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Interview: Bob Koester Founder And Owner Delmark Records

In this day and age of bottom lines and demographics controlling the music industry, it's hard to believe there are still people in the business because they love the music they record and sell. But when Bob Koester started selling Jazz and Blues records out of his St. Louis University dormitory room it was simply because he liked the music. Now fifty-five years, three or four store locations, and a move to Chicago later Bob's Delmark label continues to issue four or five CDs and a couple of DVDs every month of the music he still loves.

For about the past year or so I've been reviewing the discs that Bob's label puts out. That means I've been listening to everything from traditional Jazz, the Avant Garde, Barrelhouse Piano, Be-bop, Chicago Blues, and everything else that could fall into the Jazz and Blues categories. Listening to the music from Delmark Records is like being taken on a guided tour of Jazz and Blues music from the early parts of the twentieth century up to what's being played in the local club scene in Chicago today.

In one month I've received a CD of music that featured re-mastered and digitally transferred player piano roles, a DVD of a concert given by an improvisational Jazz group, a traditional Jazz CD, and a DVD of a Blues gig from one of the many clubs that are still thriving in Chicago today. One of the clubs that Delmark records gigs at is The Green Mile, which first opened it's doors in 1907. You can imagine during prohibition people drinking whisky out of tea cups and guys like Al Capone commandeering a table in the corner for himself and his cronies in a place like that.
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There aren't not many contemporary record labels around that allow you to feel that sense of history, or even care about it. At Delmark they don't live in the past, but they don't forget about it either. Folk singer Utah Philps once said "The past didn't go anywhere ... it's a stream that runs by my door". Bob Koester and Delmark records have been panning that stream for fifty-five years now and pulling out chunks of musical gold for whoever wants to listen.

On Friday January 25th/2008 I spent a couple of hours on the phone with Bob, talking about the history of Delmark Records, and his personal love affair with the music. After talking with Bob I'm convinced if I ever want to write a book about Jazz and Blues music of the twentieth century, he'd be the first person I'd go to for information. He's a walking compendium of twentieth century Jazz and Blues. The interview you're going to read probably represents only about a third of what we talked about - stuff that pertains directly to Delmark records and Bob. But I think you'll be able to get a good idea of the depth of his knowledge, and love, for the music.

You actually founded Delmark Records in St. Louis, not in Chicago, can you tell me how that came about, how long you were in St. Louis, and why you made the move to Chicago?

Bob: I went to university in St. Louis to study cinematography. My parents didn't want me going to school in one of the big cities like New York or Chicago because they didn't want me to be distracted from my studies by music. Unfortunately, for them, there were Black Jazz clubs all around the university, oh I don't know maybe six or seven. By the time I was in second year I was selling old Jazz records out of my dorm room that I had picked up in second hand stores around the city. I also joined the St, Louis Jazz club, and they used to allow me to sell my records at their meetings. But I needed more space, so a guy name Ron Fister and I opened a store just a couple blocks from campus.

We were still selling mainly records that I would pick up of older recordings, you know buying up stocks from all over the place, but I also started doing some recording at the time, we did five ten inch records, and after they stopped making them I recorded four and half twelve inch records before I moved to Chicago.

A half?

Bob: Yeah I had started recording Big Joe Williams in St. Louis but didn't finish it until I was in Chicago.

How did the move to Chicago come about

Bob: Well Ron and I had split up, he wanted to start selling pop music and I wanted to keep selling the Jazz and Blues, so we had each opened up our own stores by the late fifties. The owner of Paramount records had decided that he wanted to get out of the business and offered to sell me his catalogue. He also told me I should come out to Chicago, that's where they were based, and he'd set me up as well. So in 1959 I came to Chicago and with his help I took over Seymour's Jazz Mart - which had been owned by the songwriter and trumpet player Seymour Schwartz..

I had two small trailers of records that I hauled over with me, but there wasn't really much stock in Seymour's so, just the fixtures and a cash register really. (Me: What about Paramount Records?) Oh, I never ended up buying Paramount because he had made a deal with Riverside Records that had given them the rights to most of the stock - so there wasn't actually much available. Anyway, I was still buying up master tapes from earlier recordings from companies that had gone out of, or that were going out of business. We're talking about stuff from the twenties all the way up through the war years (World War Two) and the late forties.

There was also the stuff I had recorded in St.Louis, like The Windy City Six, who are trad. Jazz (traditional Jazz) and the first band I ever recorded. I got Big Joe Williams to come to Chicago so we could finish recording what we had started in St, Louis and released that In 60 or 61. I also recorded Speckled Red, great Blues piano player.

We were in Seymour's until '63 and then we moved over to Grand Ave, and we just didn't have enough space there so we moved again until now I've got the store- The Jazz Record Mart on Illinois street, and the studio, Riverside Studios just over on North Rockwell.

The funny thing is you know I'm still releasing stuff that was recorded back when I started in St.Louis, although I didn't record them. Back when I was a member of the St. Louis Jazz Club there was another member who was a cop, Charlie O'Brian, and he tracked down all these great old time players who had played in town during the 1920's. He was the one who found Speckled Red and Barrelhouse Buck McFarland. The disc we released last year by Barrelhouse was recorded in 1961 in the Robert Oswald's, he was the president of the St Louis Jazz club, basement. He had a basic set up there with a couple of microphones and a tape machine. There were a lot of guys I wished I could have recorded in St. Louis and never had the chance or the money really.

I guess I should have asked this first, but I'm a little backwards, why Jazz and Blues? What was the attraction for you to that type of music? 

Bob: I don't know, why not? (laughs) It was the music I loved you know. I never liked Country music, and growing up in Wichita Kansas there wasn't much else. There was a mystery to the names of those old Blues guys, "Speckled Red", "Pinetop Perkins", that made it sound really appealing - probably something to due with a repressed Catholic upbringing.(laughs) But I guess what got me hooked first was trad. jazz. Maybe it's because the only stuff I could find was old used 78s in used record stores.

It's still some of my favourite stuff today, and I can't understand why people are always dumping on it - I still put out a lot of trad. Jazz when other people won't touch it. We've got some great bands in Chicago - The Salty Dogs - and others. (Me. I really liked that German group you put out last year, the ones who recorded in the Ace Hardware store that used to be a Jazz club. Bob: Oh yeah, The Footstompers, they're coming back again this year, you can come and check them out. Me: That's a problem - I'm up in Canada, in Kingston near the New York State border, so that's a bit of a distance to travel for a night out.)

I know you spent a lot of time and energy on purchasing old catalogues like Apollo, and making new pressings from the masters and was wondering if you ever considered only doing that. Or did you always plan on making "new" recordings as well?

Bob: Like I said I started out by buying out other people's stock - you know buying a 100 records for a buck a piece and selling them for three or something like that. A lot of it was buying up masters of various companies - and it would take about three of four of them to make an album because there were only three or four songs on each tape. I still have some of those I haven't done anything with because of that - especially now when you need about sixteen songs for a CD.

The CD we just released, Mike Walbridge's Chicago Footwarmers Crazy Rhythm disc, was made up of two recordings. I had bought the Blackbird label back in 1966 and we released an LP of theirs. So this year we brought them back into the studio and recorded the version of the band that's around today and combined the two recordings for one CD. So that disc was a 50/50 split between the old and the new - and I say right now we are doing about 75% new recordings and the rest are reissues.

We're lucky we have our own studio so we don't have to rent studio time when we want to record stuff, and in fact we can rent the space out for a little extra money, because it costs money to do a recording and the sales in Jazz and Blues are so low you're going to be damn lucky to make it back. You know what percentage of record sales Blues accounts for in Amercia? 1.5%. Jazz is double that at 3%. We're lucky to sell 1000 copies of a disc in the first year of its release and after that sales only slow down.

We're lucky because we own a record store where we can sell our recordings, and we've got distribution deals with some online places and some stores. But you know there aren't any cross country chains anymore that will keep stock on the shelves for any length of time. Some place like Borders will only keep something on the shelf for ninety days and then its gone. I haven't got the figures for last year yet, but if we're lucky we might have broken even because the Buddy Guy disc did really well - but the year before that we lost 25,000, and before that 40 something and the year before that 65 thousand.

You know what was killing us - illegal downloads - it fucking almost drove us out of business, I'm not kidding. Or people burning discs for somebody else - same thing. I had two guys in the store the other day and one said to the other - burn me a copy of that and I'll burn you a copy of this - and bang there are my sales cut in half. And it's theft - because no matter what you're taking money out of the artist's pocket if it's a new record - or his family's if he's dead. Sure the publisher who owns the rights to a song gets the money, but they have to pay the songwriter every time that song is used.

It used to be we were paying three cents a song - that's three cents per song per record. Now its nine and a half cents and they're talking about raising it to twelve. When you start adding that up with all the other costs involved with making a record; packaging, distribution, hiring the sidemen and paying the artist you're going to be lucky to break even to begin with, but if people are stealing the music it really screws you. It's better now that they've stopped most of the illegal downloads and we're getting some money from places like I-tunes, but we still lose money to it.

When you got to Chicago had did you go about starting to record - did you just walk up to people in clubs and say - hey I've got a recording studio you want to come a make a record? Or did you already have some connections?

Bob: Well I had a couple of things that I had recorded in St. Louis, a Bob Graff record and of course the Big Joe Williams disc Piney Woods Blues that I released in 1960 a year after I got there, but yeah, basically I would go up to guys in a bar after hearing them and offer to record them. We would do it for a flat rate with no contract, which was good and bad. They could record with us and do a bunch of songs one week, and the next week they could do the very same material with someone else and they'd be in competition with themselves.

I've done the occasional royalty recording and those are the ones where you can run into problems cause the guy might think you're ripping them off. But you've got to pay for the recording and all the stuff we talked about earlier and that comes out of the same pie, and if they received an advance, well it was against the royalties - so right there that could be a thousand bucks. If a record only sold five hundred or even a thousand copies there might not even be enough to pay for the costs of recording the damn thing let along royalties.

I know it wouldn't have been an issue for you but others might have wanted to make it one. Was race ever an issue, considering the climate in the sixties and the fact that most of the people you were recording were black?

Bob: Chicago wasn't the south, so the prejudice wasn't out in the open, it was there in the fact that Blacks weren't welcome in certain neighbourhoods and there were restaurants downtown that wouldn't serve Black people, but you learned to avoid them. Once I found out which they were I stopped eating at them all together. They didn't have signs up saying no Blacks, or anything like that, but it was known they would serve them.

Most of the Jazz and Blues clubs were on the South or West sides, which were Black neighbourhoods. When a White guy showed up in a Black bar it was assumed he was either a cop, a bill collector or looking for sex. When they found out you were there to listen to the music and for no other reason you were a friend.
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The worse time I had were from White cops who would try and throw me out of the bars. They probably thought I was there dealing drugs, or something. But aside from that I've never had any other problems. You know a lot of the problems were about money in the old days, cause there's no denying that people were screwed out of money owing to them because they were Black. Because I didn't do very many royalty recordings, and always paid what I said I would, there was hardly any of that problem.

You have a reputation as hands off producer, letting the musicians have their heads. What do you see as your role in the recording process? Is there ever a time when you do have to step in and nudge things in a certain direction?

Bob: First of all I'm not the producer anymore, Steve Wagner handles the day to day stuff anymore. But if I made one suggestion during a day's worth of recording that would be it. I'm not a musician so I'm not about to tell somebody what to do. I don't believe in production, I'm not about to bring in a bunch of stuff that you can't hear a guy doing when he's up on stage in a club for instance. Even if we did bring in horns or strings or something like that, I'm not going to be the one doing the arrangements.

It's funny you know because we had Luther Allison signed to a contract for three records, and he didn't want to honour it because he said we weren't producing him enough. I can understand if a guy wants to back and fix some of his mistakes, but to be honest I can't afford for some guy to spend twenty hours in the studio working on one song trying to make it perfect.

Anyway I don't want perfection, I want the balls that I hear in the club - the sound the guys have when they're at the point in the night when they've really hit their stride is what I want to record. When if pick somebody to record I do it because I like their ideas, what they're trying to do on stage with the music, not because they're technicians. Some of the guys I've recorded really don't play guitar all that well - they just sort of strum along if that - but the things they do with their voices is amazing, and that's what I want, what they do that's amazing, that makes them who they are.

How would you describe your relationship with the musicians you work with?

Bob: Well it's usually a good relationship right up to the point when they become you're employee. Nah, it varies from group to group and person to person you know. Like I said it's probably one of the reason I do so few royalty recordings so there's never any questions about money or being screwed. We just don't have the sales to make royalty deals worth anyone's while, especially the musician involved.

Delmark was one of the first labels to record avant-garde Jazz music that came out of Chicago in the sixties. How did that association come about?

Bob: I'd always been aware that Jazz had gone through and goes through changes. All you had to do was listen to what was being done from decade to decade. There was Barrelhouse and Boogie Woogie in the twenties and thirties, Swing and Big Band in the thirties and forties and after that Be-Bop. So when I was first starting out in St. Louis back in the fifties I had the first Sun Ra disc in my store even back then, and that was fifty-six.

One of the albums that I always made sure to keep in stock was the famous Massy Hall concert (Me: Massy Hall in Toronto Canada?) Yeah that's the one. Anyway that recording was of Dizzy Gilispe, Charlie Parker, Charlie Mingus, Bud Powell, and Max Roach - hell it's the only recording that is listed under five separate names, because you could put it under anyone of those guys in your catalogue and it wouldn't matter.

You know what's even more amazing, that album still to this day sells about 10,000 copies every year. The sound had been so badly recorded though that Mingus didn't come through at all on the masters, so they gave them to him before they pressed the album, and he re-recorded all his parts.

But when it comes to the early Avant-Garde, or you know modern Jazz that we recorded at Delmark it was mainly because of Chuck Nessa working with me in those days. The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) were part of a serious Jazz movement happening in Chicago in the early but and they hadn't done any recording yet. We're talking about guys lik Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Muhal Richards Abrams, Anthony Braxton, and Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre. It was Chuck who produced those first two albums that we did of the ACCM, which ended up being the first ever discs recorded by them. We also purchased the Transition masters - the label that had produced Sun Ra's first couple of discs with the "Arkestra" , when they folded, and re-issued them.

What these guys were doing was some of the most important music being played at the time, and still is. I have to tell you I'm still not sure that I really understand what's going on all the time, but what's important is they do. They also brought back multiple horn improvisation which was a feature of Trad. Jazz that died out when the focus shifted to the solo work that was the focus of Be Bop. It's funny you know because these guys don't play Trad. Jazz but they draw upon it for inspiration.

That's something I can really appreciate is that they understand there's a history to the music and they're not afraid to use what's been done before as a springboard to bigger and better stuff. It pisses me off that the Jazz media ignores Trad. Jazz, and that so many people won't even give it the time of day or just dismiss it out of hand. The pity of it is that's it really good stuff (Me: Something that I've noticed is that there's been a resurgence of interest it in since Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans - maybe something good will come out of that and people will start listening to it again)

There have been lots of changes in the recording industry since you start, not the least being the change from analog to digital. Part of that change has included making it easier to film and produce records of live performances with DVDs. Delmark has recently started producing it's own line of DVDs, featuring live concerts in Chicago's bars and small venues. When and why did you start producing them.

Bob: Well you've got to remember that I went to school for cinematography so I've always been interested in film, it just wasn't economical before digital media and video cameras. It's mainly my brothers Tom and Steve who do the filming. Tom actually did become a camera man and worked on shows like The Rockford Files and was a Director of Photography on some other stuff. We'll sometimes use as many as ten cameras on a shoot.

Of course there was an initial outlay for buying all the equipment, but we thought it was a market move that would work and make sense for what we'd been trying to do with all of our recordings, trying to capture the live sound. We've had some good success selling them, especially at gigs. For a lot of the bands we record gig sales are really important because like we talked about earlier there just aren't the record stores there used to be that sell Jazz and Blues records, and keep them in stock.

It used to be that there were chains you could put a record in all across the country, but now you're lucky if you can get into something like Wal-Mart. The one cross country chain left doesn't even pay it's bills right now, and you don't want to be chasing after people to get your money because it almost ends up costing you more than it's worth. You used to have a great store up in Toronto (Me: Sam The Record Man - yeah he went out of business a little while ago) Yeah I know, so there's not much in the way up there of cross country chains either (Me: Well there's HMV and another small one called Sunrise, but I'm not sure if Sunrise goes across the country)

Well that's the way it is down here with Towers gone out of business now. The other thing is there aren't even that many distributors anymore - maybe four or five really big ones that get you into stores. But a lot of our bands don't play outside of Chicago so who's going to be buying them in Peoria or some small town in the Mid West anyway? So gig sales become really important because of that - and the DVDs give us something else to sell. People have just been watching the band on stage so a DVD is an attractive offering because it's a chance to be able to take them home with you in a way you can't with a CD.

You've been doing this for fifty-five years now, I guess the inevitable questions are when you started out doing this way back when did you see it lasting for this long and becoming as big as it has and do you have any regrets?

Bob: You know it's harder to get out of this business than it is to get into it. You end up sinking so much money into it, that you can't afford to stop. The past five years have been tough, and we're just starting to come back up to zero again, maybe. The DVDs have helped and we got lucky with a couple of CDs last year selling better than we had hoped. I can only hope that it keeps going that way and my wife and son can get some of the money we lost.

The only regrets I've had are the missing chances of recording some people, just not being in the right place at the right time. I almost did some folk recordings once, even tough it wasn't really my thing, but at one point there were some really good people playing in Chicago. There was this one time this guy was playing in town and everybody kept saying you should go check him out and all, but I kept putting it off. You know how it is, people tell you some guy is amazing and he's really not all that hot shit.

Well it turned out the guy was amazing, John Prine, and I went up to him after his show and said you know I've got a record label and I'd love to record you. He told me that he had already had two offers, one was from Atlantic and I think the other was Capital. I told him he should really go with Atlantic cause they had a better reputation for handling their people. That's who he ended up signing with, so I like to think I maybe helped him make up his mind.

But really you know, I've done okay and I've no regrets about anything.

Well Bob, I think that's about it for me, thanks for this

Bob: Okay, now go out and make me famous on the Internet, oh and send me a tear sheet (laughs)

I think it's a sad commentary on the music business and pop music in general that Bob Koester and Delmark records aren't household names considering the contribution that both he and his label have made over the past fiftey-five years. In spite of what he said about it being harder to get out of the music business than starting in it, there have been plenty of other independent labels that haven't stood the test of time the way he and his label has.

I think of all the people they give Grammy's too for lifetime achievement awards or contributions to the recording industry, and there are few who can match what Bob has done with his label. Not only has he recorded some of the best and the brightest Jazz and Blues players of our time, but he has salvaged some incredible music from the past that might have otherwise been lost forever.

Take for example the latest project that Delmark has undertaken. The re-mastering of old player piano rolls onto CD that were first recorded back in the 1920's and thirties and then later recorded on the Euphonic label. But if it weren't for Bob and Delmark this piece of American music history would have been lost. Go to the Delmark web site and look through their on line catalogue, or get a copy of the Jazz Record Mart's (the Delmark record store) newsletter, Rhythm & News sent to you, or download the PDF version and you'll get an idea of what I'm talking about.

But Delmark Record is more than just music and video. It's a history of the only music born on this continent. Every Jazz and Blues lover in North America and the world owes a vote of thanks to Mr. Koester for founding this label and sharing with the rest of us his love for it all, no matter what form it takes.

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