Joe Segal, who last week was named a 2015 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, has been at the heart of jazz in Chicago since the early bebop era. He began presenting jazz events following World War Two when he was attending Roosevelt College on the GI Bill. It was not unusual for name musicians, including Lester Young, Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins, to join local players in Segal’s afternoon sessions. When the Roosevelt sessions ended in 1957, Segal moved his entrepreneurial activities from place to place in Chicago. He estimates that the sessions happened in more than 60 locations. The first one he called the Jazz Showcase opened in 1970 and for a long time was in the Blackstone Hotel. It now has space in the city’s landmark rail terminal, Dearborn Station. Segal’s award is in the Jazz Advocate category added by the NEA Jazz Masters program in 2004. Its previous winners have been festival impresario George Wein, journalist Nat Hentoff, producer Orrin Keepnews, Dan Morgenstern of the Institute for Jazz Studies, recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder and Segal’s fellow club operator Lorraine Gordon of the Village Vanguard in New York.
A list of major musicians who have appeared under Segal’s auspices would amount to a who’s-who of jazz over the past 55 years. Along the way, he and his son Wayne, who now manages the club, have provided an outlet for some of the music’s daring adventurers, witness this 1981 performance by those intrepid outriders of the avant garde, the Art Ensemble of Chicago.
You heard, and most definitely saw, Lester Bowie, trumpet; Joseph Jarman and Roscoe Mitchell, reeds; Malachi Favors, bass; and Famoudou Don Moye, percussion. Of course, they all played percussion.
One of Segal’s most significant contributions to the health of Chicago’s jazz community has been his encouragement of developing musicians. Over the past few years that has encompassed a relationship with Bob Lark, director of the jazz program at DePaul University. Here is the DePaul Jazz Ensemble last month with guest trumpeter Randy Brecker, and Lark conducting. They play Joe Clark’s arrangement of Thelonious Monk’s “Well, You Needn’t.” The soloists are alto saxophonist Brent Griffin, trombonist Brian Scarborough and Brecker.
Joe Segal, who has long helped to make that sort of thing possible, is being recognized for his long-running contributions to jazz. With the other new NEA Jazz Masters, he will receive his award, which carries a prize of $25,000, at a ceremony in New York City next April 20. Segal told Howard Reich of The Chicago Tribune what he’ll do with the money: “We’ll put it right in our kitty,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of bills.”
To see the NEA’s official biography of Segal, with a partial list of live albums recorded at the Jazz Showcase, go here.