had bought or traded on.
“The place was just an amazing crossroads of people,” said Mr Mandel, who worked there for a while in the early 1970s. Music lovers would look for obscure records; Tourists would come for the reputation of the business; Musicians would come to share stories and ideas.
“Shakey Walter Horton and Ransom Knowling hung out there, and Sunnyland Slim and Homesick James kept dropping by,” harmonica player and bandleader Charlie Musselwhite, who was a clerk at the store in the mid-1960s, told The Times in 2009, rattling the names of some blues musicians. “You never knew what fascinating characters you would wander into, so I always felt like I was in the eye of the storm.”
Mr. Mandel said part of the fun is tapping into Mr. Koestel’s deep reservoir of arcane musical knowledge.
“You’d get into a conversation with him,” he said, “and in ten minutes he was talking about an obscure wormhole on a serial number on a press.”
Ms. Koester said the store held a special place in her husband’s heart – so much so that when he finally closed it in 2016, citing rising rents, he almost immediately opened another, Bob’s Blues and Jazz Mart.
“He loved going to the studio in the days when he picked up Junior Wells and Jimmy Dawkins,” she said, “but retail was in his blood.”
He especially loved talking to customers.
“Often times they would come into the store looking for something,” she said, “and he would point them in another direction.”
Robert Gregg Koester was born on October 30, 1932 in Wichita, Kan. His father Edward was a petroleum geologist and his mother Mary (Frank) Koester was a housewife.
He grew up in Wichita. A 78-rpm record by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in his grandfather’s collection fascinated him when he was young, he said in an oral story recorded by the National Association of Music Merchants in 2017. But, he told Richard Marcus in an interview for blogcritics.com in 2008, further musical exploration is not easy.
“I never liked country music, and when I grew up in Wichita, Kansas, there wasn’t much else,” he said. “The names of these old blues guys – Speckled Red, Pinetop Perkins – had a mystery that made them sound really appealing. Probably something to do with a suppressed Catholic upbringing. “
The college at Saint Louis University, where he enrolled to study cinematography, expanded his musical possibilities.
“My parents didn’t want me to go to school in a big city like New York or Chicago because they didn’t want music to distract me from my studies,” he said. “Unfortunately there were black jazz clubs all over the university.”
He also joined the St. Louis Jazz Club, a jazz recognition group. And he started collecting records, especially traditional jazz 78s, from his dormitory and swapping them. The rapidly growing record business ousted his studies.
“I was with for three years Saint Louie U, ”he said in the oral tradition. “They told me not to come back for a fourth year.”
His dormitory business turned into a business selling both new and used records.
“I would regularly walk all the thrift stores, Father Dempsey’s charities, go to places like this, and buy used records,” he told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1993 for an article marking the 40th anniversary of its record label. “And I would order records in the mail. Then I would sell records at the jazz club meetings. That was the beginning of my retail business. “
He had also started recording musicians. He originally named his label Delmar after a boulevard in St. Louis, but when he moved to Chicago in the late 1950s he added the K.
In 1959 he bought a Chicago record store from a trumpeter named Seymour Schwartz and soon turned it into the Jazz Record Mart. His label not only recorded the player of the day, but also reissued older recordings.
“He loved obscure record labels from the 30s and 40s and bought several of them,” said Mandel. “He’s re-edited a lot of stuff from pretty obscure artists who recorded independently. He saved her best work. “
Mr. Koester was white; Most of the artists he dealt with were black.
“He was totally into black music,” said Mr. Mandel. “Not just black music, but he definitely blamed black music in a way that other labels didn’t.”
That made Mr. Koester special in Chicago when he explored the city’s sampling talent.
“When a white man showed up in a black bar, it was assumed he was either a cop, a bill collector, or looking for sex,” Koester told blogcritic.com. “When they found out you were there to listen to music and for no other reason you were a friend. The worst times I’ve had were from white cops trying to kick me out of the bars. You probably thought I was there to trade drugs or something. “
It was the atmosphere of these nightclubs that he tried to capture in his recording studio.
“I don’t believe in the production,” he said. “I’m not going to bring in some stuff that you can’t hear from a guy when he’s on stage.”
In addition to his wife, whom he met while working across the street from his shop and whom he married in 1967, Mr. Koester survives a son, Robert Jr .; a daughter, Kate Koester; and two grandchildren.
Ms. Koester said her son will continue to run Bob’s Blues and Jazz Mart. Mr Koester sold Delmark in 2018.
Mr Koester’s record company played an important role in documenting two genres of music, but his wife said that not only did he play a little piano, but he was also untrained himself.
“He would say his music was listening,” she said.