Joe Segal never will forget the day Charlie Parker died.
"It was March 12, 1955, and I was at Roosevelt," recalls Segal, founder of the Jazz Showcase and at the time a student and self-styled jazz presenter at Roosevelt University.
"It was in the afternoon. I was setting up chairs and all for the concert that night," continues Segal. "And this guy came running down the hall crying and saying, 'Man, did you hear Bird died?'"
The news hit Segal hard because he had presented the alto saxophone genius at Roosevelt, having been smitten with the man's obvious technical brilliance and improvisational wizardry. So Segal stepped outside to clear his head, he says, then returned to introduce the scheduled performers, whose names he has long since forgotten.
He does remember, though, that "everybody sort of played like a robot – they were just stunned. And from that day on, I decided March 12 would be a memorial concert" for Parker.
This week, Segal marks the 60th anniversary of an event that long ago morphed into the Showcase's "August Is Charlie Parker Month" festivities, dedicated to the man whose music very nearly defines the club.
It's Parker's beneficent smile, after all, that gazes upon anyone who plays the Showcase, in the form of a larger-than-life, black-and-white portrait that dominates the stage. In other ways, as well, the Jazz Showcase has earned a reputation around the world as a temple of bebop – the jazz idiom Parker codified with Dizzy Gillespie and others – and its off-shoots.
And what started as an annual, one-night memorial to Parker turned into a celebration of his birthday – Aug. 29, 1920 – due to the vicissitudes of the jazz life.
Specifically, saxophone titan Dexter Gordon had been scheduled to play Segal's Parker memorial in the 1960s when he heard some bad news.
"About a week before, (trumpeter) Paul Serrano, who was friendly with Dexter told me, 'Hey, man, Dexter split town,'" remembers Segal.
"I said, 'Really?'
"And he said, 'Yeah, the fuzz told him to leave, or he would be re-incarcerated.'"
Meaning that Gordon was about to be busted again for drug use, a scourge among uncounted musicians of Parker's generation, many of whom hoped they might play like Bird if they indulged in his vices. The excesses of Parker's life killed him at age 34, and Gordon's similar battles with drug addiction were spotlighted in the greatest jazz movie of all, Bertrand Tavernier's "'Round Midnight," in which Gordon played a fictional character whose travails mirror his own and bebop pianist Bud Powell's.
When Segal lost Gordon as his main attraction for that Parker memorial, "I thought, Oh, boy, that's the end of the tradition.'"
But a friend suggested Segal bump the event to August and make it a celebration of Parker's birth, a joyous occasion rather than a mournful one. Segal did just that, and "August Is Charlie Parker Month" caught on, the impresario having presented just about every major figure who worked with Parker or was profoundly influenced by him, including trumpeter Gillespie, drummers Max Roach and Roy Haynes, saxophonists Sonny Stitt and Jackie McLean, trombonist J.J. Johnson, vibraphonist Milt Jackson and bassist Ray Brown.
Does any one of the Parker tributes stand out in memory?
"Probably Sonny Rollins – he did it down on Rush Street," says Segal, referring to the saxophone colossus who played downstairs space the Showcase held in the 1970s, below the Happy Medium.
"He was so exciting, we were standing up on the chairs, cheering. It was the most exciting thing we'd heard since Charlie Parker."
But few artists of Parker's vintage are performing anymore (Haynes being a glorious exception), which means Segal has had to reach out to younger generations for expressions of Parker's legacy.
Does Segal think he'll keep the Charlie Parker tributes going into the future?
"I really don't know," says Segal, 89. "I'm thinking about my future right now. I'm just trying to make it to 90."
Following is the complete schedule for "August Is Charlie Parker Month," with all performances at the Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Court; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com.
Eric Schneider/Pat Mallinger Quintet: 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday.
Charles McPherson Quartet: Thursday through Aug. 9.
Roxy Coss/Sharel Cassity Quintet: Aug. 13 through 16.
Gary Bartz: Aug. 20-23.
Ira Sullivan Quartet: Aug. 27-30.
Also worth hearing
Matt Ulery: The inventive Chicago bassist-bandleader plays music from "In the Ivory," the welcome follow-up to his breakthrough double album, "By a Little Light" (2012). The large ensemble will include vocalist Grazyna Auguscik, pianist Rob Clearfield, drummer Jon Deitemyer, vibraphonist Matthew Duvall, flutist Nathalie Joachim, clarinetist Michael Maccaferri, violinists Aurelien Pederzoli and Yvonne Lam, violist Dominic Johnson and cellist Katinka Kleijn. 8:30 p.m. Friday at Constellation, 3111 N. Western Ave.; $12-$15; constellation-chicago.com
"Portraits in Jazz": Howard Reich's e-book collects his exclusive interviews with Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald and others, as well as profiles of early masters such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday. Get "Portraits in Jazz" at chicagotribune.com/ebooks.
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