45 years of Jazz and Blues
by Bob Koester
[Ed. This article, in two parts, is by one of the JIC's founders.]
Part I. The Early Days - HIDING FROM THE MUSIC IN ST. LOUIS
It started in Wichita, not an easy place to fall in love with jazz and blues. I decided on a career as a cinematographer to be preceded by a business degree. My folks insisted on a Jesuit education and, fearing that either of the Loyolas—in Chicago or New Orleans—would place me where I would be seduced by the jazz scene, I picked St. Louis U. There, within two blocks of each other, Tab Smith played the Hurricane, Charles Thompson, who won the 1917 ragtime piano contest, had a bar and I heard Hodges, Blakey, and others at the Glass Bar. The Windy City Six (WC6—a traditional jazz band) played the PinUp Room further north. The Olive Street car took me past Jimmy Forrest's gig to Delmar and deBalivere, where Miles could be heard for no cover charge and a 50-cent beer. (I drank beer because I could get more for the money and, since I didn't really like it, I could nurse it for several sets.) Just a bus ride across the river was East St. Louis where I heard Pee Wee Russell, Jack Teagarden, and such “locals” as Grant Green and Oliver Nelson—I was seduced!
The final straw was an invitation to attend a founding meeting of the St. Louis Jazz Club (SLJC). Vivan Oswald was the primary motivator. Some outstanding talent of every kind of jazz played. Chris Woods was there as well as the Singleton Palmer band. The first bylaw was that the club would have no functions where blacks could not come, but a trad music policy was voted in to keep appreciation up and arguments down. George Hocutt, who eventually became Delmark's west coast distributor, used to sneak me into the clubs when I was underage. I eventually programmed talent for SLJC's monthly meetings.
1953—DELMARK IS BORN
The 78-rpm day was ebbing, but so little good jazz was released on LP that one had to collect 78s to get any real grasp on jazz history. You'd look for old store stocks, juke box sheddings, and in second-hand stores. At an SLJC meeting I met Ron Fister, who collected ‘30s pop music, and we advertised dupes in The Record Changer, a trad jazz monthly. Ed Crowder was retiring from that field and sold us his stock and mailing list. We did business out of my dorm room until he found a $30/month storefront at 3549 Laclede, just off campus, which became the Blue Note Record Shop. I decided to record the WC6 at Robert Oswald's home studio and start a label named after Delmar Blvd.
Before the first album was released, I moved to 5671 (and later 5663) Delmar. A very patient guy named John Galbraith made a brief investment in the label and eventually five 10” LPs got issued. With the help of a Japanese jazz fan who still insists on anonymity, an acquisition was made of the Antone masters by the George Lewis New Orleans band. (I learned that it cost less to buy old masters than to create new ones.)
The cop on the PinUp Room beat was Charlie O'Brien. When he made detective he wanted to use his investigative techniques to locate old musicians. At the time less than a dozen books on jazz had been written and there were still mysteries to be checked out, but the world of blues was a deep dark secret. I gave Charlie a list of bluesfolk who mentioned St. Louis street names on old records. He found all the living artists: Henry Brown, Edith Johnson, Mary and Stump Johnson, Henry Townsend, Speckled Red, Barrelhouse Buck McFarland, and others.
I decided to start a Roots of Jazz series involving jazz's background musics—ragtime, blues, gospel, etc. (There was no LP blues market then, but I felt very strongly that this needed doing.) Speckled Red was recorded in 1955 with a lot of help from a young Tulane student from Chicago named Erwin Helfer. Big Joe Williams could smell a record deal 500 miles away and eventually he discovered us. We cut his album at our office-store at 5663 Delmar and in the home of folksinger-writer John Hartford.
After three years at SLU, I was asked not to return. I had been too busy practicing business to learn it. I was sleeping in classes and the best paperwork I submitted had more to do with my jazz record business that with normal Commerce and Finance. (And if you think the record business is normal, don't get into it.)
Since traditional jazz was (and still is) my first love, most of my recording involved the local groups—Windy City 6, Sid Dawson, and later the Dixie Stompers. The very first recording I made was of the great, legendary trumpeter Dewey Jackson with Don Ewell, Frank Chace, Sid Dawson, and Booker T. Washington. We're clearing it for release now and I think they're going to have to rewrite trumpet Jazz history when it comes out and illustrates the St. Louis line: Charlie Creath, Dewey Jackson, Louis Metcalfe and Harold Baker, Clark Terry, Miles, and Lester Bowie.
I helped pianist John Chapman organize the Dixie Stompers after a George Lewis concert sponsored by SLJC. They were less influenced by Eddie Condon than other local groups. The Stompers played for the door and drew a crowd at a bar called Jacovac's near the steel mills far from Delmar's "Dixie row." John Willhoft and I waited tables and I got a share of the door money. Sometimes a visiting pianist (Knocky Parker, Speckled Red) would do an intermission set and '20s vets like Val Gowatch, Johnny Cook, Dewey Jackson or visiting traddies like Monte Ballou, Bob Helm, Bob Short would sit in. Rivermen (from the Mississippi riverboats) Pete Patterson, and Norman Mason who had recorded for Okeh with Charlie Creath and Fate Marable became regular members.