New from the archives: Segal is (or should be) committed

November 11, 1990 | Chicago Sun-Times | Lloyd Sachs 

Joe Segal was mad as hell and he wasn’t going to take it anymore. “I’m gonna cancel this gig,” he said with a stricken expression, pacing the lobby of the Blackstone Hotel as waves of electronic sound penetrated the walls of his Jazz Showcase. “He promised he would tone things down. This is horrible.”

The kingpin of Chicago jazz impresarios was steamed at Wayne Shorter. Once upon a stylistic time, the saxophonist was a big favorite of mainstream purists like Segal. He was a member of the greatest edition of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and Miles Davis’ brilliant mid-’60s quintet, and made thrilling sounds on his own. But now he was pursuing amplified truths on the terrain of jazz-rock fusion, a genre he pioneered as co-leader of the long-running band Weather Report.

Why did Segal, who turns pale at the mere mention of fusion (he blames rock ‘n’ roll for most of the world’s ills), book Shorter? Partly out of respect and affection (it’s no accident that he named his youngest son, who works with him at the Showcase, Wayne), and partly because the saxophonist, who hadn’t played in Chicago under his own name in years, has a sizable following.

Having seen the Shorter gig through to the bitter end, and shuddering through subsequent non-acoustic sets by the likes of guitarists John Scofield and John Abercrombie and drummer Jack DeJohnette, Segal could only shake his head and sing a song of tolerance.

“The biggest concession I make is to electric,” he said at a Chinese restaurant around the corner from the Showcase. “And believe me, it isn’t easy.” He stabbed at an egg roll. “DeJohnette’s a wonderful musician, but he was in the same bag as Shorter, turning it way up. He was terrible. Terrible.” The stricken look returned.

Is Segal the voice of old-fashioned taste? Stubbornness? Close-mindedness? You bet, and who would want it any other way? In a field dominated by pragmatic profit strategies and loyalties that sometimes don’t last three weeks, Segal is that rare phenomenon: committed. For more than 40 years, he has bucked all odds and commercial temptations by doing things his way.

As the Jazz Showcase moves into the home stretch of another star-studded year – blues singer-pianist Mose Allison will perform nightly at the club, 636 S. Michigan, from Tuesday through Sunday, followed later in the month by the Maynard Ferguson “Nuevo” Bop Big Band and the McCoy Tyner Trio – Segal can claim a longer reign than any American jazz impresario now that Max Gordon of New York’s famed Village Vanguard is dead.

Since the shuttering of the London House and Mister Kelly’s in the ’70s and the disappearance of dozens of lesser-known clubs, the Showcase has been an oasis for lovers of bigtime jazz in Chicago. It has survived relocations (its former spots include the Happy Medium on Rush Street), disco, the death of too many jazz greats, more disco, losing acts to competing clubs (before invariably regaining those acts), and financial woes that necessitated a series of “Save Our Showcase” benefit performances.

It also has survived an embarrassing indifference on the part of the populace. In New York, a weeknight club appearance by the Jazz Messengers routinely drew a long line of ticket-buyers. In Chicago, it wasn’t uncommon for Blakey and his troops to perform before 14 people on a Tuesday or Wednesday.

Segal shrugged when asked why jazz has such a difficult time here. “My only theory,” he said, “is that Chicago is still mainly a Midwestern cow town, basically, and people’s interests lie elsewhere. The people who were interested in jazz when I first came here – mainly black people from the South and West Sides who are in my age bracket, 60-plus – don’t come out anymore.

“Jazz really needs to develop a new audience. That’s why I have Sunday matinees for children. They’re the future. They’re the ones we’ll need down the road to keep jazz alive.”

Chicago’s leading presenter of jazz is a native Philadelphian. An only child who hardly knew his father (his parents separated when he was little), he developed two passions early: reading and listening to music on the radio. He won a 78 album in an “I like Woody Herman because . . .” contest and claims to have graduated from “Kay Kyser’s College of Musical Knowledge” with flying colors. He would tune in the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts from New York and, upon their conclusion, switch over to Eddie Condon’s jam sessions from Town Hall.

Hearing the music in person was revelatory. “There was nothing as thrilling to me as going to the Earl Theater, which was like our Chicago Theatre,” Segal said. “There would be music by a local band in the morning, and then a movie, and then the screen would rise up and you’d see a transparent curtain, and the band lights behind the curtain. The band would be tuning up and the offstage announcer offstage would say, `Ladies and gentlemen, Artie Shaw and his Orchestra,’ or whomever, and they started playing `Nightmare’ or whatever the theme was. It was really something.”

Seeing the up-and-coming likes of saxophonists Stan Getz and Al Cohn and trumpeters Red Rodney and Bernie Glow in nearby Atlantic City as well as Philadelphia stirred in young Joe a desire to play himself. His first choice was drums, but his mother was afraid the noise would endanger the lease on their basement apartment. He took trombone lessons, he said, “because I wanted to play like Lou McGarity, Tommy Dorsey and J.C. Higginbotham all at once.”

A sufferer of emphysema and asthma, Segal never expected the Army to come a calling, but it did and he ended up serving his country – and, mainly in an organizational capacity, jazz – on bases in Texas, Wisconsin and Downstate Illinois. He wasn’t good enough on trombone to play in an Army band, but to get out of duty on one occasion, he signed up for special services and “pretended to play the drums and sing. You can’t imagine how horrible it was.”

During weekend getaways to Chicago, he discovered such spots as Joe Sherman’s Downbeat Room and the Panther Room in the Sherman Hotel, where he encountered one of his heroes, Higginbotham, in the flesh. After his release from the Army, he enrolled at Roosevelt University, where he “just sort of fell into taking over” the student jazz club.

“I had an affinity with the musicians right away,” he said, pouring out names of faces and places. “I liked them, I admired them, and I didn’t think they were weird. I would sit with people like Barrett Deems at an all-night restaurant with my ears open, my eyes open, soaking up their stories. I was in heaven.”

Segal began booking shows under the Jazz Showcase banner in 1947. The rest of the story embodies a good chunk of Chicago jazz history.

In “Mo’ Better Blues,” Spike Lee’s recent film about jazz musicians, two Jewish nightclub owners are stereotypically presented as crass money-grubbers. The portrayals drew widespread accusations of anti-Semitism, and inspired heartfelt tributes to tireless Jewish supporters of jazz such as Max Gordon and Commodore label founder Milt Gabler.

Segal, who is Jewish, does not jerk his knee in responding to the Lee treatment. “It’s true to a point, what I’ve heard about it,” he said. “But the many sleazy club owners I’ve met haven’t been all Jewish. There are shtarkers (shamelessly self-interested characters) from every race. I’ve seen a lot of black club owners screw their own people.”

Though Segal, 64, has long been separated from his wife, who is black, he has symbolized the possibility of blacks and whites, and blacks and Jews, living together in harmony. While attending Roosevelt College, one of the few Chicago schools in the ’40s to have a non-restrictive admissions policy, he participated in an experimental program that placed white students such as himself with black South Side families and black students with white North Side families.

Later on, he and his wife, who have five children and 11 grandchildren, lived in a row house in Cabrini-Green. “I had a lot of fun at Cabrini,” Segal said. “It was very nice until they started building the high-rises and the gangs started up. Most people knew me and protected me from people who didn’t, so it was pretty cool.

“Down on the South Side, I used to stand on 63rd and Cottage Grove handing out my flyers and postcards. People knew who I was. No one bothered me.”

Over the years, Segal has been friends with many jazz greats, some of whom bypass agents in arranging to play at the Showcase. “J.J. Johnson just called and said he wants to come in Jan. 15. Usually I’m closed in January and February, but I said fine, let’s do it. Dizzy [Gillespie] will call up when he’s tired and he wants to sit down for a week instead of running one night here, one night there. He usually plays concerts, but he’ll play for me.”

Not all musicians are big fans of Segal, who can be irascible (“I used to dance around to `Filthy McNasty,’ ” said Segal, and say Horace Silver wrote it for me”) and, to their way of thinking, uncomfortably budget-minded. Two veteran players have said, off the record, that they will never appear at the Jazz Showcase.

In turn, Segal isn’t the biggest fan of certain modernist players who enjoy great critical reputations. He writes off pianist and bandleader Sun Ra as a “mediocre” musician who dresses up his Arkestra in glitzy costumes and has them prance around because “the music alone is not gonna do it.” He admits Ornette Coleman “might have a lot of meaning to musicians,” but criticizes him for “taking music into a language that most people can’t enjoy.

“It’s an artist’s privilege to play for himself, but if he comes to an owner like me and demands X amount of dollars, then he has to have an audience who appreciates him. Philanthrophy is not my big suit.”

If Segal is tight with the dollar, he’s certainly not getting rich on jazz. He rents an apartment and doesn’t own a car. In fact, he doesn’t own the Jazz Showcase, only its name, which means his take is limited to what he collects at the door and doesn’t include the beverage sales crucial to people in his business.

Is it possible to be an honest club owner and make money? “Sure,” he said, “but I wouldn’t start a jazz club now. I’d try to get a bar and get a jazz jukebox. That’s it. A club takes too much energy.”

He cracked open a fortune cookie, read the slip – “He who knows he has enough is rich” – and smiled. “I got enough,” he said, and, as if to confirm the sentiment, jazz – serious jazz, Joe Segal’s kind of jazz – flowed from the restaurant speakers.

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