Chicago’s quirky hero of blues and jazz in NYT

Bob Koester, owner-operator of Delmark Records and the Jazz Record Mart, is celebrated in the New York Times’ Arts & Leisure section today. He’s documented and marketed South and West Side soul, AACM innovation, trad jazz and the Mississippi Delta blues revival. I’m among the many music fans who grew up in his sway — and include my 12-best list of albums Koester brought to life.

On my 17th birthday I wandered into the JRM, a small storefront on a dingy commercial corner of Near North Chicago, intending to take advantage of a post-Christmas inventory sale. It was upstairs of a subway stop, next to a steam-table restaurant for pensioners from a SRO hotel that was one-step from Skid Row, and was filled with bins of odd LPs, decorated with newspaper clippings — reviews and obits — taped to its walls. I felt like Aladdin looking into the cave of treasures.

It struck me as fascinating that a gruff black man missing several teeth and with a Southern accent so thick I couldn’t make out a word sat on a stool by the door (this was guitarist-singer Big Joe Williams, who at the time was sleeping in the store’s basement, though I didn’t know that and hadn’t heard a measure of his music yet). I thought it odd that piles of 78s priced at a dime or a quarter took up center tables. But music across genre was pouring from the store’s turntable and there was Koester — a voluble nut who would start ranting about some platter I’d pulled from the “used” section and end 20 minutes later having detailed its obscure provenance and arcane history as if regaling me with information about the Hope Diamond.
He told me I couldn’t possibly understand pianist-composer-clarinetist Muhal Richard Abrams’ Levels and Degrees of Light if I didn’t prepare by listening to Sleepy John Estes’ “Rats in My Kitchen,” which I believed at the time was precisely the folk music I was trying to escape via dramatic contemporary alternatives. Koester’s hipster-beatnik clerks — especially the red-bearded and pony-tailed Man in Black — weren’t as bluntly pedantic when they dropped hints as to what I should hear, but they had a storehouse of information and taste that has guided me to this very day.
I spent a bulk of my free time over the next five years hanging out at the JRM, reading liner notes, listening to music for free, buying what I could afford, awed when Junior Wells, Jimmy Dawkins (with hungry-looking German Shepherds), Otis Rush, Joseph Jarman of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Joe Segal of the Modern Jazz Showcase and diverse visiting musicians would drop in to shop (or sometimes ask for advances, royalties, copies of their Delmark albums to hawk on the road). Attending to the cross-section of Chicagoans who came in to buy their sounds, I learned a lot about the breadth of tastes and the complex continuums of American music. I worked as a clerk at the JRM the year after I got out of college ($60 a week), sweeping the floor and selling records. I loved the place, came to embrace Speckled Red’s boogie-woogie piano as much as the early efforts of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, and have never abandoned my wonder at the universe Koester convened, created and has sustained.
I was lucky to spend evenings with Koester in Chicago blues clubs, and to attend Delmark recording sessions. We’re all lucky to have the music he’s issued. Here are my picks of essential Delmark recordings — highly subjective choices and weighted towards the early catalog. Hear them and judge their enduring qualities for yourself. 
  • Hoodoo Man Blues — Junior Well sings slyly seductive lyrics spiced by his exacting harmonica breaks; Buddy Guy plays guitar with unusually restrained sensitivity, the rhythm team is also perfect. 
  • Sweet Home Chicago — A roundup of the West Side Chicagoans including immortals Magic Sam and Luther Allison and saxophonist Eddie Shaw, retooling electric blues to express their aspirations and frustrations in the mid ’60s. 
  • The Legend of Sleepy John Estes — A Tennessee bluesman pre-WWII, rediscovered blind and broke by Koester in ’62 and subsequently gaining 15 more years of a touring/recording career. He’s subdued, withdrawn, hurt but quietly triumphant and indisputably, genuinely blue.
  • The Dirty Dozens — Speckled Red was a St. Louis albino pianist, who here performs a wonderfully bouncy solo recital complete with raunchy lyrics requiring repeated listening to decode. 
  • A Cold Day in Hell — Otis Rush’s most varied and heartfelt album, may uneven but full of his exciting, lyrical, jazzy guitar work in support of the groan and cry of his voice. 
  • Things To Come From Those Now Gone — Muhal Richard Abrams, recently named an NEA Jazz Master, in his third Delmark album strikes a better balance between form and content with lesser-know but stalwart AACM colleagues than in his earlier Levels and Degrees and Young At Heart/Wise In Time, making this a fine introduction to his ouevre.
  • Three Compositions of New Jazz — Saxophonist Anthony Braxton’s compositions still sound unique and haunting, with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, violinist Leroy Jenkins, and Abrams playing piano.
  • Song For — Saxophonist and poet Joseph Jarman is the leader but with tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson’s band, thorny and meditative, garrulous and touchingly quiet too.
  • Sound — Saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell explores micro and macro sonics, displaying a wickedly sense of humor (on “Little Suite” in particular) and complete control of his horn.
  • Humility in the Light of the Creator — Saxophonist Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre’s powerful road-seldom-taken beyond the paths forged by Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders, beautifully orchestrated but profoundly, organically improvised
  • Bluesiana — Koester’s personal enthusiasm for trad jazz (aka dixieland) was inexplicable to me as a youth, but his depth of knowledge has unearthed gems like this one by Kansas City Frank Melrose, the piano-playing, composing and bandleading son of Jelly Roll Morton’s publishers. Very sharp pre-Swing Era jazz, like Chicago’s gangsters enjoyed. See also Delmark albums by Art Hodes, Albert Nicholas, clarinetist George Lewis and trumpeter DeweyJackson.
  • Street of Dreams Black Unstoppable — Nicole Mitchell is a world-class flutist and ambitious composer, leading light of today’s AACM (Chicago branch), Muhal’s founding generation having mostly moved to New York. Her Black Earth Ensemble is still evolving; this recording provides a taste of its diversified repertoire. 
This list reflects my own specific favorites more than the breadth of the Delmark catalog, which also contains classic hardbop by Ira Sullivan, accordion jazz by Leon Sash, two tightly arranged early Sun Ra albums, J.B. Hutto’s rough hewn Hawk Squat, trumpeter Rob Mazurek’s Exploding Star Orchestra, brothers George and Von Freeman on the groovy Birth Sign, AACMers including Kahil El Zabar, Ari Brown and Ernest Dawkins who should be more widely enjoyed, three more superb Junior Wells albums (Blues Hit Big Town demonstrates how Mick Jagger hoped to drawl), the most of harp monster Little Walter, underrated harmonicaist Cary Bell and his luminous guitar playing son Lurrie, bumptious piano by Roosevelt Sykes, classic blues by Edith Wilson and much more. I still visit the JRM every summer when I’m in Chicago, to learn about local artists, to pick up on rare imports and to refresh my dose of what Koester has most of all: unbounded joy in what’s old or new but strong and sweet even when rough or sad. 
Thanks, Bob — which was also the message when the Jazz Journalists Association named him to its “A Team” of activists, advocates, altruists, aiders and abettors of jazz in 2008. Probably every jazz journalist can point to a figure like Koester who helped them early on. Your nominations of similar important influencers — those who made music clear and/or simply available — are very welcome as comments, especially if they can bring us to understand where such mentors and guides can be found today.
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  1. Michael J. West says

    Made a point of dropping in this past Memorial Day to the store’s current location, just a couple blocks from my hotel on the Mag Mile. Ended up going back…and back…spending more money than I care to admit. The guys working there knew their stuff, of course, but what really impressed me was that they bent over backwards to help. When I mentioned something I wanted that I couldn’t find in the bins, they showed me where else to look; they checked their backstock; they practically turned the store upside down with “I KNOW we have it” aplomb.
    My influencer? Jim Steele, who for nearly 20 years hosted a Friday night show called “Jazz Place” on the NPR station in my hometown (Winston-Salem, NC). It’s where I first heard John Coltrane, Nina Simone, Bill Evans, the Marsalises…all the music that changed my life. Jim’s retired now but the show lives on; sometimes I even tune in on the web from D.C. when I’m home on a Friday night.
    P.S. So was Koester right about Muhal Richard Abrams and Sleepy John Estes?
    HM: No, I don’t think he was. I listened seriously and obsessively to AACM music as soon as it was issued, in part because it was so unusual, wherever it was from. I was interested in creativity of such dynamic drama made so close to home — I was able to hear the AACM big band, hear them play in small groups, and it was listening music (as opposed to the folk blues being hootenanies and the electr blues being bar music — I was still underage). I didn’t realize blues played a huge part in it; as we understand it now, blues was so throughout it music could sound like anything else, too. Muhal’s released (even the mix-problematic Levels and Degrees), Jarman-Mitchell-Braxton releases and non-Delmark Atlantic, ESP, Impulse!, Blue Note and occasionally Columbia records, ostensibly experimental, extremely expressionistic — that’s what I wanted. It may have taken me a while to understand what was them deemed far out stuff — of course it did — but I didn’t come to my understanding of it by way of Delta blues. The AAACM spoke to me of modernism, transformation, intensity, intelligence, determination, originality, irony, sarcasm, lyricism, rhythm, musical twists I’d never imagined but that let me imagine and understand many more — all together, formidable power. That was not something I heard in Sleepy John’s blues (or Big Joe’s, Arthur Crudup’s, others of the esteemed elders Koester had on sessions).
    Koester’s influence was responsible for my digging the blues itself, though. At his urging I bought the battered used copy of the Legend of Sleepy John I’ve still got, and listened to it occasionally, eventually getting into it. It was a break from the rest of my faves. I liked the Speckled Red because I’d taken piano lessons and could sort of imitate himt; I liked a Chess anthology album misleading named “Folk Festival of the Blues” (reissued eventually as Bill Bill’s Blues Show, Live at the Macombo). But my real blues breakthrough listening-wise came from Delmark’s Hoodoo Man: Junior and Buddy and the Aces making it up-to-date Latinate dark mixed street Chicago. Better than rock ‘n’ roll, bluer than Butterfield or the Blues Project, much slicker than Dylan, dirtier than the Stones, prior to Hendrix, tastily mixed as Rubber Soul, tight like that.
    Which made me trust and investigate the blues, onto attending the first three Ann Arbor Blues and Blues & Jazz Festivals, one day hearing afternoon sets by Bukka White, Dr. Isiah Ross, Fred McDowell and Sykes among other old-school exemplars, and T-Bone Walker followed by a fantastic Luther Allison in the evening (if I remember that rightly — I’m sure the real sched is up online. . .)

  2. phil wight says

    Magic Sam – West Side Soul – the dog’s bollocks!!!!!!
    HM: Quite so — Black Magic and Magic Sam Live at Ann Arbor are also stellar — I went for Sweet Home Chicago due to its having Magic Sam AND Luther Allison cuts, as well as some other Delmarkians. There are more than 12 masterworks from Delmark (Art Ensemble Live at Mandel Hall, Jimmy Forrest playing All The GIn is Gone,” Braxton’s For Alto, Otis R’s So Many Roads, Sykes’ Feel Like Blowing My Horn,” Dawkins’ All For Business, pianist Jim Baker solo, some rare Earl Hines. . .
    Oh yes and Koester, always an old movie nut too, has launched the good idea recently of issuing full length videos of the performances on record. Quite a feat for musicians these days to pull that off, whether we appreciate it yet or not.

  3. Al Oxley says

    The one entry on your essential Delmark list which I would give a rousing endorsement to is Otis Rush’s “A Cold Day In Hell”. Other reviewers prefer his earliest work, but this one is a full-blown tour de force of heartfelt vocals and soulful guitar of a magnitude that is rarely accomplished. On my list, I would also place Jimmy Dawkins’ “All For Business”, another classic blues album. By the way, I for one would like to hear more of your tales of JRM experiences as you mentioned Dawkins with his “hungry-looking German Shephards”.
    HM: I was at one of the sessions for “Cold Day,” heard Otis record the swinging “Motoring Along” and the operatic title track.As for Dawkins, I recall him coming to the JRM with those dogs in the back of his station-wagon-like vehicle, which had a mesh metal cage separating them from the drivers’ seat. They looked threatening to me, not a great dog fancier, and Dawkins was just as the title of his record, all for business — very upright in bearing, serious of demeanor, not immediately expressing warmth or humor. He and Bob talked privately, I don’t know about what — he could have been asking for a check or another record date or passing the time of day. Anyway, Dawkins didn’t let the dogs out of the car, far as I recall, so it was just the *idea* that he brought them to show off or be seen.
    Let me be clear: Bob Koester wasn’t in need of being scared to pay musicians or anyone else. He is not a greedy man by any stretch, though he doesn’t mind making a buck; he may be cheap because he doesn’t have a lot of money or expect to have a lot of money, but I never heard anyone accuse him of profiting off of their work unfairly, or holding out on them. Stretching what he had to cover what he needed, yes. . .Who in the blues & jazz world hasn’t done that?
    Bob has his unaccountable favorites and has made some dud records.I don’t think much of the Mighty Joe Young album — at least not enough to have listened to it for years — and I don’t care about most any of the revival trad bands he holds in high regard. The responsibility he gave musicians to produce themselves was sometimes more than they could handle, and he sometimes trusted collaborators to do what would look like the “producing” (running the session): Chuck Nessa and Steve Tomachevsky were two of them during my closest years around that scene, and athe records worked out pretty well. But what Bob is unparalleled at is gathering lots of wacky, original music lovers around him, his store, his label, his likes and dislikes, having a place where Mike Bloomfield, Charlie Musselwhite, Washboard Hank the Crank, Kalaparusha Ara Difda, Jim deJong, Larry Birnbaum, Debbie Nathan, John Litweiler, J.B. Figi, Terry Martin, Blind Arvella Grey, Harriet Choice, Josh Berman, B. Ruby Rich, Marguerite Horberg, Sparrow, Jeff Vega, Ray Townley, Erwin Helfer, Pete Crawford, blues poet Wes Race, my photo buddy Marc PoKempner, Juan Montenegro, Jim Neumann of Beehive Records, Peter Margasak, me and Koester’s sterlingly patient wife Sue among countless others were drawn to, to work or hang and talk, buy records, plot to enjoy and advance the music we were and are accountably or otherwise drawn to.