NEA Jazz Masters: Joe Segal

Joe SegalJoe 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.

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  1. Bill Benjamin says

    Thanks for this post, Doug. Having lived in Chicago all my life until 2009, I can’t begin to tell you my connection to Joe. I go back with him all the way to the 1960s when he struggled to find venues until finally settling at the North Park Hotel for several years of production there. He is absolutely uncompromising in his presentation of jazz – sometimes to his own detriment – but I can’t imagine jazz in Chicago without him. Especially after the closing of venues like Mister Kelly’s, The London House and Rick’s Cafe. He so very much deserves this award.

  2. Irwin Krimke says

    When Jazz was almost dead in the city, Joe kept it alive. Each August at the Showcase is Charlie Parker month, and the few jazz radio stations play plenty of Parker.

  3. Ken says

    Thanks for this reminder of Joe Segal and how important he’s been to jazz in Chicago. I remember great nights at the Showcase in the 80’s – hearing Betty Carter when the place was on Rush Street, then Nat Adderley (w/Ray Brown), McCoy Tyner, David Murray, Max Roach, and Al Cohn in the Blackstone, a wonderfully elegant location. I also caught one of Segal’s apparently annual DuSable High School musical reunions, with Johnny Griffin, Joseph Jarman, and I wish I could remember who else—probably Von Freeman and Wilbur Campbell, among others.

    The night I heard Adderley, Dizzy Gillespie came in and, with Joe at his side, happened to sit next to my brother and me. My brother later said he was afraid to light a cigarette for fear of annoying them. I’m no student of fashion, but I remember Segal was always wearing a suit and tie that looked like maybe the 1940’s. He looked good! I also remember Roach paying tribute to Segal, joking that Segal, at last, was actually making some money.

  4. Jim Brown says

    In the mid ’70s, I was a young sound engineer with no money, just returned from work in the civil rights movement, and wanted to hear jazz. I had a day gig working for a downtown sound company, and took a part time job at Ratso’s, a club that competed with Joe and hired major talent. Wages were minimum, but the music was great.

    Around the same time, I also developed a relationship with Joe, whereby I took care of his sound, doing what I could to improve it without spending money that neither of us had, and he compensated by giving me and my lady friend a pass at the door. Later, when I was running my own consulting business, I was able to give him new equipment for his system.

    For ten years until I moved a few miles north to buy a house, we were across the alley neighbors. Both of us rented modest apartments that were modestly furnished, mostly second hand store modern. This is one guy who wasn’t getting rich off of the music! .

    In addition to his respect for the music and an insistence that it be presented well, he also booked musicians he loved, even though he knew he would lose money. I recall many evenings when he, I, and a dozen or so other souls sat listening to Barry Harris’s sets every night. When Barry came to town, we were there for every set, every night.

    Joe also took every booking he could get of all the major bands. Basie, Woody, Maynard, all worked for him..It might be a night sandwiched between better paying gigs, but he also brought in Thad/Mel at least twice for a weekend, and I heard Toshiko’s band there several times. Both were the respective New York bands, not local guys.

    Joe has been a pacesetter in other ways. His was certainly the first smoke-free jazz club in Chicago, at least a decade before anyone else would have had the guts to do that, and nearly 20 years before the law required it. He didn’t want a big sound system that made the music larger than life. Like me, he wanted the music to sound like a bunch of guys in a room playing. He resisted the demands of some of the younger musicians for loud stage monitors, and for the most part, his club has sounded that much better because of it.

    Joe has always attracted people who love the music to help him keep it alive. Among them is Stu Katz, lawyer by day, jazz pianist by night, who helped a lot with legal issues. Drummer Wilber Campbell also played vibes; they were always available when Milt Jackson and Bobby Hutcherson came to town, and his will left them to Joe. Like many club owners, Joe has a well-deserved reputation for squeezing a nickel until it screams — without it, the Jazz Showcase would have died long ago.

    My favorite Joe Segal story is apocryphal, and involves Zoot Sims, who was a friend and frequent performer at the Showcase. In those days, Joe always paid in cash, and on Sunday night. It seems that as he was paying Zoot one night, he warned him that people knew it, and to be careful. Zoot is said to have replied, “Yeah, Joe. But everyone knows HOW you pay.”

    Well deserved, Joe!

  5. says

    Joe Segal allowed the teenage me free entry to his Jazz Showcase performances at the North Park Hotel and later on Rush Street, so I got to hear Coleman Hawkins, Eddie Lockjaw Davis, Jimmy Forrest, Johnny Griffin and Dexter Gordon, among the bluesy-bop saxophonists he favored, as well as Sun Ra, Rahsaan, Hancock’ Mwandishi band, Cecil Taylor and many others performing in the late ’60s through the early ’80s (when I moved to the east coast — often visiting the Showcase when returning to Chi. The Jazz Journalists Association conferred its “A Team” Award (for advocates, activists, altruists, aiders and abettors of jazz) on Joe several years ago, and with Wayne’s help the JJA has held “A Team” parties at the Showcase at its Dearborn St. locale. Yes, the club at the Blackstone was cool, but the Showcase on Grand Ave. during the ’90s was nice, too. Segal has always indulged my jazz enthusiasms, and been a model of focus on giving the music its necessary support. I look forward to my next visit to Joe Segal’s Jazz Showcase (and it won’t be long in coming).