Inside the World’s Biggest Jazz Record Store

The story of Chicago’s premier record store and the jazz and blues record label behind it.

Too often I saw the jazz section in the record stores of my Midwestern college town relegated to a dusty bin in the corner. I’d pick through polka music or goddamn Lawrence Welk before I’d maybe get lucky and find some decent used big band or bop recordings. Lord help you if you were looking for new jazz music, and, though you’d probably see a brand-new reissue of Kind of Blue among the new vinyl stock (possibly something by Louis Armstrong as well), that made up the entirety of the shiny new jazz LPs.

Someone else can justify that experience as “the hunt” aspect of shopping for records, but as for me, I wanted to explore and fall down the rabbit hole of jazz music and history without wanting for material. 150 miles to the southeast lay my remedy: Chicago’s Jazz Record Mart. Currently located just north of the Chicago Loop, Jazz Record Mart is a mecca of jazz that’s been around since the 1950s.

Though it’s now a Chicago institution, Jazz Record Mart’s roots are in St. Louis, where founder Bob Koester went to school. Koester started by selling old unwanted records from his collection out of his dorm room, then expanded to selling recordings from American Music and Paramount — two labels that weren’t distributed in St. Louis. Using an allowance he got from home, he purchased records, then sold them at the university’s jazz club. Wanting to further his career in the business, Koester moved to Chicago in 1958. With the help of John Steiner (owner of Paramount Records), he bought the existing Seymour’s Jazz Record Mart on Wabash Avenue for $1,500.

“I got seduced by the music, simple as that. I’m glad I didn’t get into filmmaking. I’d have to live in Los-fucking-Angeles.”

Jazz Record Mart bills itself as “the world’s largest and most complete jazz and blues shop.” That’s somewhat difficult to contest, but simply walking into the shop is enough to confirm that both jazz novices and aficionados can find what they’re looking for, superlatives aside. Though Koester’s store is stocked with some albums from modern and classic rock groups, the store’s inventory is overwhelmingly jazz — it’s filled both new and used records and CDs ranging from bop classics like Coltrane, Monk and Davis to world jazz and new releases from lesser-known bands.

Then there are the ancillary attractions — big plastic tubs filled to the brim with old, unmarked jazz 78s, retailing for less than $2. The walls are a shrine to jazz and blues, littered with posters, autographs, records and newspaper clippings. The store carries books and DVDs on jazz as well. And amidst everything stand plenty of proud displays of Delmark records.

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Selling records is not Koester’s only gig, never has been. Delmark Records is his other business, and it started around the same time Koester was selling records out of his dorm room. Koester’s first recording was with Speckled Red, an old bluesman. Koester also recorded Big Joe Williams while in St. Louis.

Then, when Koester moved to Chicago, he looked to advance the local avant-garde jazz scene. Friends and colleagues of his recommended he record a local artist named Roscoe Mitchell, a member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). Koester remembered, “Everyone kept telling me, ‘You’ve got to record Roscoe Mitchell.’ And I figured, ‘Well, I better record Roscoe Mitchell.'”

Other AACM artists like pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton and Joseph Jarman would later go on to do some of their first studio recordings with Delmark, helping put their careers on the map. Interestingly enough, Koester wasn’t a huge fan of the AACM’s music. “I was not impressed — I didn’t care for the music…but I figured this was what’s happening in jazz,” he said. “Jazz changes, it reflects the environment. If you’re going to follow the jazz scene and be relevant you have to accept the newer styles.”

Koester always had respect for the musicians, and certainly enough respect to give them creative freedom in the studio. “Abrams I appreciated because he knew how to play bebop so well. Braxton came around and he was such a character I figured he must be good.” But years on, he still hasn’t acquired much of a taste for the AACM style. “I can’t say I’ve mastered the art of listening to avant-grade jazz,” he said, laughing, “but we’ve done well with the records we’ve made.”

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“I love Jodie Christian, but he doesn’t sell,” said Koester somewhat wistfully as he looked through Delmark’s catalogue. That’s the cold hard truth about Delmark and small independent jazz labels like his: they are rarely commercial successes. Koester remarked that even labels bigger than his have similar sales numbers. That’s one of the reason Jazz Record Mart has existed: it helped the label to exist as an independent entity.

“The store used to support the record label, now the record label is supporting the store — because our rent got jacked up,” explained Koester. Sales have been down considerably, too. Even so, Jazz Record Mart plans to soldier on, albeit at a different location several blocks northwest of the store’s current one.

At 83, Koester is still hard at work in the record shop on Monday and Saturday, and at Delmark from Tuesday to Friday. He finds energy because he loves jazz and blues, and that love clearly reveals itself in the way Koester runs the store and interacts with his customers. When he spies someone browsing, he lights up and wanders over to help. The passion is still sitting directly on the surface.

Back when Koester was in college in St. Louis, he originally had aspirations to make films. Music ended up being a proper replacement of his passions. “I got seduced by the music, simple as that. I’m glad I didn’t get into filmmaking. I’d have to live in Los-fucking-Angeles.”

Essential Delmark Recordings


The Label’s Best From the ’50s to Today


Ira Sullivan Quintet, ‘Nicky’s Tune’

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Recorded in December of 1958, Nicky’s Tune was one of Delmark’s first Chicago recordings and is a collaboration of great local talent including trumpet player Ira Sullivan, tenor sax player Nicky Hill and Jodie Christian on piano. Overall, a fantastic, easy-listening collection of bebop jazz.

Buy Now: $12

Roscoe Mitchell, ‘Sound’

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Sound marks the first time Delmark recorded a musician from the AACM, a bold move on Koester’s part. Later, more from the group would follow, and Delmark’s willingness to let these artists express themselves would help popularize and influence other free-jazz innovators.

Buy Now: $16

Junior Wells, ‘Hoodoo Man Blues’

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Technically, this is a blues album, but no discussion of Delmark should go without mentioning Hoodoo Man Blues, the debut album of Chicago bluesman Junior Wells. It also features guitar playing by Buddy Guy. Koester was unsure of how commercially successful it would be, but loved Wells’ music so much he recorded it anyway. Hoodoo Man Blues remains Delmark’s best-selling album.

Buy Now: $12

Jason Adasiewicz, ‘Sun Rooms’

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Jason Adasiewicz has played backup for a variety of modern Delmark recording artists in recent years, but Sun Rooms was his first as a bandleader. Playing the vibraphone and backed by bass and drums, Adasiewicz shows off his chops and swings hard doing it, combining elements of bop and avant-garde jazz.

Buy Now: $16

The Fat Babies, ’18th & Racine’

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One of Delmark’s more recent recordings, 18th & Racine is the second album by seven-piece Chicago band The Fat Babies. The Fat Babies play “trad style” music, reminiscent of New Orleans and the Dixieland movement. In Koester’s words, “they bring all the balls the music from the ’20s had.”

Buy Now: $16

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