Joe Se­gal, Jazz Show­case owner who brought greats to Chicago, dies at age 94

Club owner brought greats and up-and-com­ers of genre to Chicago

Chicago Sun-Times - - FRONT PAGE - BY MAU­REEN O’DON­NELL, STAFF RE­PORTER mod­on­nell@sun­ | @sun­time­so­bits Con­tribut­ing: Darel Jevens

Joe Se­gal, the Chicago im­pre­sario who pro­moted jazz for more than seven decades, died Mon­day at 94.

Mr. Se­gal, whose love af­fair with jazz saw him bring the greats and up-and-com­ers alike to dozens of Chicago venues be­fore set­tling into his lat­est club, the Jazz Show­case’s cur­rent home at Dear­born Sta­tion in the South Loop, had been in fail­ing health.

He died lis­ten­ing to his idol, sax­o­phone leg­end Charlie “Bird” Parker, ac­cord­ing to his son Wayne Se­gal, who op­er­ates the club and was with him at St. Joseph Hos­pi­tal.

“He died know­ing he was loved,” he said. “As soon as he passed, that big storm came through. I said, ‘There you go.’ It goes with his per­son­al­ity.”

New Or­leans sax­o­phone great Don­ald Har­ri­son, among those who reg­u­larly played Mr. Se­gal’s nightspots, called him “an ir­re­place­able ad­vo­cate for the mu­sic we call jazz.”

Har­ri­son said Tues­day that Mr. Se­gal “held the line and made sure that jazz had a pres­ence in the world and helped leg­ends main­tain a place to play in Chicago. And he made sure mu­si­cians who were com­ing up had a place to play.”

Though Mr. Se­gal’s youth­ful at­tempts to learn the trom­bone and pi­ano failed, he once told the Chicago Sun-Times, “I don’t know one note from an­other, but I know when it’s not right.”

He booked hun­dreds of the greats in jazz. And he did so at mul­ti­ple lo­ca­tions, hav­ing to hunt for new venues for rea­sons that in­cluded ex­pired leases, re­de­vel­op­ment and land­lords who didn’t think jazz was a mon­ey­maker. There were stints at the Bee­hive, the Bird­house, the French Poo­dle, the Gate of Horn, the Happy Medium, the Black­stone Ho­tel and the Plugged Nickel be­fore his mul­ti­ple Jazz Show­case lo­ca­tions.

“Jazz,” he used to say, “is my liveli­hood and my love.”

“Most peo­ple that book bands into jazz clubs are not into the mu­sic,” he said in a 2014 Sun-Times in­ter­view. “They’re into the busi­ness. Which has been my fail­ing. I’m more into the mu­sic, and I’ve never had a busi­ness sense.”

“To have con­tin­u­ously fought to show­case jazz in Chicago for seven decades, Joe Se­gal was a su­per­hero,” said singer Paul Mari­naro, a head­liner at the cur­rent Jazz Show­case at 806 S. Ply­mouth Ct. “Long af­ter his son Wayne had taken over the day-to-day op­er­a­tions of the club, Joe would still call to per­son­ally of­fer a date, and the im­por­tance of that was never lost to me. He not only would gladly share his vast knowl­edge of this mu­sic but would tai­lor the con­ver­sa­tion to what he thought you’d per­son­ally con­nect to. The book­ings, the chats, his per­sonal song re­quests, his sit­ting, lis­ten­ing and nod­ding in ap­proval stage side — to have been even a small blip in his vast his­tory will re­main a source of ac­com­plish­ment and pride in me.”

Trum­peter and band­leader Ni­cholas Pay­ton said Mr. Se­gal was “amongst the last of a gen­er­a­tion of pro­pri­etors who got into the in­dus­try be­cause they loved Black mu­sic. And as opin­ion­ated and picky as he

could be, he al­ways lis­tened to ev­ery­thing, so his per­spec­tive was in­formed. Amidst the tur­bu­lent up­sand-downs through­out his ca­reer, he never gave up. And as great as the legacy of the Show­case is, his big­gest ac­com­plish­ment might be his son Wayne, who loves the mu­sic as much as his old man did.”

Trum­peter and band­leader Jeremy Pelt said: “I can’t help but also feel that his death rep­re­sents the end of an era, an era in which loy­alty and servi­tude to the mu­sic one loves was un­wa­ver­ing, de­spite fleet­ing fads. I al­ways con­sid­ered it a high honor to be asked to play the Jazz Show­case.”

Mr. Se­gal loved telling sto­ries.

Like the one about a fa­mous Beat poet who vis­ited the Gate of Horn.

“This id­iot came in. This Allen Gins­berg. It was an in­ter­mis­sion. And he said, ‘Can I [go on­stage]?’ And I said, ‘OK.’ So he gets up there, and his first few words are — I won’t re­peat them now. And I said, ‘Man, get the f--- off the stage! What is this crap?’ ”

Mr. Se­gal went on: “Some­body told me years ago, ‘Man, Elvis died.’ I said, ‘Yeah, 20 years too late.’ Screwed up mu­sic for­ever. Not that he’s the only one.”

Through the rise of rock and rap, he never wa­vered in his de­vo­tion to his fa­vorite mu­sic.

“Jazz,” Mr. Se­gal said, “makes you think.”

“He kept the flame alive, pre­sent­ing pure jazz at times when there was very lit­tle au­di­ence,” said Chicago po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tant Don Rose, who at­tended some of Mr. Se­gal’s ear­li­est shows.

Grow­ing up in Philadel­phia, young Joe was a fan of big bands, Dix­ieland and swing. He wanted to play drums. But his mother thought the noise might up­set their land­lord. So he tried trom­bone.

“And af­ter a year, I couldn’t do nothin’ with it,” he said in a 2014 Sun-Times in­ter­view. “I couldn’t re­mem­ber what went where. For­get about it.”

Af­ter leav­ing the mil­i­tary in the late 1940s, he en­rolled on the GI Bill at Roo­sevelt Uni­ver­sity.

Liv­ing near 47th and Cham­plain, he’d hang out at the old Re­gal The­ater and the Savoy Ball­room.

“That was right in the mid­dle of one of the jazz cen­ters of Chicago,” he said in a 1974 Sun-Times in­ter­view. “And nearby on 63rd Street, there were even more places. This was when I started to hang around the clubs and got some of the mu­si­cians to come to Roo­sevelt.”

In 1948, he booked Parker at the uni­ver­sity — and was so thrilled that he for­got to col­lect the ad­mis­sion charge.

Asked in 1977 whether Parker was the best jazz artist he’d heard, he said, “Not just the best I’ve ever heard but the great­est mu­si­cian who ever lived, in­clud­ing Bach and Mozart!”

Mr. Se­gal al­ways had a soft spot for mu­si­cians. In a 1973 Sun-Times in­ter­view, he said some mu­si­cians would tell him, “‘Man, I played with Bird, let me play.’

“Then, they’d get up on the stand and re­ally screw up. I fi­nally wouldn’t let any­one sit in like that any more.”

In 2015, the Na­tional En­dow­ment for the Arts hon­ored him with its Jazz Mas­ters award, say­ing Se­gal “has been in­te­gral to giv­ing jazz greats a plat­form from which they can pub­licly share their art.”

Over the decades, he also taught a course on jazz at the Cen­tral YMCA, was a jazz ra­dio dee­jay and jazz edi­tor of Chicago Scene mag­a­zine and helped cu­rate and pro­duce records for Chess Records.

Mr. Se­gal re­called hav­ing just one job out­side jazz. In the 1960s, po­lice Supt. Or­lando Wil­son “cleaned up 63rd Street and Rush Street, and that was the end of the night­club scene,” he said in the 1973 in­ter­view. “I got a job as a fore­man in an au­to­mo­tive plant and did that for about three years to earn bread.”

Though he loved mu­si­cians, he said he man­aged to avoid one of the pit­falls that be­fell some of them.

“I was in with all the cats when they were get­ting blasted out and stoned,” he said in 2014. “I never did that. I was too chicken. I said, ‘You want me to put what in my arm? Get outta here! See you at the gig. Your time is your own.’ ”

In ad­di­tion to his son Wayne, he’s sur­vived by sons Joseph and Ge­of­frey and many grand­chil­dren, great-grand­chil­dren and great­great-grand­chil­dren.

To cel­e­brate his life, “he wanted to have a mu­si­cal jam ses­sion,” Wayne Se­gal said. So that’s what his fam­ily hopes to do once con­cerns about the pan­demic ease.



ABOVE: Joe Se­gal at the cur­rent Dear­born Sta­tion lo­ca­tion of the Jazz Show­case in 2014.

LEFT: Se­gal at the Jazz Show­case when the club was at the Black­stone Ho­tel, 636 S. Michi­gan Ave., in 1990.

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