Chicago's most nomadic jazz club is also one of its finest, particularly with its new digs in the historic Dearborn Station building. Where trains once ushered celebrities to and from Hollywood, now internationally renowned musicians grace the stage seven nights a week to play some of the best traditional jazz that you'll ever hear. Wayne Segal now manages Jazz Showcase but the elder jazz statesman and his father, Joe Segal, still makes his tongue-in-cheek introductions in his 80s. Joe opened the original Jazz Showcase in the Gold Coast in 1947 and, since then, the venue has migrated between Lincoln Park, South Loop (in the Blackstone Hotel), River North, and now in the regentrified Printers Row District. The large and well-appointed space makes for a perfect evening of jazz anytime of year.
The latest incarnation of Jazz Showcase can be found along the east side of Dearborn Station, down from the boisterous Bar Louie-Printers Row in the building's northeast corner, and along the somewhat obscure Plymouth Court (read: little known to cab drivers, so tell them it's between Dearborn and State). Jazz Showcase's present location once served as the Chicago Multicultural Dance Center but the ballerinas are out and the musos are in. A colorful orange, purple and green sign hangs above a set of red-painted wooden double doors set within Dearborn Station's red brick façade. Walk up half a flight of stairs and the doorman will take your money at a stand on your left, which is $25 on Saturday, $10 for students and the Sunday matinee (popular with families), and $20 for everyone else, every other night. Jazz showcase only accepts cash at the door, but takes plastic at the bar.
Once you've ponied up the somewhat hefty cover charge, you'll pass into a large 3,500 sqft. room with beige painted walls, high ceilings and an elevated stage at the opposite (south) side of the room that holds up to 20 musicians, though you're likely to see a group of three or four. Along the sides of the room, you'll see dozens of photos of past performers at Jazz Showcase through the years, with the most well known having the largest, such as Duke Ellington, Dizzie Gillespie (showing off his extended cheeks), and a mammoth photo of Charlie "Bird" Parker behind the stage. Upon the west wall is a framed display of concert bills of other famous performances, including Herbie Hancock, Count Basie and Maynard Ferguson. To spice things up, a literal bust of a well endowed woman holding two trumpets is mounted upon the west wall. Tall windows lighten up the space somewhat with a bit of the South Loop skyline. An old sign from when Jazz Showcase was located at 59 W. Grand hangs over the door as you leave.
A rectangular wooden bar lies to your right as you walk in, followed by a smattering of cocktail tables in the rear (close to the bar), and a slew of low-slung wooden tables closer to the stage. If you're lucky (read: early), snag one of the sofas on either side of the room and towards the stage. If you just stand there and look confused, someone will be along to seat you shortly but I recommend to grab whatever table you like. Unlike BackRoom, Jazz Showcase blissfully requires no drink minimums, but they do serve a pretty good dirty martini and a fairly standard selection of bottled domestics. The only food you'll encounter at Jazz Showcase are the olives in your martini. When Mother Nature calls, you'll find the restrooms down a hallway to the left of the stage.
The present vigor of the Chicago jazz scene owes a lot to the vision of one man: Joe Segal. Like most dedicated jazz promoters, Segal is something of a monomaniac. He's been presenting modern jazz concerts in nooks and crannies throughout the city for twenty years now, and has just made another forced relocation, from slightly cramped quarters on Rush Street to this more spacious room above the Vibes Lounge."
– excerpt from Sweet Home Chicago: The Real City Guide (1974)
After 50 years, Joe Segal has become the Godfather of Chicago Jazz. Segal's original Jazz Showcase was located somewhere in the Gold Coast. Due to chronic lease losing, Jazz Showcase his migrated from 901 N. Rush Street, to what is now The Apartment in Lincoln Park (above Lion Head Pub), then to the art deco environs of the Blackstone Hotel, in the southwest corner of its main floor. This may have been Segal's best deal as the Blackstone management allowed use of the space and complimentary hotel rooms for the musicians in exchange for drinks consumed for hotel prices at the bar, served by a tuxedoed staff. Once new ownership took over at Blackstone, Segal, now with his son Wayne, was once again given the boot and regrouped at 59 W. Grand where the club could take advantage of a deeper-pocketed restaurant crowd. Once River North rents became extravagant, Segal shut down his club on January 1, 2007 and moved his joint to its present Printers Row locale in Dearborn Station and re-opened in June 2008. In the interim, Segal held a few "Jazz at Sea" boat cruises on Lake Michigan.
For you history buffs, Dearborn Station is constructed of red brick and pink granite in the Romanesque Revival style and completed in 1885, along with its unique 12-story tower. The Sante Fe Railway ran trains from Chicago to Southern California and the Southwest from 1920 until until 1971, as cars and airplanes eroded rail transportation, and all remaining lines were consolidated at nearby Union Station. Like the printing business around it, the next decade and a half ushered in a state of crime and urban decay until Dearborn Station was converted into commercial office space as part of a neighborhood revitalization plan. Today, Dearborn Station is one of the oldest train stations in the United States.
Jazz Showcase is very similar in size and type of traditional jazz offered as that of Andy's Jazz Club (few vocalists, big bands or Latin) and offers a level of talent to rival the Velvet Lounge. Jazz Showcase is also far more spacious and somewhat more traditional than BackRoom (also includes blues and funk) and Green Mill (more into swing orchestras and vocalists). Showtimes are at 8:00pm and 10:00pm (Sunday matinee at 4:00pm) and they don't take reservations, so call first if you're worried about getting in. The place holds 170 people, so you should be fine, unless it's during Chicago's annual Jazz Fest every Labor Day, and they'll even let you stay for the late show if the place isn't jammed. For more information and a listing of upcoming shows featuring today's edition of John Coltrane and company, check out the Jazz Showcase website. Dig it?