Since 1947, Joe Segal has been the person that you first meet when entering the Jazz Showcase in Chicago. The club has had many different incarnations over the years—in fact Segal will tell you that, including one-nighters, he has presented jazz shows at 63 different locations over the years.
This past April 24th, Segal turned 85, but you wouldn't know it if you sat with him at the entrance to the Showcase and listened to him talk with the customers for that night’s show. Just as he has done for over 60 years, Segal greets the audience with a thank you, as he takes the cover charge. The Showcase accepts only cash at the door (but once inside, you may use credit cards at the bar). “We are dinosaurs over here,” he comments, as he writes down a mark for each person that pays a cover for that evening. A lot has changed in the music business and with the music scene since he first started presenting shows, but you get a sense that one thing hasn’t changed––Segal’s passion for good jazz. It is that passion that has made the Jazz Showcase one of the finest jazz listening rooms in the world. With downturns in the economy, the Internet, cable television, smart phones and every other distraction you can think of to draw people away from live music, Joe, and his son, Wayne, have managed to keep the Jazz Showcase open and presenting live jazz seven days a week.
Segal began presenting jazz shows in 1947 when he produced concerts as part of the student jazz club at Roosevelt University, but jazz music had been an important part of his life since he was ten. While growing up in Philadelphia, he would head over to the Earl Theater, which was Philadelphia’s version of the Chicago Theater, on Saturdays to watch a movie in the morning and then watch the big bands perform at night. In between the morning movie and the night time performances Segal and a buddy would sneak up to the balcony and take a nap, and then come downstairs to see the big bands performing in the evening. Segal remembers also listening to the radio show, Town Hall with Eddie Condon, which was broadcast on WOR out of New York each week. That’s where he first heard Louie Armstrong, Fats Waller, Sidney Bechet and other legends who fueled his love of the music.
After high school, Segal joined the Air Force and was stationed in Biloxi Mississippi. Biloxi was not a hotbed of jazz, but Segal soon met some jazz musicians and started hanging out with them at their gigs. Watching the bands perform at night, then sneaking back onto the base, became a routine. Towards the end of his Air Force career he was stationed in Champaign, Illinois, which made it easy for him to get a weekend pass, hop on a train, and head to Chicago.
The train would drop him at Randolph Street, which in those days was like the famed 52nd Street in New York. A stretch of clubs from Wabash to Wells was hopping with live music seven nights a week. He remembers the first club he visited––Joe Sherman’s Downbeat Club, next to the Oriental Theatre. Performing at the street-level bar was the great pianist, Errol Garner, while downstairs, two of Segal’s heroes, Henry “Red” Allen and J.C. Higgenbottom, were performing.
He regularly came to Chicago on the weekends to hear the music, and when he left finally left the Air Force he moved to the city, sleeping on a sofa at his uncle’s place while attending Roosevelt University on the G.I. Bill. Roosevelt tried placing out-of-town students in homes with families, and a few months into attending the university, they notified Joe that they had a room for him “if he wanted it.”
Segal later found out he was the first white student to be placed with an African American family as an “experiment.” The experiment would work out in Segal’s favor. The family he was placed with lived at 47th and Champlain Avenue, which was just around the corner from 47th and South Park (now Martin Luther King Drive), where the Congo Hotel was located. In the basement of the hotel was a club called the Hole, where you could hear some of the city’s top musicians, including Gene Ammons, Junior Mance, Tom Arch and Ike Day. Next to the Congo Hotel was the Savoy Ballroom and the Regal Theater. He soon got to know the manager of the Regal Theater, which enabled him to get into the shows and meet headliners Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Sonny Stitt, Sarah Vaughan and many others.
“The first time Stan Getz came to the Regal Theatre I heard he had Horace Silver playing piano,” remembers Segal. “I looked out from the side of the stage, because I was expecting to see another Jewish kid, and when I didn’t asked Stan, ‘Who’s the piano player?’ He said his name was Horace Silver. But he didn’t look Jewish to me. That’s when I knew you can never go by someone’s name.”
While at Roosevelt, Segal joined the jazz club, which was presenting jazz on Friday afternoons, more as a social event for dancing rather than a showcase for performances. Segal was soon running the afternoon sessions, booking musicians he’d meet at the clubs to perform. The afternoon sessions became a showcase for the musicians to stretch out and jam.
Bebop was brand new, and the students would pull up chairs to the edge of the stage and listen to the music. Some of the regular musicians performing were Chicagoans: a seventeen-year-old Ira Sullivan, Bob Cranshaw, John Young, Wilber Campbell, Richard Davis and Leroy Jackson to name a few.
The popularity of the performances grew, and Segal decided to switch the sessions to Tuesdays because it was an off-night for musicians. “We started getting different musicians from some of the big bands that would come into town and stay up North. Guys from Lionel Hampton’s band, Woody Herman’s band and Stan Kenton’s band would come in and perform,” notes Segal. There were also more and more local players performing, including Joe Daley, Sandy Moss, Tommy Ponce, Johnny Griffin, Kenny Mann and many others.
The highlight of the sessions occurred after Segal wrote a favorable column in the school newspaper about Charlie Parker. “I guess he saw the column and decided he had better stop in and play,” Segal surmises. Parker was notorious as a no-show, so there was some doubt in Segal’s mind that they would get to hear Parker at the Roosevelt session. The day came, and there was a small crowd listening to some local all-stars when someone ran in and announced, “He’s here!” Once the word spread, a flood of people came into the space to hear Parker perform. In all the commotion, Segal collected only $13 at the door, but he got to see and hear the legendary Bird perform at Roosevelt.
While he wasn’t looking to become a great jazz presenter, in 1957 the sessions at Roosevelt ended, and shortly thereafter Segal began to present music at other locations. By the end of the 1960s he found his first permanent home at a club called the Flower Pot, in the basement of the Happy Medium. He presented jazz five nights a week at the club, but the spot was less than ideal for live music. Finally, in the early 1970s, Segal opened a spot on Rush Street, and the first official Jazz Showcase was born.
Groups gracing the stage at that location included Wes Montgomery, the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band, Kenny Burrell, J.J. Johnson, Jim Hall, Maynard Ferguson, Woody Herman, the Buddy Rich Band, Don Ellis, Eddie Harris, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and many others. Each group had five evening performances and a special Sunday matinee for kids, a Showcase tradition that continues today.
As Rush Street and the music scene began to change in the early 1980s, the Showcase relocated to the Blackstone Hotel on Balbo and Michigan, where it remained for 15 years. The room had been a Dixieland Club, so there wasn’t much build-out needed, while the association with the Blackstone made it easier to afford out-of-town groups, as hotel rooms were included as part of the initial rental contract.
Showcase patrons had the added thrill of hobnobbing with the performers, who would often hang out in the lobby between sets or after hours. Everything seemed perfect until in the late 1990s, when the Blackstone was taken over by the Maharishi.
The Maharishi didn’t have a problem with jazz music, but was averse to the consumption of alcohol, and Segal and the Jazz Showcase needed to relocate––this time to Grand and Clark where they remained until December 31, 2006 when, because of the high rent, they were forced to closed. After a long search for property, a problematic remodel and several fundraising concerts, the Jazz Showcase re-opened at 806 S. Plymouth (Plymouth and Polk Street), inside Dearborn Station, where they have been for the past two years.
The Segal’s current space, a former dance studio, offers unobstructed sightlines, a large stage, comfortable seating and quality acoustics, making the Jazz Showcase on Plymouth one of the finest jazz listening rooms in the country.
The Showcase presents jazz seven nights a week, with a formula consisting of mostly local musicians on Mondays though Wednesdays and national acts Thursdays through Sundays. While much has changed in jazz and with the Chicago music scene, one thing has remained constant––for over 60 years, Joe Segal has been presenting live jazz in Chicago, making him the city’s longest-running music presenter and greatest ambassador of jazz.
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