Looking Back, and Now Forward, As Delmark Records Faces a Crossroads

May 23, 2018

Earlier this month it was announced that Delmark Records, a Chicago blues and jazz institution, had been sold to new owners. WBGO's Bob Porter offers a reflection on the news, and a look back at his friendship with Delmark founder Bob Koester.

It was 1973 in Charlotte, North Carolina when I first met Bob Koester. We were both in attendance at a convention run by the National Association of Independent Record Distributors. NAIRD was a smaller version of NARM, which was run for major labels and established indies.

The NAIRD hospitality suite was where many of us would gather after dinner. This was an opportunity to schmooze, to compare nightmares and horror stories while catching up on industry gossip. And there was beer. Lots of beer.

I had worked for Prestige and Westbound, two successful labels. I had produced records and done promotion for each label. I knew the players in the jazz business. One guy I had yet to meet was Koester, who owned Delmark Records. We met in the hospitality suite around 9:30 p.m., and called it a night at 6:30 the next morning. At that point I had made a friend for life.

I was in the early stages of opening a record shop, and Koester had done that for years. The Jazz Record Mart was a Chicago institution that Koester had run since 1959. He recorded both jazz and blues, and maintained a catalog loaded with great players such as Ira Sullivan, Jimmy Forrest, Junior Wells and Magic Sam. While my first interest was jazz, I had a growing interest in blues and, like Koester, was an avid record collector. I learned a lot from him.

His first love was traditional jazz, and artists like George Lewis, Art Hodes, Franz Jackson and Albert Nicholas were early entrants in the Delmark catalog. Later he would record artists involved in the Association For the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), such as Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton and The Art Ensemble of Chicago.

Koester continued to record jazz of all styles: he recorded the first albums by tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander, discovered ragtime composer and pianist Reginald Robinson, and found the young traditional band The Fat Babies. His blues roster was even more impressive, with Luther Allison, Big Joe Williams, Sleepy John Estes and Otis Rush well represented. The catalog grew to several hundred numbers. Along the way, Delmark acquired a recording studio.

In recent years, much of the blues producing chores had been handled by Dick Shurman, while longtime producer and studio manager Steve Wagner ran most of the day-to-day operations. The Jazz Record Mart stock and inventory was sold four years ago. Unable to stay away from the business, Koester opened a small collectors store, Bob’s Jazz and Blues Mart, but the big question remained; what would happen to Delmark?

Bob Koester at the Jazz Record Mart in Chicago, in 2016
Credit Sue Koester / Delmark Records

The record business has weathered enormous change in the 21st century. Much of the jazz and blues business involved catalog sales, the theory being that each new generation of jazz fans would be interested in the classics of the past. With the demise of large chains like Tower and HMV, catalog sales have virtually vanished. New releases have a shelf life of 15 months maximum, and the great jazz reissue series, a lifeline of the business, have all but ceased operation. While there are plenty of jazz records being issued, the majority are vanity projects being issued by musicians for sale off the bandstand or at the gig. In terms of retail, used record stores or online sources like Amazon are the only places to find things.

Given all this, how would a large, eclectic, catalog-oriented label be able to survive? Enter Julia A. Miller and Elbio Barilari, musicians and composers who recently purchased the label. The new ownership has announced plans to release new albums by guitarist Fareed Haque and Volcano Radar featuring Paquito D’Rivera, as well as previously unissued recordings by Sun Ra. The new product will probably arrive in October.

Julia Miller will serve as President and CEO of Delmark, while Barilari is the Vice President and Artistic Director. Wagner will stay on to run the studio. “Owning a record label and recording studio has been a dream of mine for 25 years,” said Miller recently, speaking to the online magazine Gozamos. She added: “Blues is a living history; Delmark embodies a living history of the blues in Chicago, and for the world.”

Delmark is celebrating its 65th anniversary this year. It has come a long way from its earliest days in St. Louis, and seems poised to continue under the new leadership. Barilari said that he saw an opportunity in both artistic and business terms. He and Miller intend to build upon the solid foundation built by Koester, while broadening Delmark’s operations.