Joe Segal – NEA Jazz Master
in his own words… Joe Segal
Cover Photo by Christine Jeffers
Joe Segal, owner and operator of Chicago’s famed Jazz Showcase, has become the elder statesman of the Chicago jazz scene. Segal is a behind-the-scenes guy—you won’t see him on stage unless he’s announcing one of the groups he’s booked. On any given night at the Showcase, however, you’ll see him in familiar pose, perched behind the counter of the entranceway, his saturnine demeanor belying his passion for the jazz music he so loves.
Over the past sixty years Segal has seen—and booked—them all. As a jazz fan, Segal has referred to himself as the “Original Bebop Boy” and has a special affinity for bopper Charlie Parker, whose image is prominently displayed behind the Showcase stage.
Segal was born on April 24, 1926. He spent most of his youth in Philadelphia, where at the age of “eight or nine or ten” he was exposed to jazz via WOR radio out of New York, to which he would listen faithfully each Saturday afternoon. During World War II, Segal was drafted by the U.S. Army, but claims most of his fighting was “fighting to get out” of the army. Segal’s Midwest discharge landed him in Chicago, where he enrolled at Roosevelt University under the G.I. Bill.
Though he tried his hand unsuccessfully at trombone back in Philly and piano and drums while at Roosevelt, it wasn’t long before jazz-lover Segal was booking sessions and events for the school. When not booking acts, Segal spent time working at a record shop behind Roosevelt on Wabash called Seymour’s Jazz Record Mart, which was later purchased by Bob Koester, who dropped “Seymour’s,” renaming it Jazz Record Mart. Segal began booking and emceeing traditional and bop sessions in an upstairs loft at the Mart, which included gigs with John Young, Kenny Mann, Lurlean Hunter, Big Bill Broonzy and “Chippie” Hill.
By 1958, Segal held Monday night sessions at the Gate of Horn with a magnificent array of local talent including Ira Sullivan, Jodie Christian, Nicky Hill, Johnny Griffin, and Paul Serrano, plus visiting sidemen from Blakey, Miles or whoever was playing at the Regal or Sutherland. Koester, who also owned Delmark Records, and Segal went on to produce live jazz recordings of Ira Sullivan with Nicky Hill, Johnny Griffin, John Young, Jimmy Forrest with Grant Green, and Art Hode with Albert Nicholas. These titles are still a part of the Delmark catalog.
Segal has always worked within the music business, including stints at Hudson-Ross, a leading record store chain, at Chess Records, overseeing re-issues and doing LP liner notes, and at Decca Records. It was never his intention to have his own jazz club; Segal was content booking rooms like the French Poodle, the Gate of Horn, the New York Room in the basement of the Sutherland Hotel on 47th and Drexel, Mother Blues on Wells Street, the Old Town Gate and the Earl of Old Town.
It was while booking Sunday concerts at the North Park Hotel that Segal saw the opportunity to maybe do something more. Segal contacted Yusef Lateef who was living in Detroit and asked him if he could do a Sunday show. Lateef noted that he needed to be booked for the whole weekend—Friday, Saturday and Sunday—to make the trip worthwhile. The basic formula of bringing in out-of-town artists for multiple-day engagements has served Segal and his Jazz Showcase well for sixty years.
It was in a downstairs room of the Happy Medium Theater on Rush and Delaware that Segal established his first Jazz Showcase. Despite many lean years—years described by many jazz musicians as being “absolutely dead”—Segal has endured, with subsequent homes for the Showcase at the landmark Blackstone Hotel, and at its current Printer’s Row home.
Now 88, Segal is in the news again with national and local recognition for his contributions to jazz.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You will be receiving the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Fellowship, more specifically the A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy. This is the highest award you can win for jazz. How did it come about?
Joe Segal: Well, I think it started out when Loraine Gordon from the Village Vanguard got one last year and Howard Reich sort of got upset about it and said she’s only been doing it for twenty-five years and Joe’s been doing it for sixty-some years. So I imagine that got through to some people and there it is. It came through, and I am getting it for Jazz advocacy since I am not a musician. That is, for promoting jazz and so forth.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Have other club owners received this honor?
Segal: I think just Loraine and myself.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: The Village Vanguard has been around for longer than twenty-five years. Did she take over the club from someone?
Segal: Yeah, from her husband.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: How does that make you feel that you are being honored like this?
Segal: Well, I feel very fortunate. As Dorthy Donogahn used to say when we were all getting awards from the International Jazz Educators Association, “You can have the A-ward I want the RE-ward.” So there was a reward with this and it went right into our coffers because we have a lot of bills to pay.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You seem to be on a roll––they recently renamed Plymouth Court, just outside the Jazz Showcase, to Joe Segal Way.
Segal: Actually what happened was, at the end of last year, 2013, I received an award from the Lawyers for the Creative Arts. Then Roosevelt University gave me an honorary doctorate, even though I never really graduated from there. As a matter of fact, I am working with them to have a Joe Segal Jazz Archive at the school. I am going to give all of my tapes and photos from over the years to Roosevelt and they are going to try to raise money to digitalize and archive everything.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Let’s talk about Roosevelt, since that is where you got your start booking high-profile jazz talent. When did you get started there?
Segal: About 1947.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You were hosting the jam sessions and concerts at Roosevelt after you left. Was there still a lot of connection?
Segal: Well, there was a connection. I think it was in 1987. That was the fortieth anniversary of the first sessions that I hosted at Roosevelt. We did a big benefit for Roosevelt for the Auditorium Theatre, which the school owns, and I think we raised $90,000 for them. I brought in a lot of the great people, of course. Ira Sullivan has been with me all along; Johnny Griffith came in. We also had Ramsey Lewis and Billy Taylor, Joe Williams, Stanley Turentine, Art Farmer, Lee Konitz, Richard Davis, Junior Mance—a lot of the people that started out at the sessions when they were young ended up coming back to this benefit.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: That was sort of your reconnection with Roosevelt?
Segal: Yeah, after that it sort of died down, and then the doctorate came out of the blue.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: So you are Dr. Joe Segal?
Segal: The Doctor is in! [laughs]
Chicago Jazz Magazine: For the archive, you must have thousands and thousands of pictures and reel-to-reel tapes.
Segal: We have tapes so old, we have some on paper tape and even wire recordings.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Roosevelt is going to go through all of them?
Segal: Yeah. I am going to have to go through them first and then they are going to try to estimate how much it will cost to digitalize everything; and then they are going to try to raise the funds. I don’t know how we will do that. Maybe we will have a couple concerts or something.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You just need to keep winning rewards!
Segal: [Laughs] Yeah, right!
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Back when you started jam sessions in the 1940s at Roosevelt and Columbia College, there wasn’t a jazz education program for students.
Segal: Well, let me tell you. DownBeat and all the jazz magazines have listings of all the schools with jazz courses, which is a big thing now. When I did it, the dean of the music department—which was mainly classical and operatic—he would march through the session and say, “They shouldn’t permit that jungle music here!” He was really hot! We did it anyway.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Can you believe how far jazz education has come from its early beginnings? There are thousands of jazz majors at some of the top schools now.
Segal: Oh yeah, in fact a lot of the great musicians that used to make their living on the road playing gigs, which now isn’t really possible, they have teaching jobs at these various schools. In fact, some of them are faculty members at more than one school. Of course, you can teach the technical skills, but you still need to get out there and play music.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: When you became a concert promoter at Roosevelt, did you have any prior training for booking musicians?
Segal: No, I was just a kid in Philly. I just used to listen to the music. Then I spent two years in the Army, that’s when I got connected with Chicago. My last station was at Chanute Field in Champaign, Ill., so I used to just jump on the Illinois Central and come on up. Randolph was beginning then with jazz. It was just like 52nd street in New York. I was a wide-eyed kid at twenty years old and in hog heaven.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Where was the music on Randolph Street?
Segal: From Wabash to Wells. There were also some things up north, but of course the big stuff was out South on 63rd and Cottage. There must have been about fifteen or twenty clubs where you could see all kinds of people playing.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You have seen first-hand many changes in the music industry, such as being able to make a living at performing.
Segal: It is mostly because of the expenses––the hotels have gotten crazy with their prices. Also, you don’t have the audience. The few young people that you get are music students. The general public is not interested. They don’t even know what jazz is. They take a look at a photo of Charlie Parker and they say, “Who’s that?” And then I tell them who it is and they still say, “Who is Charlie Parker?” They only know Dizzy Gillespie because of his puffed out cheeks and his bent up horn. Probably the only people they have heard of are Miles Davis and John Coltrane, and that’s it.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: A lot of music students are going into jazz but, as you noted, the best teacher is on-the-job training. Don’t you think it is even more important to have clubs like the Jazz Showcase so students have a place to learn and to see bigger names perform in an intimate space?
Segal: Yeah, that’s why at least once or twice a month we have groups from Roosevelt or DePaul or Columbia College come in. Sometimes Elmhurst College brings groups. Some of the high schools have very good bands. I think they say that music follows the culture of what’s happening in the world. And you know what’s happening—lot of terrible things. That’s why popular music is terrible. The kids now don’t have any future to speak of, at least they feel they don’t, and I sometimes tend to agree with them. They don’t want to think about all of this stuff; all they want to do is put the Boom, Boom, Boom through their heads to wipe out all that other stuff. They want to jump and wiggle and yell and scream.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: The Jazz Showcase has a Sunday Matinee that is an all-ages––kids 12 and under get in for free. Is it possible for people under 21 to attend other shows during the week?
Segal: Yes, as long as they have a parent or guardian, kids under 21 are always welcome for any of the shows at the Jazz Showcase.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: There have been many different locations for the Jazz Showcase.
Segal: As far as five-nighters, it’s about the fifth place; but if you count all of the one-nighters, there are more than sixty spots. There are also some out of state, like down in Florida.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: The current Jazz Showcase is generally regarded as the best location for acoustics and sight lines. How did you and your son Wayne decide on this particular location at the old Dearborn Train Station?
Segal: We drove around and must have looked at thirty to forty different places all up and down. We turned the corner and saw the clock tower and said this is the spot! We came in here and there was a ballet school hidden inside. The landlord moved them downstairs to a better facility and Wayne redesigned the whole thing. This is the only place we have ever had where there haven’t been any visual restrictions. We also sound-proofed the entire place, because the people that live next door were worried about the noise coming from the club. You can’t hear a thing outside now. In fact we have people that live across the street say, “ I can’t hear anything, so I have to come over!”
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Since you were talking about this location specifically, who did all the design work on the club?
Segal: Wayne did it. We also had an architect, but it was mostly Wayne. Chuck did a lot of work as well.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Looking at the photos on the wall, it is amazing to think that you actually know or had friendships with most of these famous jazz musicians.
Segal: They are not decorations. There are maybe four or five of them that are famous that didn’t play for us, but we figure they should be up there––like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. We go back as far as Lester Young, quite a few of the Basie guys, the Ellington and Woody Herman guys, the big bands and all. Maynard Ferguson used to play for us for quite a bit and we have had all kinds of great artists and big bands. We have had the Kenton big band, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Band, the Toshiko Akiyoshi, Lew Tabackin Big Band, the Mingus Big Band and many others.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: What is the process like when you are booking them?
Segal: Well it depends. Nowadays, you usually have to go through an agent. There are very few that do their own booking now. They play all over the world and they need an agent to do that because of the traveling, the hotel and many other things. There are some that I can still call up directly, but there are some that can’t even answer our calls anymore.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Because there is an agent involved?
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Isn’t one of your keys to booking great talent just because you have known and hung out with them through the years?
Segal: Yeah, and they know that I love and respect the music. They know I am for real as far as the music is concerned. I am not just another nightclub owner that is in it to make money off of the musicians. A lot of nightclub owners say if the music doesn’t go then forget it, bring in the girls!
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Are there any major performances coming this spring at the Jazz Showcase?
Segal: Chris Potter is coming in at the end of January with his own group. We usually just go local during the winter, but it was the only opportunity to have him this year. Of course, we have some wonderful local musicians: Bobby Lewis will be here one weekend, Pharez Whitted and his group, Ari Brown and his group, and many others.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: The Jazz Showcase has always had weekly national acts, but in the past ten years or so you have been devoting Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays to supporting local performances. What is the thought behind showcasing these groups on a weekly basis?
Segal: Many of the local musicians have a following so they bring in a nice crowd on Tuesday and Wednesday, which also brings in new people that might not have been in the club before.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You were drawn to jazz at an early age and your still drawn to jazz now.
Segal: Yeah, but there is a lot less to hear.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: People who attend the club have seen you grooving to bebop tunes that you have probably heard a hundred times. Why are you still so passionate about the music?
Segal: Well, because that’s what I grew up with—big bands and the modern innovations. When I was in the service I heard a lot of it. And then when I got out of the service it was the rage of the day. That’s when people first became aware of Dizzy and Miles and Monk. That was the popular music of the day, but it is no longer.