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Interview: A Conversation with Bob Koester

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For those who don’t know Bob Koester, here’s the capsule version.

Bob Koester runs Jazz Record Mart, the nation’s oldest and largest jazz and blues music store. The accepted quip about Bob’s stock is, “If he ain’t got it, nobody gots it!” Bob also is the mad scientist behind Delmark Records. Hundreds of trees have fallen in final sacrifice to become newsprint for what Bob’s been doing with American music for the past 55 years plus.

He's the guy who once turned down John Steiner’s offer to sell him all his old Paramount Record's stock. Steiner was the man who bought the remnants of Paramount, the manufacturer of some of the best, rarest and most-poorly-produced 78-rpm records ever made. Paramount certainly had some of the best musicians, but they fudged on quality and workmanship, unlike the reputation of the parent company, Wisconsin Chair Company, which is still known today for its quality and workmanship, some seventy-plus years after its demise. Bob is also the guy who “discovered” Sleepy John Estes after he’d been long forgotten.

He was “indie” before the word was coined. He turned his St Louis University school-days hobby into a fulltime business at age 20, and it’s now the oldest independent recording label in the US. The genesis of Jazz Record Mart was in Bob’s dorm room at school, and has since blossomed into his shop, a warehouse, and a recording studio where he continues to record and produce CDs, vinyl and DVDs for his broad clientele. He also had a habit of turning out full performance recordings of some of the most famous Chicago musicians, Junior Wells included, rather than the chopped down two- or three-minute version of some of their most famous works.

When Junior Wells recorded his most famous album, Hoodoo Man Blues for Delmark in 1965, "It was the first time a working blues band went into the studio and made an LP — it's hard to believe as late as 1965 nobody had done that …” Bob stated. Other notables Bob has recorded include Luther Allison, Sun Ra, Otis Rush, Robert Junior Lockwood and Carey Bell.

Bob is a man who’s on a first-name basis with just about every blues or jazz musician, aficionado, label exec, or club and venue owner in the US, not to mention outside the US. He’s been honored by many for his work and for his unstinting preservation of traditional American music, jazz and blues: by the Blues Foundation; by the first Mayor Daley; and by the Blues Music Association (Bob was the first recipient of BMA’s Achieving Greater Economic Success (AGES) Award). The Chicago chapter of the people behind the Grammy Awards, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, saw fit to honor him with a Hero Award. Bruce Iglauer, who now runs Alligator Records, began his music career working for Bob. If Bob had agreed to record Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers, Bruce might still be a part of Bob’s business. Ahh, but that’s a story for another day.

Bob is one of the most open, transparent people you’ll ever run into. He accepts you for who you are, not what you are. And when he talks jazz or blues to you, you can readily see in his eyes and on his face that, although a highly successful businessman, he’s also a lover of the music he preserves. He sometimes reminds me of the “fire-and-brimstone preachers” who proliferated during the times that jazz and blues were still in the cradle. “You better believe!”

The depth of his knowledge is always remarkable, and stunning at times. The energy behind his drive is always lurking just below the surface, ready to pounce when he sees or hears a new or rejuvenated talent. And he’s in his element when talking about his business, to the point that, when once asked if he had any plans to retire, he jumped up from behind his desk and shouted, “Hell, no!” And softened it with a slow, crafty smile.

Hey Bob, what do you think of this new spate of teenagers who're playing blues these days? Are they really blues fans or are they chasing a buck? Failed rappers? Honest-to-goodness blues fans? Somewhere in between? I'd be interested in hearing – or reading – what you think.

Yes, some are sincere, some trying to cash in (thinking there's $$ in blues.) Most miss the point that blues is a vocal music. (qv Joe Turner, Wynonie Harris, Bessie Smith,etc.) Kinda like the fool who goes to the opera to listen to the orchestra.

Also, I'm working on an article on the resurgence of vinyl and I'd like to hear what you have to say.

I think perhaps the vinyl resurgence has been a little overblown in the media. We stock a lot of vinyl at Jazz Record Mart where newly minted vinyl is between 5 and 10% of sales — but growing. And, of course we still have an enormous inventory of older pressings because we bought out the jazz and blues inventory of nearly all the indie distributors and quite a few labels back when they all thought vinyl was dead. (Just as I did with 78s, 10" LPs and mono 12" LPs.) These cutouts add nicely to the vinyl portion of RM biz.

Vinyl costs about 2.5 times as much to press as CDs and a bit more for jackets than for CD booklets. This is being reflected in recent price rises for LPs and is one reason for all the 180g and 200g pressings, which cost about a half-buck more than regular vinyl.

Personally I see no reason why a record should be so thick. Some folks think the grooves are deeper — they are the standard depth (so they would play on any turntable). The only advantage I can see is that they probably don't warp as easily. But if you store your records correctly you won't have a warpage problem, and most LPs can easily be de-warped by placing them between two pieces of glass and heated under a desk lamp. (But be careful not to cook them.)

We recently had to raise Delmark's LPs to $11.98 list but if/as/when we put out titles not previously on LP, we will have to charge more because of the cost (long ago written off for back numbers that were originally on LP) of packaging, fm of jackets etc. plus the cost of mastering and plating which is about $1,000 per album — a cost not matched in CD production. It's not hard to figure out which albums we will reissue on LP: Otis Rush, Magic Sam, Junior Wells, Roscoe Mitchell, perhaps Anthony Braxton. We already have done the two Sun Ra albums.

I also should mention the profile of the LP buyer. Jazz Record Mart has extensive stocks of all kinds of jazz on LP: traditional, swing, big band, bop/modern and avant-garde. I thought years ago Trad & swing, usually older, collectors would not bother with CD equipment. Most already had large LP collections. I saved a lot of LP jackets in Delmark's trad series but eventually had to scrap them.

Today's market for big band and trad jazz is bleak enough that we are currently running a 50% off sale on all used LPs in these categories which may last into March by which time we will have time to re-price (and add new stuff from backstock.) So our George Lewis, Art Hodes, Earl Hines, and Cab Calloway stuff probably won't be available on LP very soon.

So the LP market in jazz is divided between modern and avant-garde jazz — which are, of course the largest part of the whole jazz/blues market. It's hard to tell about blues because so little has been pressed. But the Robert Johnson, Paul Butterfield, etc. material sells nicely, as would the Chess, etc. classics if they were available.

Recently Blue Note issued ten classic albums with CDs inside them, with a list of $22.98 – not a bad price since they have to pay publisher's royalties on both discs at a bit over nine cents per tune. It's going to be interesting to see how well they sell. Since these are albums that, mostly, are already in print … we will see. The packaging included blue labels with white printing which didn't exactly shout about the contents.

There are some musicians who self-release LPs. In fact, this seems to have started the LP/CD package idea. But I think this started in rock.

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