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Bob Koester, Prime Mover of Chicago Jazz, Dies at 88

He founded the Delmark label and the Jazz Record Mart

Bob Koester
Bob Koester of Jazz Record Mart (photo: Leroy Downs)

Bob Koester, a linchpin of the Chicago jazz community who founded both its oldest independent record label and its most beloved retail shop, died May 12 in Chicago. He was 88.

His death was first reported by the Chicago Sun-Times and confirmed by his son, Robert Joseph Koester. Cause of death was complications from a stroke.

Koester was the driving force behind Delmark Records, a jazz and blues label that he founded in 1953 and that released important recordings by the likes of Sun Ra, Ira Sullivan, Muhal Richard Abrams, and Anthony Braxton—the latter making his label one of the first major platforms for Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). His blues artists included Junior Wells, Luther Allison, and Little Milton.

Through Delmark’s auspices, Koester also revived the career of many musicians from the pre-war period, including those of jazz clarinetist George Lewis and saxophonist Arnett Cobb, and blues singers Speckled Red and Big Joe Williams.

For a time, Delmark shared real estate with Koester’s other business venture, the Jazz Record Mart—which at one point was the world’s largest record store focused on jazz and blues, and for most of its existence was the most successful such establishment.

“Bob Koester was a hugely important and singular figure in Chicago jazz and blues,” critic Howard Reich told the Chicago Tribune.

Robert Gregg Koester was born October 30, 1932 in Wichita, Kansas to Edward Koester, a geologist and petroleum engineer, and the former Mary Frank, a housewife. As a child, Robert was hospitalized with polio. Lying in his bed, he listened to radio broadcasts and fell in love with the sounds of Chicagoans Eddie Condon and Benny Goodman. By the time he was a teenager at St. Mary’s High School, Koester was a record collector, buying 78-rpm discs from the Salvation Army and trading them with friends. After matriculating at St. Louis University, he converted the hobby into a business, selling records by mail order out of his dorm room.

Koester dropped out of SLU but settled in St. Louis, helping to found the St. Louis Jazz Club. Soon afterward, he and another member, Ron Fister, opened K&F Record Sales—later renamed the Blue Note Record Shop. In 1953, Koester and Fister split the business, with Koester opening his own store on St. Louis’ Delmar Boulevard. He named the store after the street—and, later that year, started a recording company of the same name, inaugurating it with a session for a traditional jazz band called the Windy City Six.

Five years later, after building up a catalog by recording local musicians (and by licensing vintage recordings for rerelease), Koester relocated to Chicago, taking over a space called Seymour’s Jazz Mart on Wabash Avenue near Roosevelt University. He renamed the store the Jazz Record Mart and moved the (also renamed) Delmark Records into its basement.

Throughout the 1960s, Delmark became a crucial entity in documenting Chicago’s local blues and jazz scenes. Koester broke bluesman Junior Wells with the classic “Hoodoo Blues,” and elevated such artists as Otis Rush and Magic Sam. Artists on the jazz side included Ira Sullivan and George Freeman. Then, in 1966, Chuck Nessa, who managed the Jazz Record Mart, convinced Koester to release an experimental free-jazz album by South Side saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell. The album, Sound, was the inaugural recording of what would become the Art Ensemble of Chicago—and of the recently formed AACM.

Delmark would go on to release several landmark AACM albums, including Anthony Braxton’s Three Compositions of the New Jazz and For Alto; Muhal Richard Abrams’ Levels and Degrees of Light; and Joseph Jarman’s Song For. The label would continue its partnership with the association for decades, releasing records in the 2000s and 2010s by Nicole Mitchell, Ernest Dawkins, and Kahil El’Zabar.

In 1967 it also reissued Sun Ra’s then-rare first two albums (1957’s Jazz by Sun Ra, retitled Sun Song for the Delmark release, and Sound of Joy).

Koester, and Delmark and the Jazz Record Mart along with him, remained stalwarts of Chicago’s musical culture for over six decades. After changing locations several times in the downtown area, he closed the Record Mart in 2016, saying that skyrocketing rent meant that he could no longer maintain a retail space of that size. However, as soon as he closed that store, he opened another: Bob’s Blues and Jazz Mart, a much smaller storefront in the far North Side neighborhood of Irving Park.

Despite his insistence that he never wanted to retire, Koester—who was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1996—sold Delmark to two local musicians in 2018. However, he continued to run the record store in Irving Park. It will remain open under his son’s management.

In addition to Bob Jr., Koester is survived by his wife of 53 years, Susan Koester; their daughter, Katherine, of Seattle; and two grandchildren.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.