At 88, Chicago’s music legend Joe Segal has all that jazz

Owner of Chicago’s Jazz Showcase is awarded 2015 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Fellowship


Joe Segal plays drums at his birthday party in 2006 at Joe's Be-Bop Cafe and Jazz Emporium, a club he ran for a number of years on Chicago's Navy Pier. (Marc PoKempner)
July 11

During his 67 years of presenting jazz in Chicago — that’s right, 67 — Joe Segal has booked and befriended any number of masters, including Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon and James Moody, all departed, and the still-thriving Benny Golson, Jimmy Heath and Ira Sullivan.

Now, the 88-year-old impresario of the Jazz Showcase is officially recognized as a master himself.

Segal was awarded the 2015 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Fellowship last month, as were three veteran musicians: California tenor-saxophonist Charles Lloyd, a popular player during the heyday of psychedelia who re-established himself after a long absence from the scene; tenor saxophonist George Coleman, a Memphis native who came to prominence with Miles Davis in the early ’60s, and keyboardist, bandleader and composer Carla Bley, known for her genre-crossing oratorio, “Escalator Over the Hill,” among other works.

The recipients, each of whom will receive $25,000, will be feted on April 20, 2015 — the week of Segal’s 89th birthday — at a ceremony and concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York. Segal joins Lorraine Gordon, owner of New York’s vaunted Village Vanguard, as the only club owners to be recognized by the NEA. In 2010, Segal received a Jazz Hero award from the Jazz Journalists Association.

A Philadelphia native who became hooked on jazz when he was young via radio broadcast and live big-band performances, Segal first programmed jazz in 1947 as a student presenter at Roosevelt University in Chicago. This after making regular visits to area jazz clubs while stationed in downstate Champaign with the Air Force.

Jazz giants walked the earth back then, including Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie. Segal said the first time he heard Parker, the alto-saxophone legend who with trumpeter Gillespie invented the angular wide-open style called bebop, “I thought he was playing backwards.”

But as signified by the wall-length photo of “Bird” Parker that hangs behind the stage of the Jazz Showcase — and most of the artist photos and promotional posters that surround patrons — he lost his heart to bebop. Through all his years of presenting jazz, in dozens of locations following the end of the sessions at Roosevelt and in several “permanent” spots before his current one in the city’s South Loop, that has been the club’s defining sound. A large blowup of Duke Ellington reflects another area of his devotion.

“There are a lot of good young players around,” he said. “But there aren’t any innovators.”

An aficionado with little tolerance for modern styles, however mainstream they have become, Segal curses the advent of rock music. He has never tired of blaming Elvis and the Beatles for diminishing the following jazz once had. As for rap music’s popularity, don’t go there.

Even in a city with a jazz tradition as rich as Chicago’s, breaking even is the best the Jazz Showcase can hope for. How has Segal been able to keep the club going through tough economic times and periods when jazz artists were abandoning the form (or the country)?

The loyalty of his longtime musical attractions and audience regulars helped. So did the business acumen of his son Wayne, who has run the operation during the new millennium. But above all else, it has been Segal’s determination and willingness to occasionally compromise his personal standards that have kept things afloat.

“Joe has a real self-starter mind-set, which is very Chicago,” said Mike Reed, a musician and programmer who owns Constellation, a newish Windy City club that embraces cutting-edge artists of the sort Segal doesn’t enjoy. “He’s a lot like Bob Koester [whose independent Jazz Record Mart celebrated its 60th anniversary last year] in that way. These guys continue on in spite of the things in opposition to them.

“In a way, what Segal did at Roosevelt in starting his jazz series was very similar to what’s done by clubs on today’s indie scene. It’s the same DIY mentality.”

Segal recently embarked on writing a memoir. As many great flashes from the past as it is evoking — such as the annual birthday celebrations he shared at the club with the late tenor great Johnny Griffin, a Chicago native whose family catered the occasion — the book is also bringing back a few regrets.

“I didn’t realize what I had in the beginning,” he said. “If I had had the necessary monetary sense, I could have been Norman Granz or George Wein” — two of jazz’s great promoters.

And writing about so many friends who are no longer alive — and no longer drawing people to the Showcase — can’t be easy. “I’ve had feelings of guilt of making a living from their talent,” he said.

But in the end, such regrets pale in the face of his decades of bringing the greatest jazz artists to his adopted city, week in and week out, whatever rock revolution was being staged.

“I’m 88 as I start the book, and I have CRS,” he said, meaning he can’t remember stuff. “So don’t expect a lot of detailed information. There will be lots of stories. As far as I’m concerned, if I wasn’t there, it didn’t happen.”

Sachs, a writer based in Chicago, is working on a book about producer and singer-songwriter T Bone Burnett.

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