Remembering Chicago jazz anchor Joe Segal | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

Remembering Chicago jazz anchor Joe Segal 

It's not such a bad thing to be set in your ways when your ways are worth saving.

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Joe Segal plays on his birthday in April 2011. - MARC POKEMPNER
  • Joe Segal plays on his birthday in April 2011.
  • Marc PoKempner

Joe Segal, my cantankerous friend and inadvertent mentor, died last week on Monday, August 10. He was a champion of creative music for more than 70 years. His once peripatetic Jazz Showcase—firmly settled at Dearborn Station since 2008—drew jazz fans from around the world like moths to a flame, and in 2015 he became only the second nightclub owner to be named an NEA Jazz Master. He was 94; even in a wheelchair, having been in ill health for the past several years, he still showed up at the club once in a while. He was dealt a good hand when it came to long life.

I knew him for a little more than half of those 94 years, and a little better than anyone whose interactions with him stopped at the desk where he took admission. I have more good stories than I can squeeze in here, but rest assured, they're available on request.

In 1972, the first summer I spent in Chicago after my junior year at Northwestern, I showed up at a joint called the Brown Shoe, on Wells Street in Old Town, where Joe was temporarily ensconced. I introduced myself as a college disc jockey from WNUR and told him that each week I played the artists appearing at his shows, and that for this reason he should let me in for free. (At the time I had no idea of Joe's—well, let's call it his "reputation for thrift.") Either he really did arch an eyebrow, or else that's just the image I've constructed in my memory, but for reasons I still don't understand—his amusement at youthful chutzpah, perhaps?—he waved me in. And that summer, one or two or sometimes even three times each week, I got to see musicians I had only read about in reviews or on the backs of LPs. Those three months constituted a priceless course in contemporary jazz history, which would lead me to graduate studies at the College of Joe for the next half century.

Many of the postings that have followed Joe's passing start out with a similar story: a longtime fan or recent convert recalls the many great shows they attended at the various locales of Segal's Jazz Showcase—in the North Park Hotel, or below the old Happy Medium on Rush Street, or in the lobby lounge at the Blackstone Hotel (the one with the Wedgwood decor). Some folks even reach all the way back to some of the other 50-odd venues (by Joe's estimate) where he presented jazz in his earlier years. For a while he even had two full-time clubs running at once, when he opened Joe's Be-Bop Cafe & Jazz Emporium on Navy Pier, focusing on Chicago musicians but serving New Orleans-style food in a nod to jazz's birthplace. This gave Joe the opportunity to treat his Jazz Showcase headliners to dinner between their afternoon and evening shows.

His impact on the Chicago entertainment scene is nearly incalculable. Even when such high-end jazz clubs as the London House and Mr. Kelly's ruled the city's nightclub scene—booking the likes of Basie and Ellington, Oscar Peterson and Sarah Vaughan—Joe made sure to bring in equally important artists less well-known to the general public: Dexter Gordon, Claudio Roditi, Eddie Harris, the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra (direct from their famous Monday-night blasts at New York's Village Vanguard). These were the sort of artists still striving each night, the true inheritors of the jazz flame: the musicians referred to over and over by the fans paying homage to Joe online. They returned to play the Showcase regularly, and during the lean years for jazz, the Showcase ensured the steady appearance of such major stars in what coastal booking agents wrote off as "flyover country." Chicago didn't lack for homegrown talent, but Joe kept us supplied with the music's larger history.

Some Facebookers took the opportunity to release their pent-up complaints about the artists he booked, and especially the artists he refused to book, or about the times he was rude to them at the door, or about his lengthy preshow announcements, during which he would reel off the schedule for the next three to six months mixed with highly opinionated comments on music, politics, and the Cubs. Joe had grown up listening to "Symphony Sid" Torin—a 1940s radio host who used the editorial "we" when talking about himself on the air—and he also referred to himself in the plural, a quirk that I found cooler even as it grew increasingly outdated.

He could be gruffly dismissive, and dour even in a good mood: I soon realized that the music (and to a lesser extent baseball) served as his haven as well as his raison d'être. He could be delightfully silly, trading on his genuinely sharp wit, a well-earned cynicism, and the hipster humor of the 1950s, laced with puns and wordplay and obscure references worth the effort to look up. He was as stubborn as the day is long about things that changed but not for the better. When he and I both traveled on a tour of Italian jazz festivals in the late 90s, I learned that he enjoyed New York Times crossword puzzles; I think he even did them in ink. But when the answers began to feature such previously taboo items as proper names and abbreviations, he threatened to ditch them entirely.

I eventually came to think of Joe as a sort of distant uncle, maybe two or three times removed, whom I greatly respected, genuinely liked, and fully accepted as complicated and controversial. He often treated the club like his living room, hiring artists he liked (personally) and idolized (musically), even if their name value had faded—and then railed at the fact that the crowds for his favorites were small. It didn't make a lot of business sense, but more than once I caught myself admiring the quixotic nature of his pursuit.

Joe Segal in July 2014 - MARC POKEMPNER
  • Joe Segal in July 2014
  • Marc PoKempner

As an unrepentant bebopper, having heard the siren call of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie while still in his 20s, he loudly and often proclaimed bop "the music of the future," even into this century. He honed a jazz-world notoriety for heaping contempt on many subsequent jazz genres, and especially pop music from the Beatles on, but not without humor: he billed his Sunday matinees, which welcomed those under 18, as his "Save the Children" campaign, inviting parents to bring their kids to "hear the music of Milt Jackson rather than Michael Jackson." When he eventually did bring in some postfusion guitarist or contemporary keyboardist who filled the room with younger listeners, he might castigate his new audience for not having come to see the previous week's 72-year-old headliner (of whom they'd never heard). He complained about overamplification, and wondered why every band couldn't play acoustically at his club—as did the Phil Woods Quintet, which had made it their trademark to perform without microphones. When I suggested that few other jazz groups did this regularly, and thus could hardly be expected to instantly find the onstage balance it required, Joe shut down the conversation with a flick of the wrist. He knew how it ought to sound, and that was that.

As one longtime Chicago trumpeter and Segal pal said to me this week, with a hearty guffaw: "Well, Joe was Joe! What else can you say?"

We had our fights. In the early years of the Chicago Jazz Festival—for which Joe initially served as stage manager—he argued that free music in the park was decimating his business (though he reserved his greatest displeasure for the "Waste of Chicago," as he called the annual summer food fight in Grant Park). But to his credit, he then adapted to this immovable object by turning his club into a go-to destination for postfest jam sessions: he actively courted festival performers to participate, and for years he packed the Jazz Showcase that entire week. Once, after I'd written a somewhat negative Sun-Times review about that week's headliner, Joe upbraided me, saying I should've simply written about something else (not my call, not on an overnight deadline) and then "reminded" me that if he went out of business, I'd have nothing to write about. But by then I had already started to think of him as family, in a way, which made it a lot easier to take in stride.

And as time wore on, it dawned on me that Joe's perseverance had worn down plenty of others as well. Artists whom he had rejected or disrespected in the past came to appreciate what he had built and maintained over the years, and welcomed the chance to eventually play at the storied Jazz Showcase. In the 1990s, decades after Gary Burton had formed one of the first jazz-rock fusion bands—helping launch a genre that Joe openly and frequently derided—the vibraphonist made his first appearance at the club. Gary is one of my oldest friends in music, so I felt comfortable expressing my surprise that he would come to an agreement with Joe. But Gary explained: I have a lot of respect for guys like Joe (or words to that effect). These are the guys who have kept things going when times were tough. He's one of the good guys.

Joe sometimes made that hard to remember, but he really was. In fact, the very qualities that made some people bristle were the ones that allowed him to build and maintain the Jazz Showcase nameplate as an unquestioned Chicago institution—not only among musicians and listeners, but also among the many other owners of jazz and blues and rock clubs who considered him a pioneer and a survivor.

So as he tended to his jazz shrine—with the increasingly valuable help of his son Wayne, who will now keep the Jazz Showcase going—did his single-minded devotion spill into a brusque reply to a customer looking for small talk? Did his hardheaded intransigence about whom to book translate into a rock-solid commitment that allowed him to bounce back, again and again, when the space he'd been renting closed him down? Of course; two sides of the same coin. In the words of Tom Waits (the sort of jazz-adjacent artist Joe would probably never have booked), "If I exorcise my devils / Well my angels may leave too."

Joe was Joe.  v

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