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.
There aren't not many contemporary record labels 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?
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 a half twelve inch records before I moved to Chicago.
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?
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.
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 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 Robert Oswald's basement, he was the president of the St Louis Jazz club. 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?
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.
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.
Oh yeah, The Footstompers, they're coming back again this year, you can come and check them out.
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?
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. 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 iTunes, but we still lose money to it.
When you got to Chicago how 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?
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. 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.
This is the end of part one of my interview with Bob Koester – founder and owner of Delmark records in Chicago. You'll be able to read part two tomorrow