Bob Koester: The Purest of Purists

Remembering the life of the man who kept the spirit of jazz and blues alive and thriving in Chicago

RIP Bob Koester (Art: Ron Hart)

Every time I exit the Red Line subway at Grand Ave. in Chicago, I keep half-expecting my feet to take me to the Jazz Record Mart.

Even though it ceased operation in 2016, I was a habitual shopper for years. As a steady customer, music writer and diehard blues fan, I was in and out of the JRM/Delmark Records universe for years. Besides being friends with various musicians and employees, I penned the liner notes to a Dave Specter album, and Rockin’ Johnny Burgin recorded a song I wrote. The owner, Bob Koester, was famously known for talking at length about random blues and jazz minutiae to anybody within earshot.

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

I was on the receiving end more than once; one of the first times I went to the JRM as a teenager, without my father, he started rambling on to me, at length, about the covers Andy Warhol painted for Blue Note albums. He never remembered my name until maybe four years before they closed down (and then he forgot again). Just the same, I dug hearing the stories, whether they were told directly to me or overheard while I was looking through the 45s. Prior to his passing on May 12, aged 88, the man led a full life, and did a lot to raise the profile of jazz and blues in Chicago – and elsewhere.

Bob Koester at the register of Jazz Record Mart (Photo: Facebook)

My father used to shop here in the 70s, and as a grade-school kid I used to tag along with him. The place was still on Grand Ave. then, and seemed as esoteric as a record store could get, with handwritten signs (this was pre-computer age), a smallish space and just about every Etta James and Bo Diddley record ever issued. (And mostly male customers, although they did have a small spike of females when CDs were hot.) By the time I started going there on my own in the 80s, it was still on Grand but the space was bigger. As a teenage blues fan who didn’t know too many other blues fans (yet), I was gratified to be shopping in a Madonna-free zone. Some of the older wax hounds I knew may have found future collectors items for pennies on the dollar while I was barely in the first grade, but I still managed to dig up some classics in the 80s and beyond. I still kept buying records there through two more locations, as well as attending all kinds of live shows in the space, from Terry Callier to Louisiana Red. Koester wasn’t there every day, but he made his presence known when he did.

His irascibility was no joke; during the first few years of the Chicago Blues Festival, the Jazz Record Mart had a stand. In that environment, Koester just stopped short of cracking a whip as he loudly barked at his employees about some issue or other. Once, I was in the shop talking with a friend and recommending an excellent Delmark CD compilation called Chicago Ain’t Nothing But A Blues Band. This anthology compiled a gang of sides recorded for the Atomic-H label between 1958-60, with Eddy Clearwater and others. As I was telling my friend, a number of the best cuts sounded like Chuck Berry-styled rock & roll (including the two excepted below). When Koester overheard me refer to one of his albums as “rock & roll,” he looked straight at me and raised an eyebrow as if to say “are you sure?”  Robert Gregg Koester, patron saint of blues and jazz, was the purest of purists.


AUDIO: Johnnie Rodgers “I Am A Lucky, Lucky Man”

Much has been said about whether blues and jazz are dead, alive, in rehab, in the ER, or on the way back. Bob Koester, in the city of Chicago, did as much for both musics as anyone. For 57 years and four locations, from the tail end of the 78 era up through the advent of mp3s, the Jazz Record Mart managed to remain Chicago’s leading retailer of two of America’s most indigenous musics. There was serious competition through the years, like Rose Records and Tower Records, both now gone. Even though those shops had entire blues and jazz rooms (and the inventory to back it up), the Jazz Record Mart gave fans of this music their own shop.

And in the great tradition of record stores who have spinoff labels, the JRM gave us Delmark Records, which still continues to document, and reissue, classic blues, jazz and the occasional act that is neither (like singer-songwriter Frank Morey, as well as John Prine, who almost recorded for the label until Atlantic stole him away). Independent labels have always had the corner on jazz and especially blues, but Delmark more or less ushered in a new breed of label that existed not to create hits, but to document living traditions that continued to be steady sellers for years.

A couple of years after Delmark was founded in 1958, over on the West Coast, the Arhoolie label was founded by Chris Strachwitz. Folkways Records in NYC preceded both by maybe a decade, and in the next few decades, various blues indies came and went: Rounder, Flying Fish (no longer active), and probably the most visible of all, Bruce Iglauer’s Alligator label, which was founded in ’71 and did a lot to jumpstart the blues resurgence of the 80s and 90s. However, the Delmark label casts a shadow across most of these companies as a sort of godfather of the scene. Magic Sam’s West Side Soul and Junior Wells’ Hoodoo Man Blues continue to make Essential Blues Albums lists long after their release. This is without even mentioning the other outstanding blues acts that passed through Delmark’s portals over the years: J.B. Hutto, Sleepy John Estes, Luther Allison, Otis Rush, Jimmy Johnson, Dave Specter, Rockin’ Johnny Burgin, Toronzo Cannon, Lurrie Bell, Johnny B. Moore, Big Joe Williams, Jimmy Burns and many others.


AUDIO: Eddy Clearwater “Hillbilly Blues”

In addition, Delmark has done more to expose the art of blues piano more than any other company (aside from Steven Dolins’ label, The Sirens). The piano has always been an underrated element of the blues, and the label always worked overtime to keep it in the public eye, even releasing a compilation called Blues Piano Orgy. The first Delmark blues album was by Speckled Red back in ’61, and they continued to document the likes of Roosevelt Sykes, Aaron Moore, Curtis Jones, Sunnyland Slim, Piano Red, and the extremely overlooked Big Doo Wopper, a blind street musician who released two lost classics on the label in the early 2000s. Over on the jazz side, Delmark distinguished itself by satisfying the traditionalists and the adventurous end. Big band, Dixieland, straight-ahead bop and the avant garde were all equally represented in the Delmark roster, which continues today through new owners Julia A. Miller and Elbio Barilari. The store itself closed down in 2016, victim of higher rents. Koester soon reappeared with a new store, Bob’s Blues & Jazz Mart, on Irving Park Road, which will remain in business, according to the Koester family.

Towards the end of 2020, Koester suffered from a stroke that he didn’t quite recover from. While he had already left Delmark in the hands of the new owners, he still continued to show up at the new store, until his passing. He still felt that urge to keep busy. Several Delmark recordings have become part of the blues/jazz legacy, from Magic Sam to Sun Ra, from Big Joe Williams to Kalaparusha. Thanks to Koester’s efforts, these seminal recordings will never fall out of the canon. 



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James Porter

James Porter writes about rock & soul history. He is also a DJ on Chicago's WLUW.

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