Joe Segal’s Showcase and my education in jazz

As a college kid in a flannel shirt and work boots, I descended a staircase on Rush Street and entered one of the most important educational institutions of my life.

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Joe Segal, owner of Chicago’s premier jazz club, the Jazz Showcase, died on Monday.

Sun-Times Media

One winter night close to a half-century ago, midway through my sophomore year of college, I descended the stairs on Rush Street alongside a thumping disco called the Happy Medium and entered one of the most important educational institutions of my life. It was called the Jazz Showcase and presided over by a man named Joe Segal.

I had been brought to the place by my friend Jim Podgers, a college-newspaper comrade at the University of Wisconsin who had just graduated and was reporting for the Joliet Herald-News. A jazz aficionado eager to usher me into the tribe, Jim had started our night by putting on a few Charlie Parker records and now, after dinner in Greek Town, we were headed to hear the jazz organist Brother Jack McDuff.

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The audience that night at the Showcase never grew larger than five or six people, yet McDuff played his soulful grooves as if for a packed house. The joy and craft of his music, his devotion to his handful of listeners, all of it nearly instantly redirected my listening tastes from the likes of Alice Cooper and Jethro Tull. (OK, I was also a Stevie Wonder fan, so I wasn’t entirely hopeless.)

Joe Segal made an enduring impression of his own. All these decades later, I can still recall him in baggy pleated slacks, rumpled button-down shirt, cardigan sweater, wavy hair receding, voice a sepulchral rumble. Segal was only in his late 40s then, but he looked a generation or two older to my callow eyes. Podgers told me his nickname was “the bebop vampire.”

By legend, vampires never die, but Joe Segal did earlier this week at the age of 94. The last time I saw him was the last time I went to the Showcase, probably in the late 1980s, when the club was located in the Blackstone Hotel. But jazz, especially heard live in a club, remains one of the passions of my life — these days, one of the things I miss most fiercely during the pandemic and lockdown — and my education in jazz largely proceeded in the Jazz Showcase.

Back when I was a regular in the club’s Rush Street iteration, meaning about 10 or 15 years after Segal founded it in the mid-1960s, jazz clung to its commercial life as an endangered species during the reigns of rock ‘n’ roll and disco. I wince to think of the financial risks that Segal must have taken to operate his club and keep it operating, even when there were just me, Podgers and a few other diehards in the seats, or when one of those Chicago blizzards kept everybody home.

Segal’s taste in music became my syllabus. The Showcase is where I heard the pianist Randy Weston on one of his rare tours of America, having left its racism for the exile’s life in North Africa. It’s where I heard Jackie McLean, navigating his path between bop and free jazz on alto sax. It’s also where I was introduced to the brilliant homegrown jazz musicians of Chicago — Von Freeman on tenor, Jodie Christian on piano, Wilbur Campbell on drums.

Outside Chicago, they might be punitively obscure; within it, especially on Joe Segal’s stage, they were artists. And that was typical of how Segal treated the musicians, at least within my eyesight and earshot. He could be irascible as he felt like with customers, especially anyone clueless enough to talk during a set, but he saved his enthusiasm and respect for the musicians.

Somehow, Segal made his nocturnal academy affordable even to the college student I was and the newspaper reporter I became during my years as a habitue. On any night except Friday or Saturday, I could show my college ID (even long after it had expired) and get in for $3 with a one-drink minimum. Even corrected for inflation, that admission charge isn’t much more than $10 these days.

When I spent summers during college with my family in New Jersey, and later worked for a year on a daily newspaper there, I tried to replicated my Jazz Showcase experience at Manhattan’s jazz clubs. The experience was witheringly different. Sometimes, even in a half-filled room, I’d be seated at a way-back table; other times, I’d be squeezed into the seat nobody else wanted next to a hissing steam pipe.

A twentyish customer in flannel shirt and Sears work boots, I offered the promise neither of sophisticated taste nor a generous tip. And, unlike at the Showcase, where I could hear all three sets if I so desired, the Manhattan clubs demanded a new cover charge or drink minimum for every set. A night out might chew up half my spending money for the week.

So even after I left the Chicago area for good at the end of 1981, I made a pilgrimage to the Showcase on my return trips. As those became rarer, I would at least hear from Podgers about this or that show he’d seen at the Showcase as it moved from the Blackstone to Grand Avenue to Dearborn Station. Eventually, I found clubs in New York that welcomed me, and, of course, I long ago traded in the flannel shirts and work boots and earned enough money to tip better.

But jazz for me is the Showcase and a jazz empresario is Joe Segal. I am heartened to read that his son Wayne will keep the family business going. You just never know when some college kid with impressionable ears might wander in.

Samuel G. Freedman, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, is the author of eight books. He is an occasional contributor to the Sun-Times op-ed page.

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