Few independent labels can claim a 50-year history of seminal releases that changed the course of both blues and jazz. In fact, there is only one: Chicago's Delmark Records. While being the first to record the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (Roscoe Mitchell's Sound) and Sun Ra (Sun Song), Delmark was also first with Chicago electric blues (Junior Wells' Hoodoo Man Blues). Their recent acquisitions of the extensive United blues and Apollo jazz catalogues has also given Delmark custodianship of the first bebop recording (Coleman Hawkins' Rainbow Mist). A stunning 4 CD and bonus DVD box set (50 years of Jazz and Blues) appropriately celebrates the label's 50th anniversary. This release not only presents important past recordings from the above musicians and many others, but includes previously unreleased material from artists like saxophonist Sonny Stitt and trumpeter Malachi Thompson.
Delmark grew out of the passion of its founder, 71 year old Bob Koester. A national treasure of jazz and blues knowledge, he continues to combine a collector's ardor with keen eyes and, more importantly, ears for talent. Koester, with his famous Jazz Record Mart store and Delmark label, has chronicled and helped to define the enormously influential Chicago styles of blues and jazz. Able to speak expertly and in depth on the most obscure, he remains a "trad jazzer" at heart and is still somewhat amused that he is responsible for releasing the AACM on an unsuspecting public. He related to me his initial experience with bop and the avant-garde, "Joe Segal worked for me at Seymour's [Jazz Record Mart] and along about 1959 or '60 he sat me down and explained bebop to me and I've been able to cope with it, then I needed Joe Segal to explain avant-garde and I occasionally find myself humming part of Roscoe Mitchell's first record. I think AACM is the most important stuff we've ever done. I don't know when it would have been done. We were the jazz label in Chicago. The pre-avant-garde, you know like Eric Dolphy and Archie Shepp went straight to my bones, straight through me, I just really dug it. Maybe Archie is a phony and is really a traddy. He could play in my Dixieland band. I would like to work up a date with Archie and [trad clarinetist] Frank Chase. That could be interesting." Shepp does have his own Delmark release (Conversations) with saxophonist Ari Brown and Art Ensemble of Chicago bassist Malachi Favors.
Delmark's catalogue of over 350 releases (which remain in print) is eclectic, it includes the trad-est to the freest of jazz and runs the gamut of blues styles. What Koester understands best is that indescribable essence of an artist that makes for a great record, "It's been called different things in different generations: heart, soul, balls. It is sort of an indefinable thing. It reaches me on an emotional level. I might have recorded people who weren't great technicians because I like what they're saying. I'd rather hear a guy f*ck up saying something worth hearing than play something perfect that doesn't have any soul."
Koester got into jazz as a youngster in Wichita listening to the radio while battling polio. "I was in 6th grade and I was in a polio ward for 4, 5 or 6 months and I heard the Eddie Condon Saturday afternoon show [Town Hall concerts of 1944-1945]...I liked boogie-woogie right away. I seem to recall hearing some Fats Waller on the radio, possibly live but I don't think so because I'd only be 11 years old." His doctor being in the same building as KFBI studios and an initial brush with Bird may have also contributed to Koester's dedication to the music. "I am willing to bet that I had a doctor's appointment with our family physician the day Charlie Parker recorded at the KFBI studios in Wichita with a contingent from the [Jay] McShann band. That was Bird man. I might have heard Bird without knowing it. If Dr. Neil Roberts were still alive when I realized this after hearing the first release, I think on French RCA, I would have written him and said, Do you possibly have any record of me being there at your office at the age of 10 on November...?"