Welcome to part two of my interview with Bob Koester, founder and owner of Chicago's Delmark records, probably, at fifty-five years, the oldest independent record label in the United States. They've been recording and releasing jazz and blues records since 1953, first in St.Louis where they first opened, and since 1959 in Chicago. We pick up in Part Two where we left off in Part One so you might what to go back and read that first if you haven't yet.
I know it wouldn't have been for you but others might have wanted to make it one. Was race ever an issue, considering the climate in the sixties and the fact that most of the people you were recording were black?
Chicago wasn't the south, so the prejudice wasn't out in the open. It was there in the fact that Blacks weren't welcome in certain neighborhoods and there were restaurants downtown that wouldn't serve black people, but you learned to avoid them. Once I found out which they were, I stopped eating at them all together. They didn't have signs up saying no blacks, or anything like that, but it was known they would serve them.
Most of the jazz and blues clubs were on the south or west sides, which were black neighborhoods. When a white guy showed up in a black bar it was assumed he was either a cop, a bill collector, or looking for sex. When they found out you were there to listen to the music and for no other reason you were a friend.
The worse time I had were from white cops who would try and throw me out of the bars. They probably thought I was there dealing drugs or something. But aside from that I've never had any other problems.
You know a lot of the problems were about money in the old days, cause there's no denying that people were screwed out of money owed to them because they were black. Because I didn't do very many royalty recordings, and always paid what I said I would, there was hardly any of that problem.
You have a reputation as hands off producer, letting the musicians have their heads. What do you see as your role in the recording process? Is there ever a time when you do have to step in and nudge things in a certain direction?
First of all I'm not the producer anymore, Steve Wagner handles the day to day stuff. But if I made one suggestion during a day's worth of recording that would be it. I'm not a musician, so I'm not about to tell somebody what to do. I don't believe in production. I'm not about to bring in a bunch of stuff that you can't hear a guy doing when he's up on stage in a club, for instance. Even if we did bring in horns or strings or something like that, I'm not going to be the one doing the arrangements.
It's funny you know because we had Luther Allison signed to a contract for three records, and he didn't want to honour it because he said we weren't producing him enough. I can understand if a guy wants to go back and fix some of his mistakes, but to be honest, I can't afford for some guy to spend twenty hours in the studio working on one song trying to make it perfect.
Anyway, I don't want perfection. I want the balls that I hear in the club – the sound the guys have when they're at the point in the night when they've really hit their stride is what I want to record. When I pick somebody to record, I do it because I like their ideas, what they're trying to do on stage, with the music, not because they're technicians. Some of the guys I've recorded really don't play guitar all that well – they just sort of strum along if that – but the things they do with their voices is amazing, and that's what I want. What they do that's amazing, that makes them who they are.
How would you describe your relationship with the musicians you work with?
Well it's usually a good relationship right up to the point when they become you're employee. Nah, it varies from group to group and person to person, you know. Like I said it's probably one of the reason I do so few royalty recordings so there's never any questions about money or being screwed. We just don't have the sales to make royalty deals worth anyone's while, especially the musician involved.
Delmark was one of the first labels to record avant-garde Jazz music that came out of Chicago in the sixties. How did that association come about?
I'd always been aware that jazz had gone through and goes through changes. All you had to do was listen to what was being done from decade to decade. There was barrelhouse and boogie woogie in the twenties and thirties, swing and big band in the thirties and forties and after that be-bop. So when I was first starting out in St. Louis, back in the fifties, I had the first Sun Ra disc in my store even back then, and that was fifty-six.
One of the albums that I always made sure to keep in stock was the famous Massy Hall concert.
Massy Hall in Toronto Canada?
Yeah that's the one. Anyway that recording was of Dizzy Gilispe, Charlie Parker, Charlie Mingus, Bud Powell, and Max Roach – hell it's the only recording that is listed under five separate names, because you could put it under anyone of those guys in your catalogue and it wouldn't matter.
You know what's even more amazing, that album still to this day, sells about 10,000 copies every year. The sound had been so badly recorded though that Mingus didn't come through at all on the masters, so they gave them to him before they pressed the album, and he re-recorded all his parts.
But when it comes to the early avant-garde, or you know modern jazz that we recorded at Delmark it was mainly because of Chuck Nessa working with me in those days. The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) were part of a serious jazz movement happening in Chicago in the early days but they hadn't done any recording yet. We're talking about guys lik Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Muhal Richards Abrams, Anthony Braxton, and Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre. It was Chuck who produced those first two albums that we did of the ACCM, which ended up being the first ever discs recorded by them. We also purchased the Transition masters – the label that had produced Sun Ra's first couple of discs with the "Arkestra" , when they folded, and re-issued them.
What these guys were doing was some of the most important music being played at the time, and still is. I have to tell you I'm still not sure that I really understand what's going on all the time, but what's important is they do. They also brought back multiple horn improvisation which was a feature of trad. jazz that died out when the focus shifted to the solo work that was the focus of be bop. It's funny you know because these guys don't play trad. jazz but they draw upon it for inspiration.
That's something I can really appreciate is that they understand there's a history to the music and they're not afraid to use what's been done before as a springboard to bigger and better stuff. It pisses me off that the jazz media ignores trad. jazz, and that so many people won't even give it the time of day or just dismiss it out of hand. The pity of it is that's it really good stuff
Something that I've noticed is that there's been a resurgence of interest it in since Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans – maybe something good will come out of that and people will start listening to it again.
There have been lots of changes in the recording industry since you started, not the least being the change from analog to digital. Part of that change has included making it easier to film and produce records of live performances with DVDs. Delmark has recently started producing it's own line of DVDs, featuring live concerts in Chicago's bars and small venues. When and why did you start producing them?
Well you've got to remember that I went to school for cinematography so I've always been interested in film. It just wasn't economical before digital media and video cameras. It's mainly my brothers Tom and Steve who do the filming. Tom actually did become a camera man and worked on shows like The Rockford Files and was a Director of Photography on some other stuff. We'll sometimes use as many as ten cameras on a shoot.
Of course there was an initial outlay for buying all the equipment, but we thought it was a market move that would work and make sense for what we'd been trying to do with all of our recordings, trying to capture the live sound. We've had some good success selling them, especially at gigs. For a lot of the bands we record, gig sales are really important because like we talked about earlier there just aren't the record stores there used to be that sell jazz and blues records and keep them in stock.
It used to be that there were chains you could put a record in all across the country, but now you're lucky if you can get into something like Wal-Mart. The one cross country chain left doesn't even pay its bills right now, and you don't want to be chasing after people to get your money, because it almost ends up costing you more than it's worth. You used to have a great store up in Toronto
Sam The Record Man – yeah he went out of business a little while ago.
Yeah I know, so there's not much in the way up there of cross country chains either.
Well there's HMV and another small one called Sunrise, but I'm not sure if Sunrise goes across the country.
Well that's the way it is down here with Towers gone out of business now. The other thing is there aren't even that many distributors anymore – maybe four or five really big ones that get you into stores. But a lot of our bands don't play outside of Chicago so who's going to be buying them in Peoria or some small town in the Mid West anyway? So gig sales become really important because of that – and the DVDs give us something else to sell. People have just been watching the band on stage so a DVD is an attractive offering because it's a chance to be able to take them home with you in a way you can't with a CD.
You've been doing this for fifty-five years now, I guess the inevitable questions are when you started out doing this way back when, did you see it lasting for this long and becoming as big as it has and do you have any regrets?
You know it's harder to get out of this business than it is to get into it. You end up sinking so much money into it, that you can't afford to stop. The past five years have been tough, and we're just starting to come back up to zero again, maybe. The DVDs have helped and we got lucky with a couple of CDs last year selling better than we had hoped. I can only hope that it keeps going that way and my wife and son can get some of the money we lost.
The only regrets I've had are the missing chances of recording some people, just not being in the right place at the right time. I almost did some folk recordings once, even tough it wasn't really my thing, but at one point there were some really good people playing in Chicago. There was this one time this guy was playing in town and everybody kept saying you should go check him out and all, but I kept putting it off. You know how it is, people tell you some guy is amazing and he's really not all that hot shit.
Well it turned out the guy was amazing, John Prine, and I went up to him after his show and said you know I've got a record label and I'd love to record you. He told me that he had already had two offers, one was from Atlantic and I think the other was Capital. I told him he should really go with Atlantic cause they had a better reputation for handling their people. That's who he ended up signing with, so I like to think I maybe helped him make up his mind.
But really you know, I've done okay and I've no regrets about anything.
I think it's a sad commentary on the music business and pop music in general that Bob Koester and Delmark records aren't household names considering the contribution that both he and his label have made over the past fiftey-five years. In spite of what he said about it being harder to get out of the music business than starting in it, there have been plenty of other independent labels that haven't stood the test of time the way he and his label has.
I think of all the people they give Grammys too for lifetime achievement awards or contributions to the recording industry, and there are few who can match what Bob has done with his label. Not only has he recorded some of the best and the brightest jazz and blues players of our time, but he has salvaged some incredible music from the past that might have otherwise been lost forever.
Take for example the latest project that Delmark has undertaken. The re-mastering of old player piano rolls onto CD that were first recorded back in the 1920's and thirties and then later recorded on the Euphonic label. But if it weren't for Bob and Delmark this piece of American music history would have been lost. Go to the Delmark web site and look through their on line catalogue, or get a copy of the Jazz Record Mart's (the Delmark record store) newsletter, Rhythm & News sent to you, or download the PDF version and you'll get an idea of what I'm talking about.
But Delmark Record is more than just music and video. It's a history of the only music born on this continent. Every jazz and blues lover in North America, and the world, owes a vote of thanks to Mr. Koester for founding this label and sharing with the rest of us his love for it all, no matter what form it takes.