How does a man go from a successful career as a certified public accountant and tax consultant to leading his own jazz quartet — after fewer than five years of playing the bass seriously?
According to Alan Segal, the founder of the Alan Segal Quartet, part of the nonprofit Jazz Sanctuary, it’s all thanks to a life-threatening illness.
“In May 2006, I was diagnosed with a brain AVM” — an arteriovenous malformation is an abnormal connection between arteries and veins that can lead to bleeding in the brain and other serious medical issues — “and I underwent 13 hours of surgery and spent 33 days in the hospital,” he recalls.
As part of the rehab process, the 71-year-old Segal, who says that he “played at playing the bass” for a few years prior to his hospitalization, decided to take the instrument more seriously. “I had no sense of balance, I couldn’t read and my hand-eye coordination was shot,” he says, and playing the bass would address all of those issues.
Still, it’s one thing to use music as a rehabilitation tool; it’s something else entirely to use it to actually become a professional musician. Segal says that the impetus came from his desire to “give back to the community that gave to me. All of the people who came to visit with me, who came to pray with me — they gave me the heart to move forward. I had to figure out a way to give back.”
The result: Jazz Sanctuary, which is, according to Segal’s research, the only sponsored, charitable jazz-specific organization in the United States. Thanks to Segal’s decades in accounting and tax work, he was able to convince companies like National Penn Bank, Philadelphia Credit Union, South Jersey Federal Credit Union and others to pony up 65 percent of the Sanctuary’s annual budget (the rest comes from individual donations).
The donations allow Segal’s group to fulfill its mission of providing free jazz concerts in settings like Gloria Dei Church in South Philadelphia by paying the wages of the musicians except for Segal. He eschews payment, insisting that “I do it because I want to give back — and to be selfish about it, I want to play music!”
And play he does: Jazz Sanctuary performs an average of 50 concerts a year, everywhere from free concerts in houses of worship to benefit shows like a performance on March 1 at Citizens Bank Park to benefit the Joan Karnell Cancer Center at Pennsylvania Hospital. The group is still waiting to work out details for performing in area synagogues, he says.
Now that he has built up charitable donations and bookings to a sustainable level, Segal is focusing on the third — and, to his mind, the most important — part of his post-op mission: music education.
His aim is to put back what spending cuts are taking away from schools’ music education programs. To that end, he has hired a grant writer to apply for funds that would help him fulfill his vision of bringing music education to where the students are.
As a example, Segal says, “let’s say that a school has five children who want to take saxophone lessons.” The school would call Jazz Sanctuary to request instruction, and the group would then have a musician drive out to the school to teach. “We will come to them, and it becomes a win-win: the musician will get paid for teaching, and the student will learn for free.”
Segal has a lifelong understanding of how every little bit can help make a difference in people’s lives. “It all goes back to my grandmother,” he explains.
“In her kitchen, she had the little blue-and-white tin box with the Star of David on it,” he recalls, referring to the once ubiquitous Jewish National Fund box. “Everyone who walked by it would put in a dime, a nickel, whatever.”
While it may have taken a near-death experience for Segal to truly nderstand his grandmother’s focus on tzedakah, he fully embraces it now. “I think that the older you get,” he says, “you have to say that it’s not how much you make — it’s what you do with what you have.”
For more information on Jazz Sanctuary, go to: jazzsanctuary.com