How Chicago’s Joe Segal has kept jazz alive without ever touching an instrument

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CHICAGO -- We're coming up on one of the great weekends in American jazz. Chicago's annual Jazz Fest starts Thursday.

It's a tradition that after the artists perform at Millennium Park, they head to a downtown jazz joint to jam some more. The best in the business go to pay homage to Chicagoan Joe Segal -- a man who never played an instrument in his life, but is instrumental in the success of American jazz.

Since 1947, the greatest names in jazz all came to Chicago to play at Joe Segal’s club. The Chicago Jazz Showcase. Segal has outlived a lot of his jazz heroes. At 89, he’s now a hero to the jazz world.

This past spring in New York, Segal become just the second person to receive the nation’s highest jazz honor, who does not play an instrument. The National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Fellowship. SOT 17:30 Segal: “What they were trying to tell me is that what I did was valuable and lasting, worthwhile and sent us a little dough to put in our bank because we’ve got a lot of bills.”

He’s got bills because jazz isn’t on the front burner of American taste today. The paying crowd isn’t as big as the old days.  It didn’t help that the Jazz Showcase was forced to move to many locations over the years to keep the music on stage. From the former North Park Hotel on Armitage, to the Lion’s Head Pub, the Gate of Horn and the Blackstone Hotel. Segal was once forced to halt a 1968 hotel concert by jazz pianist Bill Evans during the infamous Chicago Democratic Convention when delegates suddenly showed up.

"Yeah, cause they uh thought they had rented the room and they didn’t. But the guy at the hotel was so scared of the politicos that he pushed us out," Segal said.

Through it all, Segal kept the jazz going. It’s why the greats loved him. Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, you name it. Finally, Joe’s Jazz Showcase found a home. After eight decades of hosting jazz greats all over the city, an expensive renovation at the Plymouth Court Dearborn train depot is his current spot and finest locale. His name is now on the street sign. Inside, you can almost feel the history.

“On the Sunday matinees, that we have people come in and say, you know my dad or grandad took me to the matinees you had on Rush Street in the 70’s and now I’m bringing my kids. That’s the idea of it," he said.