The Man Who Keeps Jazz Young
Bob Koester with the late, great bluesman Big Joe Williams's famous nine-string guitar. Photo by Frank Corpus
For most of us, our childhood hobbies---rock collecting, baseball cards---end their lives in dusty boxes in the attic. For select others, they grow into passions that eventually turn into careers. This was the case for Bob Koester, a Kansas native who began collecting jazz records as a teenager in the 1940s. Collecting soon became trading, then selling, when he started a record shop in St. Louis where he was attending college. In 1953, he founded Delmark Records, one of the oldest independent jazz and blues record labels in the country. At age 80, Koester continues to head the record label, now based in Chicago, as well as the Jazz Record Mart, the largest jazz record store in the world. As we begin to get ready for this year's NEA Jazz Master ceremony and concert on January 14, we thought we'd talk to Koester for an inside look at eight decades of admiring, recording, and promoting jazz music.
NEA: Do you remember your earliest experience with jazz and when you first got bit by the bug?
BOB KOESTER: I heard it on the radio and so forth. We didn't have a phonograph at our house until…the early '40s. By 1941 we were in my grandfather's house, and he had a large collection of old '78s. He had records by the original Dixieland Jazz Band and another group called The Georgians. The rest of the stuff was all classical music, but I liked those two records.
About 1945, I was already bitten a little bit. But then I went to see the film New Orleans, which had Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory, Woody Herman's orchestra. The short they showed with it was Jammin’ the Blues, which featured Lester Young and Illinois Jacquet. I was just knocked out. I was very tempted to sit through the feature---I think there was a double feature---so I could see those films again. But I couldn't, I had to go to work. But that really turned me onto jazz.
I collect 16 mm prints of old movies, which started with jazz films. Now I have two prints of New Orleans and three prints of Jammin’ the Blues.
NEA: You began your career by rooting around for old recordings that you enjoyed but couldn't hear on the radio.
KOESTER: I was a record collector and one of my records was a Glen Miller '78. Victory [Records] didn't issue much Glen Miller. Yet they were pretty easy to find. If you found old records, you'd find some Millers. I kept one of each. When I went to college I had about 3,000 '78s and I thought I would pick up Glen Millers and trade them and sell them to two other collectors in Wichita and also by mail. That was sort of the beginning of my business.
[Then] I went into business with another guy selling old '78s. We inherited the inventory of a dealer who wanted to retire. We opened a record store…and we called it the Blue Note record shop…. We had a little store that was bigger than my office here, but not much. I'd say maybe tops, 400, 500 square feet. Eventually, when I quit college, I moved the store out to Delmar Boulevard. Next to the Woolworth store, right at the corner of Delmar and DeBaliviere…. It was Delmar Records then, named after Delmar Blvd in St. Louis…I eventually bought [my partner] out.
NEA: How did the record store turn into a recording label?
KOESTER: I think the turning point was when I decided to record the Windy City Six for Delmar, a ten-inch LP. That put me into the business of selling records to the wholesalers [and] trying to promote them. I was going to St. Louis University Business School and my grades there I think were A's and B's my first year, B's and C's the second year, C's D's and F's the third year, and they asked me not to come back.
There was a cop named Charlie O'Brien. To work on his investigative chops, he asked for a list of all the musicians around St. Louis and he'd try to look them up. The [St. Louis Jazz Club], through the union, had located most of the living musicians from the '20s and early '30s. But I had gotten more and more interested in the blues, and I had noticed that a lot of blues singers would make a reference to streets in St. Louis and to the levy in St. Louis in such a way that we figured they might still be living there. So I gave the list to [Officer O’Brien], and he found most of them. And he found a piano player named Speckled Red, which surprised the hell out of us. Although if I'd ever heard his record of a song called "Down on the Levy," I might have suspected that he had wound up in St. Louis by 1938. He had recorded in Memphis in 1929,and 1930 I think in Chicago. But he had lived mostly in Detroit. Anyways, he had moved to St. Louis sometime in the '30's, and didn't play in public, wasn't known. He'd play in some of the honky-tonks for tips, but nobody knew about all that scene. So Charlie found him and brought him out and I recorded him. We still have a CD in our catalogue of him.
Charlie found some others [that we recorded]: Mary Johnson, whom we featured with the Dixie Stompers, Walter Davis, Henry Townsend, several other people. I didn't have the money to record all of them, but Big Joe Williams heard about me from the record store, Joe's Music, and he came out one day with a very old Columbia release notice to prove he really was Big Joe Williams. I was surprised to learn I had damn near all his '78s. So we got into the blues that way.
NEA: How have your musical tastes changed through the years, and how is that reflected on the label?
KOESTER: I still love the early style, the New Orleans, Chicago style. We still record it when we find someone good, if we can do it within a budget---that kind of stuff has limited sales potential. Although we just recorded a young [traditional] band called the Fat Babies and I'm just amazed at how well it's selling. It's selling as well as modern jazz record, which in these days, means 500-1,000 in the first year and it looks like it's going to hit 1,000.
The jazz record business was always a matter of knowing you're not going to see your money back from the recording session for several years, but you know that if it's good jazz, you can keep it in print and eventually you will see your money. Sadly, with downloading now, that isn't the case. So we can't pay as much as we used to. What you put out a record the first year, is mainly what you're going to sell. The second year, you sell a lot less. Used to be sometimes the second year would be better than the first year if word got around. Nowadays, it plummets the second year.
NEA: What’s the balance between your passion for music and financial necessity when it comes to choosing who you want to record and distribute?
KOESTER: We just decide we think we ought to have a record, who should be heard. We try not to be influenced by popularity of the artist. There are some jazz artists who are very popular who really aren't that good.
We want the creative artists…. We recorded avant-garde guys who get four and five stars in Downbeat, and I still don't really understand their music. But I recognize that there are guys in that idiom that should be recorded. I'm proud to say we did our first recording of an AACM artist, Roscoe Mitchell. It thrills me as much to think about that as if I'd been around to have done the first Bix Beiderbecke record, or the first Louis Armstrong record. Unfortunately, avant-garde doesn't cross over to popular acceptance. I don't make these decisions [whom to record] totally by myself. There are guys who know the avant-garde, and don't mind telling me who I should record. And I listen to them.
NEA: Is there a common element between the artists you record about what you think makes their music stand out?
KOESTER: Well, uniqueness. They don't sound like somebody else. They have their own style. The amount of creativity is important. In the traditional field, like [current Chicago jazz band] the Fat Babies, they know the '20s records backwards and forwards, but when they're playing, they don't just play the old records through their horns. They take the song and they improvise it using the techniques they learned. They say things. They have a message. There's a belief among some people that, "Oh, those guys playing the old style, all they're doing is just imitating the records." Well, they're not.
I recognize you're not topping Louis [Armstrong], but you’re keeping that style of music alive so that people who come to hear them not only will buy their records, they'll buy King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton. To me, that's important. I don't think there's anyone alive today who's as good as a musician, anywhere in jazz, as Charlie Parker was. I think he's one of the most creative musicians who's ever been in the music. Jazz is real music, real art, and it does not age. There's some crap jazz that did age, but the really creative jazz in every era is going to live forever. I think people will still be listening to Charlie Parker 500 years from now, maybe 1,000.