When Bob Koester started selling old jazz and blues recordings scrounged from second-hand stores out of a box in his college dormitory back in the early 1950s I doubt he would have believed it you if you told him that years later he would not only still be selling records, but would also be the owner of one of the oldest independent record labels in the United States. After all, his love of jazz and blues notwithstanding, his ambition was to become a cinematographer not a record producer. Yet somehow those boxes under the bed turned into Delmark Records, arguably one of the most influential jazz and blues labels in North America. (For a detailed account of Delmark and Koester's history read parts one and two of an interview I conducted with him about a year ago.)
Through buying up the back catalogs of defunct jazz and blues labels and lovingly restoring recordings from their master tapes (and in some cases the piano rolls of player pianos), Delmark has created a catalog of recordings that traces the as far back as the 1920s and through myriad changes in style. Even in their early years, though, the company was just as concerned with recording contemporary performers as with reissues and have continually searched out talented and innovative artists indiscriminate of style or age. There aren't many labels who can boast issuing current recordings of Dixieland jazz and releases by members of Chicago's avant-garde jazz community at the same time, but with Delmark you never know what treasures they have in store for you.
I've seen and heard everything from a German traditional jazz band featuring a washboard player performing at an Ace Hardware in downtown Chicago (it had originally been a jazz club in the 1920s where people like Louis Armstrong had played) to stuff so experimental I doubt I'll ever understand it, but that left me strangely moved anyway. Delmark's blues catalog is just as diverse and includes everything from barrelhouse piano, country blues from Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee, to live recordings from the stages and floors of Chicago's blues clubs where Buddy Guy still plays and Little Walter once stood.
Even more remarkable is the role that Delmark, and Koester, have played in ensuring the future of blues recordings. Not only did they help establish the Chicago Blues Festival and continue to record blues artists of all stripes either live or in the studio, they have been the training ground for those who have gone on to found important blues labels like Alligator, Earwig, and Rooster Blues. For those of you like me who've not been able to see the inside of a Chicago blues club, Delmark's DVD recordings of gigs around the town have brought the blues alive in a way that no other label has. Entering into a neighborhood bar like B.L.U.E.S. through a camera lens is the next best thing to actually being there to watch Jimmy Burns and his band sweat their way through a riveting set of high energy, electric blues.
In the past few years of reviewing discs I've been fortunate enough to watch and listen to a great many of Delmark's recordings. But that only represents three years of the fifty-five years of material they've produced, so each of the two-disc sets (one CD and one DVD apiece) made to commemorate the label's fifty-fifth anniversary, Delmark: 55 Years Of Jazz and Delmark: 55 Years Of Blues, contain tracks that I've not heard before. As DVD production has only been added to their catalog in the last few years the CDs are a more accurate representation of the label's history with tracks like Big Joe Williams' "Coffeehouse Blues" dating back to his 1961 release I Got Wild and Speckled Red's "The Right String But The Wrong Yo-Yo" from one of the earliest recordings, The Dirty Dozens of 1956.
On Delmark: 55 Years Of Jazz they've included a little something special extra – some of their reissues. The 1944 album Rainbow Mist featured a band with Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach among others, and the track selected, "Bu-De-Dant", has Hawkins taking the lead. Twelve years later Sun Ra released Sun Song, and the track "Brainville" may not follow in exact chronological order from the Hawkins' number, but it comes right after it on this disc and is another recording that Koester and company gave a second life.
When the Chicago avant-garde first started to hit their stride and groups like the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) were forming up, it was Delmark who produced their first two discs. Although there aren't any examples of their work on this release, a couple of their descendants, so to speak, show up on the DVD. The Ritual Trio and Chicago Underground Trio are taking jazz to and beyond frontiers that twenty years ago nobody would have believed possible.
It's only fitting that both of these bands are represented on the DVD half of the release, as they really have to be seen to be believed. Chronicle, the DVD that the Chicago Underground Trio's track "Power" is taken from, was accompanied by visual effects created by filmmaker Raymond Salvatore Harmon inspired by the music. While this is only an excerpt from "Power", it's enough for you to see the amazing potential for combining abstract video art with the type of experimental music that the Trio is creating. What's even more amazing is that you're watching it on a disc produced by a commercial company, not public television or a state-funded art gallery.
Yet, that's what Delmark Records is all about, making sure that all types of jazz and blues are recorded, not just what's popular at the moment. Dixieland, or traditional jazz, has fallen out of favor among certain circles in the jazz world, but that doesn't stop Bob Koestler from seeking out and recording bands that are still active. In our interview Koestler mentioned that one of the things he really appreciated about the people involved in the AACM was that they understood there's a history to jazz and they weren't afraid to use what had been done before as a springboard for what they were doing.
Listening to either Delmark: 55 Years Of Jazz or Delmark: 55 Years Of Blues gives a unique perspective of that history as you hear the evolution of various styles and modes of expression over the last fifty-five years, a small slice of the nearly century's worth of music the label represents. Names like Anthony Braxton and Roosevelt Sykes might not have shown up in any of the history books you studied in school, but they are part of the fabric of our culture. It's not often you get to see and hear history and see and hear it being made, yet that's what Delmark Records does with every disc they release and these two are no exception.