Robert Gregg Koester was born on October 30, 1932, in Wichita, KS. He discovered jazz and blues as a teenager, catching as many local live shows as he could, and began collecting classic 78 rpm records while still in high school. Since many of those records were passé and no longer in print, Koester scoured local secondhand shops and jukebox suppliers rather than the usual record stores. He soon started trading records, and when he enrolled at St. Louis University in 1951 to study business and cinematography, he started selling them out of his dorm room via mail order, at a substantial profit. He joined a local jazz club, which enabled him to make contacts on the St. Louis scene and promote his business in the meantime. Around 1952, Koester and fellow club member Ron Fister opened a small record shop called K&F Sales; it was successful enough to move into a larger retail space, at which point the name was changed to the Blue Note Record Shop. Koester and Fister's increasingly diverging tastes led them to split in 1953, and Koester opened his own store on Delmar Street.
Also in 1953, Koester headed up his first-ever recording session, documenting music by a traditional jazz outfit called the Windy City Six, and released the results on his new Delmar Records label as a 10" LP. A few years later, he sought out veteran area bluesmen like Speckled Red, Big Joe Williams, and J.D. Short for his next releases. Koester also built the label's catalog by acquiring the rights to vintage master tapes, including those of labels like United, Apollo, and Regal. In 1958, Koester traveled to Chicago in hopes of securing a deal for the Paramount label's holdings; he wound up moving his store there permanently, eventually taking over a shop called Seymour's Jazz Mart (previously owned by songwriter Seymour Schwartz). He also changed his label's name to Delmark, partly over copyright infringement concerns.
Delmark started to make its presence felt during the blues revival of the early '60s, as Koester helped locate and record major names like Sleepy John Estes, Roosevelt Sykes, and Yank Rachell. However, Delmark really came into its own as a blues label in 1965, when Koester decided to turn his attention to the contemporary Chicago blues scene, and document artists being overlooked by the city's primary label, Chess. His first such release, Junior Wells' Hoodoo Man Blues, was an instant Chicago blues classic, and remains the label's all-time biggest seller. Its success led to a string of similarly high-quality releases by Magic Sam (West Side Soul), Robert Lockwood Jr., Otis Rush, J.B. Hutto, Luther Allison, and Carey Bell, among others.
Similarly, Delmark's jazz side -- which had previously been devoted mostly to New Orleans-style trad jazz -- got a shot in the arm from Chicago's burgeoning avant-garde movement, spearheaded by the AACM organization. Koester himself wasn't an enormous fan of free jazz, but to his credit, he recognized it as an important progression of the form, and saw that Delmark could be in on the ground floor of a significant development in jazz history. Accordingly, Delmark was the first label to document many seminal figures on the Chicago scene, releasing landmark works by Roscoe Mitchell (Sound), Joseph Jarman (Song For), Muhal Richard Abrams (Levels and Degrees of Light), Anthony Braxton (3 Compositions of New Jazz, For Alto), and the Art Ensemble of Chicago (Live at Mandel Hall), as well as reissuing Sun Ra's first two albums (1957's Sun Song and Sound of Joy).
Koester moved the Jazz Record Mart from its original location to a larger space on Grand Street in the early '60s, then around the corner to a new locale on Wabash Avenue in the early '70s. By that time, the store had become something of a mecca for jazz and blues lovers, some of whom wound up working for Koester, learning the business, and starting their own labels. Most prominent among these was Bruce Iglauer, who founded Alligator Records for the purpose of recording Hound Dog Taylor when Koester turned down the idea. Other notable Koester employees included Amy Van Singel of Living Blues magazine, Nessa label founder Chuck Nessa (who produced many of the early AACM albums), Earwig founder Michael Frank, Rooster founder Jim O'Neal, and Flying Fish founder Bruce Kaplan.
Delmark enjoyed an upswing in activity during the latter half of the '90s, with new artists like Dave Specter and Lurrie Bell, as well as CD reissues of many of the label's past classics. Unfortunately, a distributor bankruptcy forced Koester to scale back the number of new projects Delmark took on. Nonetheless, Delmark was able to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2003, earning Koester numerous local honors and attention from the NARAS; by this time, he had already been inducted into the Blues Foundation's Blues Hall of Fame. ~ Steve Huey, Rovi
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