Delmark, the seminal Chicago indie blues and jazz label is celebrating its 50th anniversary with every manner of glad goings-on:
- Special notes:
-2003 is the “Year of the Blues.”
-This year’s 20th Annual Chicago Blues Festival (May 29 – June 1) has
planned a tribute to Delmark, the “Golden Jubilee of Delmark Records.”
-This year’s 25th Annual Chicago Jazz Festival (August 28 – 31) has planned
a tribute to Delmark Records.
-Chicago blues club, Buddy Guy’s Legends, will host a Delmark 50th
Anniversary celebration on May 9th featuring performances by Jimmy Dawkins,
Johnny B Moore, Willie Kent (2003 WC Handy nominee), Little Arthur Duncan,
Bonnie Lee, and Shirley Johnson (2003 WC Handy nominee).
The biggest news is the release of Delmark historic collections in April:
- “Delmark – 50 Years Of Jazz And Blues — Jazz” (Delmark DD-904)
2 CD set at a budget price celebrating Delmark’s rich jazz recorded legacy!
28 songs including previously unissued tracks by Sonny Stitt and Tab Smith;
tracks not currently on other Delmark CDs by Malachi Thompson’s Africa
Brass featuring Gary Bartz, Art Hodes and from September 19, 1953 The Windy
City Six. Also featuring Coleman Hawkins, Sun Ra, Illinois Jacquet, Archie
Shepp, Dinah Washington, Franz Jackson, Sir Charles Thompson, Barrett
Deems, Ira Sullivan, Francine Griffin, Muhal Richard Abrams, Jimmy Forrest,
Fred Anderson, Roscoe Mitchell, Chicago Underground Trio, Jeff Parker, Ken
Vandermark, Roy Campbell, Frank Catalano & Von Freeman, Zane Massey and
“Delmark – 50 Years Of Jazz And Blues — Blues” (Delmark DD-905)
2 CD set at a budget price celebrating Delmark’s rich blues recorded
legacy! 32 songs including previously unissued tracks by Junior Wells with
The Aces, Magic Sam, J.B. Hutto, Big Joe Williams and Sleepy John Estes.
Also featuring Otis Rush, Lurrie Bell, Karen Carroll,Luther Allison,Syl
Johnson, Little Milton, Carey Bell, Robert Ward, Little Walter with Muddy
Waters, Zora Young, Willie Kent, Jimmy Burns, Albert Ammons with Meade Lux
Lewis and Pete Johnson, Steve Freund, Dave Specter, Frank Morey, Speckled
Red, Eddie Burns, Edith Wilson, The Moroccos, Tail Dragger, Roosevelt
Sykes, Reginald Robinson, Big Time Sarah, Jesse Fortune, The Big DooWopper
and Sunnyland Slim.
“Delmark – 50 Years Of Jazz And Blues — Jazz & Blues Box Set” (Delmark DX-50)
4 CD box set plus bonus Video CD celebrating Delmark’s rich jazz and blues
recorded legacy! Contains 2 CD Jazz (DD-904), 2 CD Blues (DD-905). Bonus
Video CD features “Down By The Riverside”, a video montage of recent
Delmark recording sessions and performances, and “A Tribute To Delmark
Records”, a documentary profiling the independent spirit of Delmark Records
and its owner Bob Koester.
Here’s a little bit of Bob’s Delmark history:
- When Koester was a child growing up in Wichita, Kansas, popular music was in the throws of the Big Band craze. He spent afternoons listening to Fats Waller, Zutty Singleton, Barney Bigard and Coleman Hawkins on the radio. As a teenager, Koester sought out live performances anywhere he could catch them. At the age of fourteen he witnessed a concert that featured Count Basie, Jimmy Rushing and Illinois Jacquet. Searching for artists such as these became a passion.
“In high school I saw Lionel Hampton. Hamp used to come and play at the Forum. It was for black people but they let whites sit in the balcony. By the last set everybody kinda’ forgot about racial barriers. Everybody was out on the floor dancing. I went back there two or three times to see Hamp. Once I went to a place called the Rock Castle Supper Club for a session that involved Clifford Brown. In my last year of high school I heard Lonnie Johnson was in town. I remember Lonnie played violin which seemed to be electronically amplified. I tried to visit him the next day but he left town before I got there. I called him and he said, ‘Man I was up all night, call me back in three hours.’ Three hours later, Mr. Johnson was checked out. Later on when I met him I kidded him about it. I said, ‘you had this starry-eyed fan in Kansas and you screwed him by leaving town, checking out before he could talk with you.’ ”
Koester began collecting records in high school, but due to the particular type of music he favored he couldn’t just go to the local record store and pick up a few discs. To find them he searched secondhand stores and the back rooms of juke box operators.
“A lot of the music I liked was out of print. In those terribly barren years right after World War II the major labels had satisfied the demand for phonograph records by reissues. During the war there was a ban, and after the war the ban was over and there was a big boom and they all jumped on Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, all that shitty pop music of the late forties. It was a vocalist thing so instrumental music was very much out of favor with the American public, the young people particularly. By this time I really zeroed in on twenties’ jazz and you just couldn’t find it, there was little or nothing in print. I loved jazz, but the blues was part of it. Jazz fans start buying blues records because Louie Armstrong is on this Bessie Smith record, Coleman Hawkins is on this Ida Cox record and eventually the blues gets next to you. To me it was all the same, it was all important.”
Because of the mix between the two genres Koester began trading one disc for another. This was the start of a razor sharp business sense. He developed serious skills while on his hunt for out of print records. But an inclination for music was not his only love, he also had a passion for film. In an attempt to further his business skills he based his educational plan accordingly. He enrolled at St. Louis University to study cinematography and business; later he was to go to UCLA or USC for their cinematography programs.
“My purpose for going to St. Louis U. was to take some business courses because I had decided to become a movie camera man, that was my first love. I would go to Hollywood and I would make a little money and in the back of my mind I thought I would, eventually, do a little syndicated series of jazz TV shows and that I would be successful and I would have a jazz label and a jazz record store. I went to St. Louis U. and I just sort of got seduced by the music. My experiences in selling Glen Miller 78s expanded to selling the stuff that I had found in second hand stores.”
Koester began selling music out of his dormitory and he joined a newly formed jazz club that boasted as members some of the most talented musicians in and around the St. Louis area. Alas, the lure of the music and a chance meeting gave his life’s plan a twist only fate can deliver.
“A jazz club was being organized at the time in St. Louis and I went to the founding meeting. I was a founding member of the group. I remember the first meeting where I heard a hell of a lot of good music. I later found out that some of the best musicians in town were there. Bob Graf was there. Clark Terry was there. Through the St. Louis Jazz Club I was able to do a certain amount of promotion for my business. Eventually I was chairman of the program committee; as soon as I was able to go into bars, I wasn’t old enough at first. At the second meeting of the jazz club I met a guy named Ron Fister.”
Fister collected pop music of the thirties and forties but he also loved Ellington, Billie Holiday and Mildred Bailey, three of Koester’s all-time favorites. This encounter sparked the beginning of K & F Sales, Koester’s first record store.
“It worked out pretty well because if we found anything made before 1930 we would buy it so we were able to dispose of stuff that no one wanted. After lugging all my records out to his house he decided this was an inconvenience to him. He found a place that wasn’t very big for 40 bucks a month and we opened up a store there.”
K & F Sales soon outgrew its building and found a new location, a building that once housed a restaurant. Koester and his partner turned it into the Blue Note Record Shop. After nearly a year he and Fister discovered that they were moving in two different musical directions. They agreed to split up the inventory and Koester moved to a new location at Delmar and Oliver Streets. It was at this settlement that Delmark Records began. In 1953 at the age of 21 Koester recorded the Windy City Six, a vintage jazz group based in St. Louis. The progression had begun. Soon after that first recording Koester and a friend organized a search for musicians of the ’20’s and ’30’s living in St. Louis. The search yielded some of the greatest blues ever recorded. Master bluesmen such as Speckled Red, Big Joe Williams and J.D. Short were recorded by the tiny record company. With this block of artists, Delmark garnered recognition and quickly gained respect in the record industry. But success is never easy. After putting out only three LPs, tragedy hit the small company.
“In 1956 or ’57 my father accepted a job in Italy and he wanted me to close up and go with him. I decided I didn’t want to do that so he gave me five hundred bucks. That was enough to really get us going, so I had covers printed for five titles. Then over the weekend they stopped making ten inch LPs. So I was out of business. ”
Koester took full advantage of the demise of the 10 inch format by going around and buying them all from local distributors for a dollar a piece and selling them at regular price with the profits he was able to recoup his losses and continue recording.
“I learned the thing that will screw you as a label will finance you as a dealer. By doing this I was able to get 4 twelve inch LPs out in a period of a year and a half or two years and to pay off most of my debts. We had no forewarning that 10 inches was going out I went down to Columbia Records on a Friday night and bought 10 inch LPs for $2.10 and went back Monday and was able to get them for $1.00.”
Because of his experience as a record buyer Koester understood the value of music that had been recorded but not issued, or recordings that were out of print. Through his many connections he has acquired some very important master recordings. “We had the opportunity to buy the George Lewis masters recordings made for a major corporation for a school transcription program. Buying masters was from then on, forever on my mind. We bought sometimes one master, sometimes three or four. The most commercial acquisition was the United because we got good source on virtually everything. I was afraid of the United deal because I had heard that there were silent partners. I can say the same thing for the Apollo; they were both cases where I made fairly good deals because of this rumor. | wasn’t willing to pay a hell of a lot for it I was going to have to deal with that kind of a gamble.”….
Be sure to check out the excellent new releases by Ernest Dawkins’ New Horizons Ensemble – an ambitious live jazz recording spanning the African American experience; and Jeff Parker, the guitarist of avant jazz/sound units Tortoise, Chicago Underground Quartet, and Isotope 217, among others including New Horizons Ensemble.