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Interview: A Conversation with Bob Koester

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.

About Lou Novacheck