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Jazz Notes: Joe Segal's new digs

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"We can't remove the pillars, but we're going to put mirrors on them, like in the old place," Joe Segal tells me as we walk through the brand-new, about-to-open home of his Jazz Showcase--an empty shell of almost completely raw space--just 12 days before guitarist John Scofield will bring in his sizzling quartet for the official baptism. Two workmen hammer on large pieces of metal ductwork not yet installed. Also not installed is everything else--the service bar, the stage, the microphone and speaker cables, the bathrooms (one flight up), the lobby.

"The entrance is here," says Segal, pointing to where patrons will walk through a short gangway and then enter a relatively spacious foyer. "We may put Bird here," he says, referring to the outsize head shot of saxist Charlie Parker--bebop's (and Segal's) patron saint--that has graced his last several locations. "We'll have double-glass doors to the entrance, and a weather awning."

I've known Joe Segal for more than 25 years, and I've never heard him say the words "weather awning."

Yes indeed, Segal is movin' uptown, and if he wants to talk the talk, he's earned the right. He's hoisted his banner in such colorful milieus as the Blind Pig and the Hungry I, the Gate of Horn and the Happy Medium, the Brown Shoe and the Vibes Lounge. Now, after 15 years comfortably ensconced at the dowager Blackstone Hotel, Segal is about to unveil a somewhat improved space in a spectacularly upgraded locale. His new Showcase, in the building that currently houses Zinfandel's, places him smack in the middle of Chicago's hottest new restaurant row. Already a couple of eateries have dangled the possibility of working out some dinner/show packages to increase everyone's business. Zinfandel's (which will cater a light menu for Showcase patrons) has undertaken the build-out costs; for the first time in the long and peripatetic history of the Showcase, Segal will have a club designed specifically to meet his needs. Amazingly, on the day we speak, the often dour and usually worried impresario has no qualms about the fact that there's less than two weeks to build a world-renowned nightclub from scratch. "Oh, they'll finish it in time," he says like a relaxed mogul used to the big-money hustle-bustle. He's not only talking the talk, he's walking the walk.

Segal--who in 1997 will celebrate his 50th year of promoting jazz events in Chicago--closed down shop in the Blackstone this past fall. Maharishi Yagya University, the transcendent new owners of the Blackstone, had suggested radical changes to the longstanding agreement between the hotel and Segal, making it virtually impossible for him to continue there. If you wondered why the jazz scene seemed fairly quiet this winter, now you know. Segal's tried and true lineup of mainstream jazz stars serves the city in the same way that their music serves the jazz world: it stands as the foundation supporting a host of other developments. Without the Showcase, Chicago's jazz scene loses its center.

Still, no matter where you put Joe Segal, some things never change. Last week he met with a local artist who'd offered to help spot the classic photos of Lee Morgan, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Charles Mingus, and Red Rodney (and dozens of others who have played for Segal) around the new space. The artist mentioned he'd just arranged a short trip to Paris, then realized in horror that he'd miss next week's opening. "When do you leave?" asked Segal. "The 17th," said the artist. "How long you gone?" When told it would only be ten days, Segal did the math and said, "So, you're back for Hank Crawford." Not the weekend of the 29th, but Hank Crawford. When you build your life around bookings for a half century, calendar dates take a backseat to the name on the marquee.

The John Scofield Quartet opens the Jazz Showcase Tuesday through next Sunday March 24, with shows at 8 and 10 weeknights, 9 and 11 Friday and Saturday, and 4, 8, and 10 Sunday. The new Jazz Showcase is located at 59 W. Grand; call 670-2473.

--Neil Tesser

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.

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