Until three weeks ago, no jazz club owner ever had been selected to receive the country's pre-eminent jazz honor: the National Endowment for the Arts' Jazz Masters Fellowship, which carries with it $25,000 and considerable prestige.
Anyone who follows jazz had to applaud the groundbreaking selection of Lorraine Gordon, who has operated the Village Vanguard in New York since the 1989 death of her husband, Vanguard founder Max Gordon. She'll receive the accolade next January at Jazz at Lincoln Center, in Manhattan, alongside pianist Eddie Palmieri, saxophonist Lou Donaldson and singer-pianist Mose Allison. Together, they'll join an honor roll that was established in 1982 and includes Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Ella Fitzgerald, Herbie Hancock and other jazz deities.
But if Lorraine Gordon merits the award for her lifelong support of jazz and 23 years of running the Vanguard, which became a jazz shrine in the 1950s – Max Gordon opened the place in 1935 as a home for comedy, poetry, cabaret and music – what about Chicagoan Joe Segal? He's been presenting hard-core jazz (no comedy) in this city for fully 65 years. No less than Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Lester Young, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins and practically everyone else who mattered appeared here thanks to him.
Like Newport Jazz Festival originator George Wein, who won a Jazz Masters Fellowship in 2005, Segal ranks among the most enduring jazz presenters in the country, as well as one of the most faithful. When the rise of rock 'n' roll in the 1960s put many jazz clubs on the endangered species list, Segal took work in an automotive plant to keep the music playing, though he's the first to acknowledge that he knew nothing about autos. Worse, he often paid the rent by toiling as an emcee for folk-music shows at the long-gone Earl of Old Town, which was not necessarily a pleasant experience, if you're Joe Segal.
"That's where I really learned to hate folk music," he once told me.
Unlike the Village Vanguard – which occupies an enviably intimate downstairs space at 178 Seventh Avenue South in New York – Segal's Showcase has been perpetually on the move, just like the itinerant jazz musicians it long has celebrated. His journey began in 1947, when as a student at Roosevelt University he began organizing jam sessions at the school's Altgeld Hall and inviting the pros to sit in. Back then, Segal's sets were but specks in the firmament of Chicago jazz.
"There were gobs of clubs in Chicago then," Segal reflected in our conversation. "The Randolph Rendezvous, which was where the Federal building is now; the Brass Rail, on Dearborn and Randolph; the Capitol, right next to the Chicago Theatre; Elmer's, a place across the street.
"Then there were clubs at 63d and Cottage Grove, and another group around 47th Street and South Park, where the Regal Theater and the Savoy Ballroom were. ... The Mocambo, the Flame Lounge, the DuSable Hotel.
"With all that kind of stuff, how was I supposed to be able to go to school?"
Segal never graduated from Roosevelt, but he advanced to become one of the most respected jazz impresarios in the country. As the old clubs faded away, Segal refused to surrender.
I first ventured into a Segal establishment in 1970, as a 16-year-old, to hear Sun Ra and his Arkestra practically ignite the dilapidated, upstairs space Segal was renting on North Lincoln Avenue. If all that noise and spectacle – complete with acrobats and fire-eaters – was jazz, I needed to hear more. Surely thousands of listeners similarly were initiated into this distinctly American music through Segal's efforts.
I followed Segal's wanderings ever since: to North Rush Street, where jazz giants played in Segal's downstairs room in the 1970s, while disco beats thumped mercilessly in the Happy Medium club up above; to the Blackstone Hotel, where Segal reigned from 1980 to 1995, notwithstanding a broken-down grand piano that should have been scrapped years earlier; to the corner of Clark Street and Grand Avenue, arguably Segal's most visible location, starting in 1996; and to the current jewel box on South Plymouth Court, which Segal's son Wayne designed in 2008 as the most luxurious space the club ever has known.
Whether Segal, 86, ever becomes an NEA Jazz Master remains to be seen, but historical trends are not encouraging. In three decades of NEA Jazz Masters, precious few Chicago-based musicians have been chosen, among them pianist Ramsey Lewis in 2007 and tenor saxophonist Von Freeman earlier this year.
That imbalance should be corrected, soon, by casting a much-belated spotlight on Segal.
August is Charlie Parker Month
As always at this time of year, Segal is honoring the transcendent genius of bebop, alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, with a month's worth of tributes. Among the headliners: Charles McPherson, a brilliant altoist in the Parker manner, plays Thursday through Sunday; the Heath Brothers Quartet appears Aug. 16 through 19; multi-instrumentalist Ira Sullivan leads a quartet Aug. 23 through 26; and Sullivan and pianist Stu Katz preside over sessions. Aug. 29 through Sept. 2; at the Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.; phone 312-360-0234 or visit jazzshowcase.com
To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com/reich.