Forget Tower Records—Chicago’s Jazz Record Mart stores history on vinyl

By Oliver Mosier

The smell is the first thing that catches you when you stroll in for the first time. It isn’t musty or offensive to the nose, but rather, historic. That smell—the distinct odor of vinyl and nostalgia—brings you back to the early days of jazz and the blues. The doors let you travel back to a time when jazz ruled.

Jazz Record Mart is just such a musical palace. The store is nestled away on East Illinois and Wabash in downtown Chicago. Instantly, you are bombarded with infinite aisles of albums. It is a place that opens your eyes—and more importantly, your ears—to the endless sounds of music.

Everything jazz is there, on every label imaginable: Bluenote, CTI, Prestige, Riverside, and Impulse. LPs, CDs, cassettes, 45s, 78s, videos, books, magazines, shirts, and posters cover every inch of this jazz sanctuary.

From A to Z (Adderley to Zoot Slims), Jazz Record Mart contains an alphabetized history of jazz. But let’s not forget the blues. Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters are as much a part of the Jazz Record Mart as Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

The location is appropriate—not the street, but the city. Chicago’s musical heritage is evident in the patrons lining its clubs and the living heroes who walk its streets. The Jazz Record Mart could be missed by any casual walker. It also could be just as easily stumbled upon.

Last November my friend, Nikhil, a lover of jazz, and I were wandering aimlessly, searching for restaurants for what felt like hours in the cold, rainy Chicago night. We just wanted a bite to eat. We got a lot more than that. In our urban odyssey, we stumbled upon the Jazz Record Mart in all its nocturnal majesty. We stepped inside and were immediately in paradise.

For a little while, at least, our hunger was put on hold. We paced through the aisles, discovering a whole new world of music. When we finally left the store 45 minutes later, we had several albums in hand. Suddenly, the struggle to find a place to eat did not matter. We felt as if we were meant to wander just so we could find the Jazz Record Mart. It was worth the walking. It was serendipity.

Bob Koester, the owner of Delmark Records, bought the store in 1959. Since then, it has become the largest jazz and blues record store on the planet. Jazz Record Mart needs to be recognized as a unique Chicago musical palace. It has things that will not be found anywhere else. Sure, you could sit in the comfort of your desk and computer and order online. But where is the fun, adventure, or mystery in that?

There is the chance to find the unexpected every time you enter the Jazz Record Mart. You can’t go to Borders to really discover literature. I would prefer getting lost in the miles of books in New York’s Strand rather than in some large chain store, and the same holds true for music. Record stores are a dying breed—a throwback to an earlier time. They should be cherished as long as they remain, and preserved so they will never become just a memory.

Recently, virtuosic jazz pianist and Chicago native Herbie Hancock promoted the inclusion of jazz studies into the social studies curriculum of public schools across the nation. He is working with the help of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. So when teachers in the Chicagoland area are trying to plan field trips, the first destination should be obvious. If the yellow bus full of wide-eyed kids stops on Wabash and Illinois, then the world of jazz will be successfully inherited by the next generation.