Joe Segal, Owner Of Chicago’s Jazz Showcase, Dies At 94

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Jimmy Cobb (left), Joe Segal and former DownBeat editor Dan Morgenstern appear at a NEA Jazz Masters awards luncheon on April 20, 2015, in New York.

(Photo: Michael G. Stewart/National Endowment for the Arts)

Few impresarios spent as many decades maintaining a home for jazz as Chicago’s Joe Segal, who died Aug. 10 at the age of 94.

Numerous legends admired his tenacity and frequently performed at his venue, The Jazz Showcase, including saxophonist Benny Golson.

“Joe was serious about jazz and that dedication was from the innermost part of his heart,” Golson said. “He was dedicated to jazz, totally. Nothing else. Big names, little names, names that were going to be big, all came through his spot.”

For generations of musicians, Segal’s passing meant the loss of a friend, a crucial advocate for jazz, as well as a connection to decades of history.

“Joe let me experiment with all the bands I had,” pianist Danilo Pérez told DownBeat. “He was always driven by the feeling, emotion and the music itself. When he enjoyed what you were doing, he would tell you directly. He really listened to the music.”

Throughout his life, Segal witnessed considerable evolution of the music. Born in Philadelphia, he heard swing bands on the radio and followed the sounds along with the people who created them. After serving in the Army Air Corps, Segal moved to Chicago and attended Roosevelt University. The city was home to several young musicians with whom Segal forged a relationship with as he began organizing jam sessions at the college in 1947. The gigs featured rising local stars, including saxophonist Johnny Griffin and bassist Richard Davis. Charlie Parker sat in once, too, solidifying Segal’s devotion to bebop. He then began presenting jazz in any room that he could.

“I didn’t really think of owning or running a nightclub, it just sort of happened,” Segal said in a 2015 video interview coinciding with his becoming a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master. “I just took the door and paid the musicians, and if there was something left, fine. Sometimes, I had to borrow a couple of bucks to get home from the musicians.”

For many years, Segal brought giants—like Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus and Rahsaan Roland Kirk—to clubs like the Happy Medium and Gate of Horn under the Jazz Showcase banner. He sometimes took other jobs to keep food on the table, including a stint working in an automotive plant.

Golson, who met Segal in the early 1950s, remembered, “Each time I saw Joe, he was at a different place. But in that, I saw determination. I saw where his mind was and how he felt about this music called jazz.”

During the 1980s, Segal had established a fixed locale for the Jazz Showcase at the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago’s South Loop. While bassist Dave Holland had played at earlier Showcase locations in the bands of Stan Getz and Sam Rivers, he didn’t have a track record as a leader in 1983 when he approached Segal for a gig.

“It meant a lot to me that Joe gave me the chance,” Holland said. “At the very beginning, we were building our audience, and Joe never complained about that—he hung in there with it. That’s one of the reasons why I always wanted to go back there.”

Holland also remembered his impressions of the Showcase’s acoustic limitations and how Segal dealt with them.

“Joe didn’t have a sound engineer, the sound system was old school,” Holland said. “I was saying, ‘You don’t have any monitors.’ He said, ‘Charlie Parker didn’t need any monitors.’”

The exchange exemplified Segal’s personality: He could seem gruff, but that demeanor guarded an inner warmth. His belief in making jazz rooms familial included hosting weekend all-ages matinees, and Segal kept that attitude through the Jazz Showcase’s various moves—to the River North neighborhood in 1996 and then to 806 S. Plymouth Ct. in 2008, where it stands in Chicago’s South Loop today. Longtime audiences and performers had come to expect his outspokenness, about music that he liked and music that he didn’t.

“I was singing some song, and he walked past and gave me the thumbs down,” vocalist Dee Alexander said with a laugh. “He knew that he could intimidate people. Joe had a crusty exterior, but he was such a sweetheart. Just like any teacher, he wanted the best from you—and the bottom line is tough love.”

During the past few years, his son, Wayne Segal, handled most of the venue’s operations, even as the founder maintained a role in bookings. Alexander said that Joe Segal called her shortly before his death to invite her group for a Charlie Parker Month celebration in August. She also heard that Segal was listening to Bird when he passed, the same day tornadoes hit Chicago.

“Joe flew out of here on a storm,” Alexander said. “After that, the sun came out, the sunset was beautiful and I just shook my head.” DB



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