Bob Koester founded America’s oldest continuously operated independent record label, Delmark Records, in St. Louis in 1953. Koester’s vaunted status in the blues and jazz world came not only from the many historic albums he produced for Delmark, but also from the services he provided as owner of Chicago’s Jazz Record Mart, as a mentor and tour guide to countless blues fans and future industry professionals, and as an endless fount of information on record and film history. Born Oct. 10, 1932, in Wichita, Kansas, Robert G. Koester began buying jazz and blues 78s as a teenager, and by the time he was in college in St. Louis, he was ready to start recording traditional performers in both genres for his label, initially called Delmar (after a local street that was rich in musical history). Koester moved to Chicago in 1958 to take over Seymour’s Record Mart, which soon became the Jazz Record Mart, a fabled hangout for musicians and fans as well as a training ground for employees who later started labels of their own, including Bruce Iglauer (Alligator) and Michael Frank (Earwig). While Delmark’s initial blues releases featured older artists such as Big Joe Williams, Speckled Red, and Sleepy John Estes, Koester broke new ground in the 1960s by recording albums by Chicago blues bands (Junior Wells, Magic Sam, Jimmy Dawkins, Luther Allison, and many more to follow) as well as the avant-garde jazz of the AACM. Koester, who also wrote about and photographed the musicians, was a vital figure in the blues revival of the era as he helped introduce — in person and on record — the music of the South and West Side clubs to a new generation of blues aficionados. Under Koester’s guidance, Delmark has continued to record both traditional and contemporary artists in both blues and jazz, amassing a huge catalogue of albums that rarely go out of print, while the Jazz Record Mart remains a meeting place for blues enthusiasts from around the world as well as a prime retail and mail order source for the music.

— Jim O’Neal