Delmark Records interview with founder Robert G. Koester

November 28, 2016

Delmark Records interview with founder Robert G. Koester

Robert G. Koester founded one of the most influential labels for Jazz and Blues. Delmark Records released a ton of amazing artists and are still active after so many years. Mr. Koester shared with us his story.

Where does your love towards jazz music originate from? What were some of the musicians you first experienced and found them more interesting and different?
There wasn’t much jazz where I was born in Wichita, Kansas, but I managed to hear an Eddie Condon show on a network not carried in Wichita from a station in Oklahoma. But I possibly first got interested in jazz when my folks moved into Dad’s father’s house where there was a large 78 collection consisting mostly of classical music. One of the DJ’s on local KAKE played some jazz (“No Nam Jive” by Glan Gray’s band.) Bear in mind that big band swing was the pop music of my teen years. The first live jazz I heard was a local band but I think I managed to hear KC tenor man Tommy Douglas once or twice. Julia Lee was one of my favourites (got me into blues) but my parents wouldn’t let me go see her or Jay McShann when they came to town. I didn’t know about the Monday Night black bands at the Blue Moon or I might have made that.
You experienced so many different aspects of music making. What era do you think was the most exciting for music?
Well, I always preferred trad jazz (and hate the word “dixieland”) but thanks to Don Hoffman in Wichita and Joe Segal in Chicago I got my ears into modern. But in Wichita I picked up whatever I could find in the Sal Army or 2nd hand stores or jukebox operators. The guy who had the Record Shop had bought a lot of old 78’s (including pre-war) from Chicago and so had stuff probably never sold in Wichita, though a back store did exist. I managed to buy records from two black jukebox operators including some Robert Johnson. Now that I know blues is at the heart of all jazz, I wonder why so many whites looked down on blues in those days, but it made them leave good stuff behind at the salvage stores. I was mostly interested in black bands and combos, incl. Lucky Millender and Jimmie Lunceford.
Delmark originate from St. Louis, Missouri. It was formed by you back in 1953. It was time of the upcoming Bebop wave. It must had been a very exciting place and time to start a label dedicated to Jazz and Blues music?
I am truly sorry I wasn’t into bop enough to record Jimmy Forrest or Oliver Nelson, etc. When I was in St. Louis, it took me awhile to even get into Bob Graf. I recorded Speckled Red cause I liked boogie woogie (more than blues then) but Big Joe Williams turned me onto country blues as a still existing music. 
St. Louis had more music than I could keep up with. I met Walter Davis, Edith Johnson, Henry Brown, Stump Johnson, etc. but didn’t have the bread to record with them. (I belatedly mention that I couldn’t enter a black club that was featuring Lonnie Johnson in Wichita) because the sheriff wouldn’t allow mixed crowds there. I guess that kept me from hearing the mainstream and pop musicians that played at black clubs in St. Louis.

Before starting your label, you were a big record collector and record trader, just starting your own business with records.

Glenn Miller’s contract with RCA was apparently too steep for them to keep much of his stuff in print so there was a demand for his discs which were not too hard to find but in great demand. So I always had spare copies to trade or sell. There was one collector in Wichita who specialized in Miller so that was nice because he spent a lot of time at 2nd hand, Sally Army, etc. 
The first ad was in a Mimeo, Canadian magazine and I sold all the Miller’s (only artist) I advertised but that was the end of my merchandising until I was in St. Louis. When I went to college it had to be a Catholic one so I went to St. L.U. A trad jazz was a block from the campus and two blacks from the dorms which was virtually across the street from the western border of the black neighbourhood and c.4 blocks from the leading modern jazz club (which did allow causcs) and the bar owned by Charlie Thompson who won the last ragtime contest in 1916 and recorded for Bill Russel’s American Music label.
How did the record store grow into a label?
I met Ron Fister who collected mostly sweet big bands and Billie Holiday, and we opened the Blue Note Record Shop. The first jazz band at the first club was The Windy City Six (later The Mound City 6) and that was the first Delmark studio project. However, when I went to the Barrel (on Delmar) before I started the label, to hear a band consisting of Dewey Jackson, tp; Frank Chace., cl Don Ewell, p; Booker T. Washington, dms and ex-St. Louisian Sid Dawson, tbn. I spent a lot of time there. I had a show in the student station (too introverted to do the announcing) playing jazz records to a tiny listenership. The guy who did the announcing was able to borrow a pro tape machine and we recorded Dewey, etc. By the time I thought of issuing the tape years later it was in bad shape but when digital came in we were able to issued it not long ago – to very disappointing sales because for some reason I can’t grasp, it was generally ignored by the jazz magazines. (And of course there’s little or no trad jazz being played by jazz DJ’s these days).

You started searching for local talent and found many incredible artists, including Big Joe Williams, Speckled Red, James Crutchfield, J.D. Short and others. What can you tell us about searching for those musicians back then and how did you first encounter legendary Big Joe Williams?
The blues bands that I heard in St. Louis seemed to be so derivative and disorganised that they didn’t interest me (though I had a lot of Jr Wells, Muddy, Wolf, Magic Sam, etc. in my coll). A police lieutenant named Charlie O’Brien – fellow member of the St. Louis Jazz Club (which sadly decided to limit performances to trad – but did white Big Joe, Sp. Reed, etc.) wanted to test his skills by looking up some of the old musicians. The St. Louis Jazz Club had found the old trad jazz guys but I gave him a list of St. Louis bluesmen who had recorded over the previous years and he found them all or learned of their death. Charlie deserves the few tunes dedicated to him by the various artists.
Oh, none of us encountered Big Joe Williams until he somehow heard of my interest in blues and showed up at the Blue Note Record Shop one day. He wanted us to hear him (with his cousin J.D. Short) at a home in the ghetto. I already had most of Joe’s 78’s on Bluebird, Trumpet, etc. (as well as the great Columbia’s) so I knew of his immense talent and he agreed to record an immense amount of stuff. He recorded stuff beyond what he was, at the time, paid. J.D. however had to be paid immediately so we didn’t ever finish his project. Joe told me that he knew a lot of artists from his travels: Sleepy John, Kokomo, etc.

In 1958 you moved to Chicago. What made you move?
I moved to Chicago because John Steiner urged me to do so in order to buy his Paramount holdings. I used to visit his place on Ashaland (shared by Bill Russell of AM records) during my St. Louis years. “Get going young fellow” was his last word in that letter which I still have and want to frame). So I did. Later he loaned me the money to buy Seymour’s Record Mart, the Chicago jazz shop at 439 St. Wabash. But I got interested in recording Chicago blues and jazz. Besides Riverside had a no-end-term lease, had issued all the great jazz plus Ma Rainey, so I concentrated on Chicago blues and jazz artists. Joe Segal did the bop and the artists did the avant garde. I wasn’t into the avant garde but trusted Don De Michael, Pete Welding and others who urged me to do it.
St. Louis had some avant garde artists but I didn’t know of them and perhaps no one would have wanted me to record them.
So the AACM and the blues deprived Delmark of Paramount. I don’t mind. 
You bought Seymour’s Jazz Mart, and rename it to Jazz Record Mart, Delmark Records. Soon the diverse Delmark catalogue started growing with artists such as George Lewis, Barney Bigard, Jimmy Forrest, Bud Powell, Donald Byrd, Ira Sullivan and many others like for instance blues legend Sleepy John Estes. How did the process of finding and signing up artists look like?
I didn’t rename Seymour’s until I had to move the shop because the Roosevelt U. Building was expanding into our space. It had been Seymour’s Loop Jazz Record Mart. We were no longer in the loop and Seymour was gone so those two words were eliminated. I thought Seymour’s was virtually out of business when I got it. But thanks to Joe Segal (even before he came back to work at 439 S Wabash – he had worked for Seymour) we built up a nice modern jazz stock and following. Joe eventually came back to work there and produced our modern jazz albums (Ira, Jimmy, John Young etc.). When Harry Edison came to town we recorded his sidemen, including Jimmy Forrest, and brought Grant Green up from St. Louis (where I wanted to record him before I left for Chicago). The Donald Byrd and Sun Ra, George Lewis, and many other masters were purchases from defunct companies: Transition, Antone, etc. We got the Bud Powell and Archie Shepp from Storyville in a trade for European rights to one of ours. Sleepy John’s first album was done by E.D.Nunn (Audiophile Records). After my move to Chicago I usually used Hall Studios but when Stu Black (engineer) moved over to Chess, we did a lot of stuff there. 
When I bought the building here at 4121 cornetist Paul Serrano dropped by and suggested we buy out his equipment from the studio (which we used after Stu went to Chess) and we did and have lived happily ever after. 
Where did those artists record? Did you have your own studio or did you collaborate with a local studio in Chicago, which recorded musicians for Delmark Records?
The 10” LP’s were done in a private studio in the home of Robert Oswald, whose wife was a prime mover for the St. Louis Jazz Club (which sadly decided to only work on trad jazz even though Clark Terry was at their first meeting). We did The Windy City 6, Sid Dawson and the first Dixie Stompers there for 10” LP’s. 
The second Dixie Stompers was recorded on a riverboat bar by me with what equipment I can’t remember. 
Speckled Red was recorded by me in the home of John Phillips, another SLJC member who had a great record collection including a lot of blues. Big Joe Williams I did at my Blue Note Record Shop.
Through the 1960s the style of jazz and blues changed and so did the whole music scene. You managed to release some further albums by Sun Ra, Junior Wells, Luther Allison – thereupon best in jazz and blues.
The Sun Ra masters (and Donald Byrd) were purchased from the defunct Transition label (who sold their others to Blue Note). Sun Ra was still a “local” artist whose manager operated their label, Saturn. I was very surprised at the sale of the Sun Ra’s but his reputation had exceeded his travel.
I was afraid the white blues audience wouldn’t like Hoodoo Man Blues (Junior Wells’ Chicago Blues Band) but I was very wrong. They had mostly been into country blues but via Muddy and Wolf moved to Chicago blues bands. A guy named Bill Lindeman turned me on to Luther whom he had recorded two tracks in a partnership with harmocist Shakey Jake
Junior signed with Vanguard as a result of the success of Hoodoo Man Blues. When that expired we recorded Southside Blues Jam before he signed with Atlantic and when that expired we did On Tap. Then we bought the United States masters and reissued his earliest sides with Muddy Waters and Elmore James with whom he was working at the time. Sadly (for us) Luther Allison signed with a manager whose demand for further recordings were too far out for us, which is sad because that brilliant and unique artist did little recording before he died.

Association with the Advancement of Creative Musicians helped you to release many interesting acts that you gave an opportunity to be released.
I must admit I was not at all hip to avant garde jazz. But when Pete Welding, Don De Michael and others urged me to record Roscoe Mitchell, etc I did so. As with all our recordings, I don’t “produce” them, I guess I document them. If the artist can’t produce his own music, I can’t.
Not all avant garde guys were in the the AACM – I don’t know which. 
Kahil El Zabir may have been in the AACM but I found his music less “out” (perhaps I was getting more hip to it). I am usually behind the music – took Joe Segal some more time to get my head into bop.

Label is still going strong. What are some of the latest releases that you would like to mention?
Please see our catalogue: 5000 series of jazz and later 800’s of blues.
You’re from generation that experienced a lot of change. One of those changes (beside music business) is the change of format. These days streaming is going really strong, but there is some exciting interest for vinyl format. What do you think about vinyl revival, digital streaming and in general music business model today?
I am glad vinyl is coming back. We kept a lot of items in print on vinyl but I had the pressing plants scrap most of our LP jacket inventory, and I have a photo of myself beside a dumpster filled with LP jackets that I wish we had so we could press them out.
LP’s cost c. 3.60$ for the pressings, printing of jackets (and manufacture) and shrink-wrap, and that’s after several hundred dollars for master lacquer and metal parts.
CD’s cost less than a dollar for pressing and printing plus shrinkwrap. That’s why LP’s cost $20 vs. CD’s $15.99. And that’s why a lot of stuff won’t appear on LP.
Down-loading is a dirty word in the record business today, it’s killing us. Sales can drop to as low in the second years as ½ of 1% when you issue a new album. 
Is it possible to pick a few records from the Delmark discography that you would say are the best, most influential and that you’re most proud of?
The ones that the public and the critics liked the most plus the ones that got ignored and sold terribly few: 
209- Albert Nicholas With Art Hodes ‎- Albert Nicholas With Art Hodes’ All-Star Stompers (The only recordings of a fine New Orleans clarinettist)
219-Paul Lingel – Live

233-Percy Humphrey – Climax Rag

246-Dewey Jackson – Live at the Barrel 1952 (Great St. Louis trumpeter whose idol of Miles Davis)

250-Garvin Bushell & Friends – One Steady Roll

416-Leon Sash – I Remember Newport (Unique and great jazz accordionist)

424-George Freeman – Birth Sign (Fine guitarist with his brother Von Freeman)

454-Jodie Christian, Larry Gray, Vincent Davis – Experience

488-Eric Alexander & Lin Halliday – Stablemates

491-Carl Leukaufe – Warrior

509-Cecil Payne – Payne’s Window

512-Francine Griffin – The Song Bird (The only jazz vocalist I ever wanted to record, and could)

515-Eddie Johnson – Love You Madly

520-Harold Ousley – Grit-Grittin’ Feelin’

579- Sabertooth – Dr. Midnight: Live at the Green Mill

605-Curtis Jones – Lonesome Bedroom Blues

637-Edith Wilson With Little Brother Montgomery & The State Street Ramblers ‎- He May Be Your Man (But He Comes To See Me Sometimes) (The first black blues lady!)

What are some future plans for Delmark Records?
To keep going, but recording only artists who sell their stuff at gigs because the market drops to .5% not 5% after the first year. 

My son also works here though he has a licence to be a lawyer and will inherit Delmark after Susan and I are gone. (Susan is a full time employee also). Steve Wagner has become very important here and does most of the production and is our chief engineer in the studio (which occasionally brings in extra money from rentals). I’m 83 but very stubborn and in good health (but sometimes a poor memory from a stroke fifteen years ago) and I swim weekdays. The doctor says I am in surprisingly good condition.

I would like to thank you for your time. Would you like to send a message to our readers and to fans of music in general?
Please don’t steal the music. It cheats the authors, writers, performers, as well as the labels and the record shops. 
And if you’re only into blues, check out jazz which is totally based on the blues. 

– Klemen Breznikar
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