Joe Segal, a jazz club owner, promoter, advocate, and National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Jazz Master who spent more than seven decades enriching the Chicago musical community, died August 10 at Saint Joseph Hospital in Chicago. He was 94.
His death was confirmed by his son, Wayne Segal, who told the Chicago Sun-Times that his father had died “listening to Bird”—his hero, Charlie Parker. An exact cause of death was not disclosed; however, Segal had been in ill health for some time.
Segal was the founder and owner of the Jazz Showcase, a world-renowned venue that has hosted jazz greats across multiple generations, from Count Basie to Christian Sands, since the early 1970s. By the time he opened the Showcase, however, Segal had already been working for more than 20 years to present jazz musicians from within and without the Windy City. He spent a decade booking jam sessions at Chicago’s Roosevelt University, then proceeded to bring jazz to (by his own estimation) 63 locations around the city, including the Beehive, the Blackstone Hotel, the Plugged Nickel, and many others before founding the Jazz Showcase. It, too, moved to multiple locations around the city before settling into a space at Chicago’s Dearborn Station in 2007.
Segal’s enterprises often struggled financially, and even broke him a time or two; he soldiered on nevertheless, driven by his love of the music and its practitioners more than by profit. “I just took the door and paid the musicians, and if there was something left, fine,” he recalled to the NEA in 2015. “Sometimes I had to borrow a couple of bucks to get home from the musicians.”
In addition to the club, Segal was in 1969 a co-founder of the Jazz Institute of Chicago, a nonprofit organization that both presents performances and administers jazz education programs. Over the years he also worked as a jazz radio DJ, a magazine editor, a record producer, and an educator himself. His stature in Chicago jazz was such that the city renamed the street that passes in front of the Jazz Showcase Joe Segal Way.
“I have a million stories to tell, some of which I can’t tell and I won’t,” he told the Sun-Times in 2014. “If the true story of jazz were ever told, we’d all go to jail.”
Joseph Philip Segal was born April 24, 1926 in Philadelphia. His parents separated when he was about four years old, and Segal and his mother lived in poverty in a basement apartment of a Jewish neighborhood in the city. Young Joe discovered jazz listening to late-night radio, and at 12 he began seeing the big bands performing at the Earl Theater. He tried his hand at drums, piano, and trombone, but found no purchase in any of them.
However, Segal maintained his passion for jazz; after he graduated from high school in 1944, he was drafted into the Army Air Corps and stationed in Champaign, Illinois, where he often visited Chicago’s jazz clubs on weekend passes. After his discharge in 1947, he moved to Chicago and enrolled at Roosevelt University, where he joined the university jazz club.
“What they did mostly was just listen to records and discuss them,” Segal told the Smithsonian Institution in a 2014 oral history interview. “So when I come in I saw these musicians walking around, and said, ‘Let’s have a session,’ and it got very popular.”
It was the beginning of his career as a jazz promoter and advocate. The sessions for the club led to bookings for fraternity parties and other on-campus events, then to work at the Beehive jazz club in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. Meanwhile Segal continued at Roosevelt for 10 years; when he finally left the university (without completing his degree), he began booking at several clubs in Chicago and dozens of other low-rent spaces of a type that would eventually be called “DIY.”
The promoting enterprise eventually gained the name Jazz Showcase (derived from Segal’s initials), which finally became the name for Segal’s first physical establishment in about 1970, when it opened on Chicago’s North Rush Street. Though it would move to at least five other addresses in the next 50 years, the Jazz Showcase became a constant in Chicago during that period, presenting jazz five nights a week with a matinee on Sundays.
A bebop devotee, Segal nonetheless gave space to other styles of jazz as they became popular, though straight-ahead modern jazz retained pride of place in his club. He was openly scornful of smooth jazz and other “commercial” forms. “Elevator music sounds great compared to what they’re doing now,” he said. “It was watered down, but it wasn’t all this wishy-washy, namby-pamby stuff, using the same licks over and over.” Parker remained his touchstone; in 1977 he proclaimed that the alto saxophonist and bop legend was “not just the best I’ve ever heard but the greatest musician who ever lived, including Bach and Mozart!”
Although he helped to found the Jazz Institute, Segal—who was awarded an honorary degree in 2013 by his alma mater, Roosevelt University—was by nature more of a grassroots advocate. He taught a jazz history course at the Central YMCA and produced recordings for the city’s iconic Chess Records. His efforts had enough impact, however, that he received an NEA Jazz Masters fellowship in 2015.
In addition to Wayne, who now owns and operates the Jazz Showcase, Segal is survived by two other sons, Joseph and Geoffrey Segal, and a large extended family.