Remembering Jazz Record Mart from inside

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JOHN J. KIM/SUN-TIMES
  • John J. Kim/Sun-Times

The sad fate of Jazz Record Mart has provoked plenty of tributes and memorials in the press and on social media, all of them richly deserved. The venerable store closed on Monday, and its remaining inventory and fixtures (as well as the business's name) were purchased by online retailer Wolfgang's Vault in Reno, Nevada. Countless record shops, each with their own quirks and personalities, have vanished over the past decade, but few could match the status of JRM, which billed itself as the largest jazz and blues store in the world. I worked there for four or five years in the late 80s and early 90s—in fact, I was there until I started working for the Reader in 1993. The store's longevity—a total of 57 years at its various locations, though it didn't take the JRM name till '65—was due to the peculiar vision, stubbornness, and devotion of Bob Koester, who also owns Delmark Records.

My JRM experience was crucial in many ways—it was a genuine education. I learned more about music in those few years than in any equivalent span before or since. My knowledge broadened, and so did my ears. I learned how to listen at JRM, and I became aware of what went into the recordings I loved by meeting and befriending countless musicians, writers, and producers. One of those folks was Steve Dawson, the wildly talented singer-songwriter who leads Dolly Varden. "The store was a magnet for amazing people," he says. "The staff during the time I worked there included some of the most gifted and creative musicians I've ever met, and the proximity gave me the chance to get to know them and muster up the courage to ask them to play my songs with me. There was a richness of humor, intellect, and knowledge among the staff that was staggering."

For cornetist Josh Berman, who worked at the shop on and off from 1992 till 2009, that richness included a sort of workshop atmosphere. When JRM was located at 444 N. Wabash in the 90s and early aughts, he remembers "practicing there at night, using it as a rehearsal space, and working with some of my closest friends and colleagues, including Frank [Rosaly], [Jason] Adasiewicz, and Keefe [Jackson]. JRM was like a second home for me. Countless hours of practice. The Chicago Luzern Exchange became a band in that back room. Rolldown rehearsals. A whole bunch of sessions. It is pretty amazing, looking back on it."

Indeed, the list of JRM "graduates" (or perhaps "dropouts") is astonishing. It includes writers such as Howard Mandel, Herb Nolan, John Litweiler, and J.B. Figi, (the latter two contributed to the Reader). Loads of employees went on to start record labels, among them Bruce Iglauer (Alligator), Chuck Nessa (Nessa), Michael Frank (Earwig), Amy van Singel and Jim O'Neal (Rooster, plus Living Blues magazine), Bruno Johnson (Okka Disk), and Steve Dolins (the Sirens). Club owners Joe Segal (Jazz Showcase) and Pete Crawford (Blues Etc.) both worked in the shop, as did radio hosts Barry Winograd and Steve Cushing. And then there were the musicians: Dawson, Berman, Adasiewicz, Jackson, Charlie Musselwhite, Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre, Joel Paterson, and onetime Bob Dylan sideman Mike Bloomfield, among many, many others.

As much as I learned at the store, the stories I end up telling over and over tend to be about JRM's insane idiosyncrasies. I used to like to joke that the whole operation depended on Scotch tape. We used several pieces of tape to seal every purchase—we were taught a very specific way of folding the corners of each paper bag—and another to attach the sales receipt to one of the items. The inventory system consisted of colored index cards bearing catalog number, distributor, and sales history. There was a specific way to layer strips of tape across the top and bottom of each new index card so that it could be safely affixed to the corresponding record with two additional pieces of tape (the initial tape allowed the additional tape to be removed without tearing anything). Apparently JRM was an early adherent of recycling, because at the register we would save the pieces of tape that affixed those index cards to each record, then reuse them to seal up the packages. The store owned several ancient tape dispensers that seemed to weight about ten pounds each. I heard a great piece of JRM lore—almost certainly apocryphal—about Musselwhite getting frustrated with Koester and beating him on the head with one of those dispensers.

As charismatic, knowledgeable, and savvy as Koester is, he could be a difficult person to work for. In a story by Sandra Pointer-Jones published by Blues Revue Quarterly—hosted on the Delmark website—Iglauer recalls getting into it with Koester himself.
He berated his employees constantly. He was a real tough guy to work with; he kept real odd hours. You couldn't do anything to please him. I'd pack a carton and he'd throw it across the room to see if he could make it break open because I had done a bad packing job. I got all the shit work but that was okay, I certainly wasn't complaining. We had screaming arguments all the time and he almost fired me a number of times. What he did was right. My whole attitude was Bob knows everything I know nothing. For someone who was just a schleper employee he gave me a lot of space and I appreciate it. He doesn't know how much I appreciate it.
Steve Dolins, who runs blues and gospel label the Sirens, worked at the store in the 70s and shared a similar experience. "At the JRM,  LPs were taken out of their original covers and put behind the counter in green sleeves so they could be played for customers (and to protect against theft). Unfortunately [manager] Jim [DeJong] left an LP on the receiver before he left the store, and naturally the LP warped while resting on the warm receiver. Bob discovered the warped LP and his reaction to the damaged product was to curse like a sailor and then take the LP and fling it across the store like a Frisbee, aiming it at my head. Fortunately he missed. The next working day, I made Jim swear he would never leave work early again during the summer of 1975."

For Dawson, the reality was a bit more harsh: "There was also a very dark, abusive atmosphere, and we were all in a near-constant state of codependent shock, wondering what sort of mood Bob would be in and what we could do to either offset it or cope. I often call my JRM friends 'war buddies' because we lived through that together. I love the people who worked there with me, but I am a much happier person since I left that job."

Ron Bierma, who managed the store for several decades and was my boss, says, "Koester was his own worst enemy," and I have to agree. Bob was very good at acquiring large collections and big hauls of cut-out records (the music-biz equivalent of remaindered books), and he had a long-term vision for how to sell them. The store's stock was huge, and lots of records Koester bought for a song ended up insanely valuable, such as the loads of original Sun Ra albums on the Saturn label that filled a rack when I started shopping there in the late 80s. Koester's stubbornness in continuing to amass vinyl when everyone said it was dead now seems like a stroke of genius, but his stubbornness also spelled his doom. Jazz Record Mart always had a solid mail-order operation, but it failed to adapt to the Internet. The store continued to print paper mail-order catalogs, and its clunky website was little more than a crappy digital reproduction of that catalog. If the store had developed a real virtual inventory for its thousands of valuable, hard-to-find records—most of them still sealed—it surely would've struck gold. Instead, an operation in Nevada looks to be getting that chance.

Rather than lament what might have been, though, I prefer to remember Jazz Record Mart as the cultural landmark it was—an old-school meeting place for kindred spirits. Among the musicians who came in while I was there, I remember trumpeter Ted Curson—a superb sideman on many of the best Charles Mingus records—and Robert Plant, who was a regular visitor. Says Dawson, "I also had the chance to meet and talk with so many legendary people. The most memorable was Jay McShann [the Kansas City pianist and bandleader who introduced Charlie Parker to the world]; a quiet, unassuming older gentleman just killing time looking at records. I somehow got into a pretty heavy philosophical discussion with him about age and the point of it all—racism, music making. Crazy, right? How could that have happened? He was like a gentle spiritual leader of some sort; a teacher. He was completely positive and filled with gratitude. Thank you, Jay McShann. And thank you, Jazz Record Mart and Bob Koester, for creating a place where that could have happened."


Today's playlist:

Sérgio Ricardo, Piri, Fred, Cássio, Franklin e Paulinho de Camafeu com Sérgio Ricardo (Discobertas/Continental)
Stan Getz, Captain Marvel (Columbia/Legacy)
Rubén Blades, Maestra Vida 1 (Fania)
Allison Miller's Boom Tic Boom, No Morphine No Lillies (Foxhaven/Royal Potato Family)
Viet Cong, Viet Cong (Jagjaguwar)

Correction: This post has been updated to properly reflect the longevity of Jazz Record Mart.

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