Restaurant Tours: barbecue and bebop | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Restaurant Tours: barbecue and bebop 

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Food and jazz being two of life's three great sensory pleasures, it's surprising how few places offer the right mix of both. Most jazz clubs that serve food, such as Andy's on Hubbard, offer routine bar fare to accompany the local, middle-of-the-road jazz groups. The now-closed Jazz Buffet in Logan Square tried for a richer mix but never really got off the ground, despite some fine acts. Green Dolphin Street, on North Ashland, is a special case. It has a superb--but quite high-priced--New American restaurant in one cavernous room. The jazz room is separate, across a corridor; on a visit earlier this year they actually piped recorded music into the restaurant. With your dinner you get free access to the club, where you can catch some interesting local groups and often an intriguing traveling band. You can eat in the club, if you insist, but you're better off taking the dining and jazz in sequence.

This past spring, however, Wayne Segal and some associates opened Joe's Be-bop Cafe & Jazz Emporium, a near-ideal combination of food and jazz at just the right price--it's at Navy Pier, of all places. The menu centers on authentic heartland barbecue with a few New Orleans specialties tossed in, and the music ranges from late New Orleans to hard bop, with blues and Latin beats along the way.

One Friday night we caught trumpeter Tito Carrillo and his Caribe Jazz Sextet featuring Willie Garcia playing tough, jagged lines on his muscular tenor saxophone and powerhouse flute. Drummer Ruben Alvarez and percussionist Osbaldo Merced propelled them through a wide-ranging repertoire of compositions by Dizzy Gillespie, Tom Harrell, and, notably, Thelonius Monk--whose pieces took remarkably well to the Latin beat. On a Monday night it was the easygoing but still inventive early-swing tenor of local hero Franz Jackson fronting a quartet. All in all, five groups take turns playing throughout the week. Every so often there's a special show, as happened in October when the Count Basie Orchestra came in.

Segal, who books the music, also operates the celebrated Jazz Showcase with his legendary father, Joe, after whom the new club is named. At 41, Wayne has been helping Joe with various Showcase incarnations for half of its 50-year history. Jazz music has been drummed into his head since birth.

"When I was a little kid I remember dad putting speakers in our windows and people in the neighborhood stopping to listen to Charlie Parker," he says. "We kids weren't allowed to listen to anything else. One time we put on a Beatles record, and dad came home early and took the record off the machine and threw it out the window. 'This is my castle,' he'd say, 'and we'll play my kind of music!'"

A couple of years ago, when the Showcase was being ousted from its longtime home at the Blackstone Hotel, the Segals considered moving to Navy Pier before settling into 59 W. Grand. Meanwhile, a friend put them in touch with a group interested in starting a jazz club. Led by restaurateur Marty Fosse, the group owns Charlie's Ale House on the pier and in Lincoln Park.

"These guys really wanted to serve some real barbecue, so they went down to Tennessee and Kansas City for months to find the right recipes and the right spices, and to New Orleans for gumbo and jambalaya," says Wayne.

They also came back with a couple of huge, professional smoker ovens. This is not your backyard Weber barbecuing: whole chickens, beef briskets, pork shoulders, and slabs of ribs are rubbed down with powdered herbs and spices, then set on racks in the temperature-controlled smoke chamber for hours and hours--up to 24 for the briskets, says pit master Irving Vance. The aromatic, hickory-log fire is in a separate chamber--not a bite of meat is exposed to either flame or embers.

This process is rare in Chicago, and the result is exceptionally tasty. Everyone at our table agreed that the bulging, shredded brisket sandwich in a spicy barbecue sauce was the winner of the evening. The pulled-pork sandwich, topped by chopped cole slaw and a vinegar-based sauce in the Memphis manner, was a close runner-up. Both are $6.95.

Also commendable was the brisket platter, served with the house sauce and barbecue beans--a Kansas City and Texas favorite ($12.50). The ribs ($16.95 for a full slab, $10.95 for a half) and chicken platter ($9.95) again offered that vital, savory taste you get only with this kind of smoke cookery.

Lots of raves went to the quesadillas made with house-smoked chicken inundated in rich, creamy Monterey Jack cheese ($7.95) and especially to the thick, lusty file gumbo, laden with shrimp and sausage with a slab of corn bread afloat in the center ($4.95).

There's something just right about the union of fine barbecue and the potent sound of jazz. Wayne thinks it makes converts to the music. "Maybe the best thing is what happens for the kids," he says. "Families touring the pier come in for the chicken or ribs, and the kids--who may never have heard jazz before--their eyes pop open real wide."

Which is why Segal and Fosse have set up a special free big-band holiday show for kids and their families this Sunday, December 21, from 5 to 9 PM. The 17-piece Chicago Grandstand Big Band led by vocalist Brienn Perry will play, kids under 12 will get gifts from Santa, and a special "wee-bop" children's menu ($3.95) featuring sloppy joes, grilled cheese, peanut butter and jelly, and other such fare will be available for the youngsters. Grown-ups without kids will also be admitted, and the usual adult menu will be available.

Joe's Be-bop Cafe & Jazz Emporium, 700 E. Grand (at Navy Pier), is open from 11 AM to 11 PM Monday through Thursday and Friday and Saturday until midnight. There's no cover, no minimum. Music starts at 6 Monday through Thursday and at 7 Friday and Saturday. Sundays there's a jazz buffet brunch from 10:30 to 2:30 ($16.95 adults, $5.95 for children 6 to 12; it's free for kids 5 and under). Call 312-595-5299 for more. --Don Rose

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Wayne Segal and Irving "Future" Vance photos by Jim Alexander Newberry.

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