Delmark Records Focused on ‘a New Era’ of Creativity


Julia A. Miller (left) and Elbio Barilari run Chicago’s Delmark Records.

(Photo: Lola Reynaerts)

After six decades as the overachieving offspring of founder Bob Koester, Delmark Records was purchased in May 2018 by Julia A. Miller and Elbio Barilari. One year into their ambitious five-year plan to bring the label into the 21st century, this labor of love has been “everything and more” they expected it to be, said Miller, Delmark president and CEO. “And we’re even ahead of our expectations for the first year.”

Interviewed at Delmark’s combination Riverside Studio, offices and warehouse on Chicago’s Northwest Side, the two musicians, educators and radio hosts admitted that Koester and his wife, Sue, have proven tough acts to follow. At the same time, they bring a different perspective than the octogenarian Koester, who often remarked that jazz and blues fans are unlike other music consumers in that they prefer physical products in the form of CDs or LPs, rather than streams or downloads. Not that the new owners aren’t exploring retro formats.

There are 782 products now offered on the Delmark website, most of which are available digitally. But while the site proclaims “A New Era for Delmark Records,” the label is wooing audiophiles with reel-to-reel reissues of classics from its catalog, starting with albums by Junior Wells, Jimmy Forrest, Magic Sam and Sun Ra. Prices range from $139 to $400, Barilari said.

Miller said she and Barilari have complementary skills that served them well during the transition. “I have five music degrees, guitar performance and composition degrees, and it’s been a learning curve,” she said. “We bring different things to this partnership. As the president of the business, if I didn’t take on those responsibilities of organizing things, the business would implode. A lot of people talk about Elbio as the Uruguayan composer, and he’s more than that. Having a female CEO and a Latino artistic director [and vice president] gives us a unique perspective. We’re more than the sum of our parts.”

Providing continuity as the third member of the team is Steve Wagner, Delmark’s label and studio manager. Widely respected for delivering a classic sound as engineer and producer on countless Delmark recordings, Wagner paused during a recent editing job to discuss the studio’s recent purchase of Pro Tools music production software. This addition to his toolbox, Wagner said, offers him greater flexibility. “Steve is also an archivist,” Miller said. “He knows all the technology, runs the studio and organized all the masters.”

Barilari and Miller said being musicians themselves helps, too, enabling them to relate to Delmark artists. “For example, we’d never ask a musician to sign a contract that we wouldn’t sign ourselves,” Miller pledged.

Blues and jazz artists in Chicago and beyond are on board. Veteran Chicago jazz singer Dee Alexander, who is recording her first solo disc for Delmark, said, “That plays a big, important part, that they are actually jazz musicians themselves. They know what jazz musicians need and require, and know how to deal with temperamental musicians. We all care about the music and want to be treated with kid gloves, and that’s exactly what they do.” It’s Too Hot For Words, scheduled for an August release, pairs Alexander with the Metropolitan Jazz Octet for a deep exploration of the Billie Holiday catalog.

Willie Buck, whose latest Delmark release, Willie Buck Way, marks the dedication of a Chicago street to the bluesman, said he barely gave the ownership change a thought while working on the album. “I don’t see a lot changing,” the Mississippi native said.

An important benefit for Barilari and Miller in buying Delmark was finding a home for their own experimental jazz-rock group, Volcano Radar. For Paquito Libre, their recent Delmark release, Barilari recruited his old friend Paquito D’Rivera to play clarinet and alto saxophone. “We exemplify the breadth of the label with our playing,” Miller said. “We look at Delmark as a platform for creativity. Creative control and vision are really important to us, and that was what Delmark was really all about. In our market, we’re not a major-label thing. It’s a very specific creative and intellectual project, and we wanted it to be a joyous outgrowth of what’s happening with our label.” DB

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