For 65 years, Chicagoan Bob Koester has given the world some of the most important jazz and blues recordings ever made via his Delmark Records label.
Blues masters Junior Wells and Magic Sam, jazz innovators Roscoe Mitchell and Muhal Richard Abrams, MacArthur Fellows Ken Vandermark and Reginald Robinson and many more have released groundbreaking work on Delmark.
But with Koester’s 86th birthday approaching in October, the Delmark founder decided to sell the label, its subsidiary labels, a catalog of masters dating to the 1920s, a voluminous inventory of CDs and LPs and the Riverside Studio at 4121 N. Rockwell St. The sale was completed Tuesday.
Chicago musicians Julia A. Miller and Elbio Barilari, who co-lead the band Volcano Radar and are deeply involved in other arts and educational activities, have bought the company.
“I’m getting old,” says Koester, who closed his downtown Jazz Record Mart in February, 2016, and later opened a smaller shop, Bob’s Blues & Jazz Mart, at 3419 W. West Irving Park Road.
“When we quit the store downtown, I thought maybe I’d retire, and then somebody offered me a nice jazz LP collection,” which was enough to get Koester back into the retail business.
But Koester quietly put the record label up for sale, asking longtime Delmark producer and recording engineer Steve Wagner to handle inquiries.
“I already had been approached by a couple of interested parties,” says Wagner. “Sharing documents had begun, but nothing really came to fruition out of that. Enter Julia and Elbio.
“We were looking for somebody who would like to buy the (entire) label. We had people who wanted to buy the masters, but Delmark couldn’t exist as just a new label.”
Meaning that Delmark’s extensive jazz and blues catalog, which counts customers around the world, helps underwrite its contemporary recording activity. Even so, it was the old Jazz Record Mart – which generated significant revenue in the heydays of LP, cassette and CD sales – that kept Delmark afloat.
“Without the store,” says Koester, “the label would have died.”
Which makes one wonder why Miller and Barilari were interested in acquiring a record label in an era when downloading and streaming have diminished the profit margins of just about everyone except downloading and streaming services.
“I’ve wanted to run a record label and recording studio for 25 years – it’s been a dream since I was in college,” says Miller, who is now president and CEO of Delmark. An adjunct assistant professor of sound at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Miller also works as an instrumentalist, composer, visual artist and curator.
“Delmark is a business with facets,” she adds. “It’s a record label, but it’s also a studio, and it’s also a catalog. So this is not starting a record label from scratch. It’s a business that has a lot of parts. The business model is much more complex.”
Indeed, “We could have started an indie label from scratch — it probably would have been cheaper,” says Barilari, an adjunct professor of Latin American music and jazz history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, host of the globally syndicated radio show “Fiesta” on WFMT-FM 98.7 and co-founder of the Chicago Latino Music Festival. He is now Delmark’s vice president and artistic director.
“But then you don’t have a brand and a catalog and a Chess organ,” adds Barilari, referring to the Hammond B-3 from Chicago’s legendary Chess Records label that sits in the Delmark studio.
“By buying a prestigious label, it’s a huge difference. The platform is completely different.”
Though the terms of the sale are private, Miller allows that “it’s a huge deal” for her and Barilari.
“We are working with investors,” adds Miller. “We have a whole strategy in place for that, in terms of the financial projections that we’ve done.”
Says Barilari, “We have a five-year business plan,” as well as a course of action for the next several months, particularly as it regards the time-worn facilities.
“Cleaning, reshaping, remodeling, new offices,” adds Barilari.
“We’ll also be working through the studio equipment,” says Miller. “A new computer system for sure.
“Perhaps we’ll have an official archive, maybe someone to help Steve with his archiving project. Maybe a gallery space or some gallery performances. We really see ourselves as a center point for musicians and creative performances.”
Barilari envisions Delmark working to “attract musicians form South America and Europe – invite musicians to come here. It’s important that we are musicians, and we share the same problems and understand the problems musicians confront in this transitional era where no one knows what’s going to happen with the recording industry.”
Wagner, who is staying on as studio manager and producer, foresees Delmark possibly creating a publishing company, getting involved in artist management and expanding merchandising.
“Maybe we’ll expand video production work, as well,” says Miller.
Delmark “did a fantastic job with DVDs,” observes Barilari. “We need to let people know that those exist and expand on that. Those are historical documents.”
For its first releases under new ownership, Delmark will release a blues anthology marking the label’s 65th anniversary; a recording featuring Volcano Radar with reedist and NEA Jazz Master Paquito D’Rivera; an album spotlighting esteemed Chicago guitarist Fareed Haque; a collection of previously unreleased recordings by avant-garde jazz icon Sun Ra; and what’s being billed as a “surprise” recording.
All of this will be trumpeted during opening night of the 35th annual Chicago Blues Festival, June 8, which already has been announced as a “65th Anniversary of Delmark Records Celebration” in Millennium Park, 201 E. Randolph St.
“I started the business selling records at St. Louis jazz clubs,” remembers Koester, who created his company in that city in 1953 as Delmar, named for a St. Louis street in an area dotted by jazz clubs. He later added the “k,” for “Koester,” moved his fledgling company to Chicago in 1958 and soon was making music history.
“I guess we made the first AACM records,” says Koester, referring to revolutionary music by members of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Albums from Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Anthony Braxton, the Art Ensemble of Chicago and others helped spread the word about the AACM around the world and distinguished Delmark as a purveyor of new ideas in sound.
“I didn’t realize how good they were,” adds Koester. “That stuff is over my head.”
Through the years, Delmark acquired other labels, such as Apollo, which added to its catalog such lustrous names as Charlie Parker, Dinah Washington and Sir Charles Thompson.
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