Joe Segal, Jazz Showcase owner who brought greats to Chicago, has died at 94

Saxophone great Donald Harrison said he was ‘an irreplaceable advocate for the music we call jazz.’ Singer Paul Marinaro, bandleaders Nicholas Payton and Jeremy Pelt also sang his praises.

SHARE Joe Segal, Jazz Showcase owner who brought greats to Chicago, has died at 94
Joe Segal at the current Dearborn Station location of the Jazz Showcase in 2014.

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

Richard A. Chapman / Sun-Times file

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 ups-and-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.”

Jeremy Pelt, another jazz trumpeter who’s played the Jazz Showcase, 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.”

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

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

Sun Times file

“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.

“I loved hearing him talk. He was a historian,” singer-pianist Judy Roberts said. “Face it, he was with the big guys. He saw Charlie Parker live.”

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 the 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 told the Sun-Times in 1974. “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 great-great-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.

Contributing: Darel Jevens

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