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Bob Koester, who ran Chicago’s Jazz Record Mart, Delmark Records for decades, has died at 88

WXRT DJ Terri Hemmert called him ‘a force of nature,’ the mart ‘one of the coolest record stores in the world’ and said she’d buy a record just because it was on his label.

Bob Koester was one of the first to capture and preserve the sounds of Chicago’s South Side and West Side blues clubs, says Bruce Iglauer, who once worked for him as a shipping clerk and went on to found Alligator Records.
Bob Koester was one of the first to capture and preserve the sounds of Chicago’s South Side and West Side blues clubs, says Bruce Iglauer, who once worked for him as a shipping clerk and went on to found Alligator Records.
Tony Armour

Bob Koester, longtime owner of Chicago’s legendary Jazz Record Mart and founder of the Delmark Records label, died Wednesday at 88.

He had had a stroke and was in hospice care, according to his son, also named Bob.

The store he ran for decades at various downtown Chicago locations drew legions of jazz and blues fans from around the world.

Bruce Iglauer, founder of Chicago’s Alligator Records, called Mr. Koester “a hero not only to blues and jazz but to Chicago music.”

Mr. Koester was one of the first to capture the sounds of the city’s South Side and West Side blues clubs, according to Iglauer, who once worked for him. Iglauer said he gave artists free rein in the studio.

That approach resulted in classics including “Hoodoo Man Blues” by Junior Wells.

Bob Koester, proprietor of the Jazz Record Mart and founder of Delmark records, once said, “I’m not competing with RCA or Columbia.”
Bob Koester, proprietor of the Jazz Record Mart and founder of Delmark records, once said, “I’m not competing with RCA or Columbia.”
Sun-Times file

Mr. Koester lifted some forgotten artists from the 1930s out of obscurity, getting them to record for the first time since they’d made it big in the era of 78 rpm records. He also was one of the first to record the country-flavored blues of Big Joe Williams and Speckled Red.

In an online tribute, longtime WXRT DJ Terri Hemmert called Mr. Koester “a force of nature,” the Jazz Record Mart “one of the coolest record stores in the world” and said she’d buy a record just because it was on his label.

“If it was on Delmark, I wanted to hear it,” Hemmert said.

Mr. Koester called the Jazz Record Mart the “World’s Largest Jazz and Blues Specialty Store.” He first opened the store on Wabash Avenue near Roosevelt University.

He met Sue, his wife of more than 50 years, at his next address, 7 W. Grand Ave. She was working nearby at the American Medical Association and came in to buy a record.

He moved the store to 11 W. Grand Ave., then 444 N. Wabash Ave. He was at 25-27 E. Illinois St. when he closed the business in 2016, citing high rent.

That year, he opened the smaller Bob’s Blues & Jazz Mart at 3419 W. Irving Park Rd., which hosted concerts and his 87th birthday celebration last year.

“He was pretty much always doing what he wanted to do,” his son said.

“The Jazz Record Mart was an institution, and Bob Koester was the institution behind the counter,” said Frank Alkyer, editor and publisher of DownBeat magazine. “He had one of the most successful record stores in the United States that focused on jazz and blues.”

Born in Wichita, Kansas, Mr. Koester sold records from his dorm room at St. Louis University before dropping out and, with a partner, starting the Blue Note record shop in that city in 1952. “We stole the Blue Note label logo for our sign,” he once told the Chicago Sun-Times.

He struck out for Chicago in 1958 after founding Delmark Records about five years earlier. The label recorded stars including Wells, Williams, Otis Rush and Magic Sam. It also reissued music by artists including Dinah Washington and produced the avant-garde jazz artists of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.

“Bob Koester was the first person to issue any record by the AACM,” said jazz critic Howard Mandel, president of the Jazz Journalists Association.

Mandel said the AACM’s style wasn’t Mr. Koester’s favorite, but “he believed in what they were doing . . . Bob was not doing this thinking he was going to make money. He believed there was music happening in Chicago that he could really launch.”

Mr. Koester sold Delmark in 2018.

He knew plenty of jazz greats and a few rock legends. Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin and Bryan Ferry were among those who dropped in.

And he’d talk of how he was responsible for the name of Iggy Pop’s band, the Stooges, telling people that one night when the singer was staying with him he awoke to find Pop and his buddies playing loud music and bouncing off the furniture. As The New York Times later wrote, he threw them out, shouting, “You guys are a bunch of stooges.”

He allowed that he could be irascible. He’d admonish customers to close the door so the heat wouldn’t escape.

A fan of classic movies, he’d invite friends over for screenings from his extensive film collection.

“I wanted to be a movie cameraman, but I got seduced by the music,” he once said.

Mr. Koester was a member of the Blues Hall of Fame but didn’t let that go to his head.

Asked about his legacy, he’d say, “I recognized good talent when I heard it,” according to his friend John Holden.

In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Koester is survived by his daughter Kate, brother Tom and two grandchildren.