Karen Segal is a guitarist based in San Francisco, California. Fluent in multiple genres, including jazz, rock, funk, fusion, folk, and Latin music, Karen’s guitar playing is distinguished by her eclectic, soulful, and original sound. Karen has performed and recorded nationally and internationally both as a solo artist and band leader, earning the title “Leading Lady of Jazz” by Jazz Times magazine.
Karen was raised in a musical family in both Boston, Massachusetts and Copenhagen, Denmark. As a teenager, she responded to a posted sign by a Berklee College of Music student, and started taking guitar lessons with Dean Brown (who later recorded with Marcus Miller, Brecker Brothers, Roberta Flack) In Copenhagen she discovered free jazz, making a name for herself as a bassist and playing with Marilyn Mazur (who later toured with Miles Davis and Jan Gabarek) and Pia Nyrup (Søsterrock). At Hampshire College in Western Massachusetts Karen studied music theory with Ray Copeland (Thelonlius Monk) and majored in Music & Jazz History, culminating in a Styles and Analysis study of Wes Montgomery. Karen moved to London for 7 years where she studied with Cedric West (BBC Radio Orchestra). “He taught me jazz standards and gave me a solo spot during his band’s break each week at his Sunday afternoon gig at the Bow Bells in London’s East End. Each week he gave me a hand-written chord melody and I built up quite a collection. He also made sure I learned to read notes on the guitar, which has proven to be really helpful in all sorts of ways.” While in London, Karen also performed with several swing combos, big bands, and a choreographed Prince-like band.
When Karen returned to the United States, she moved to Los Angeles where she got a solo spot playing nightly in a popular Indian restaurant. “It was a great place to land and get my solo playing together. I met all sorts of people there, including a lady that got me on the radio on one of my first nights there, and that led to all kinds of other gigs. I remember meeting Eric Johnson there, who played my guitar and seemed to like it. I met another guy who told me about Emily Remler’s death, which blew me away. She had really inspired me and I had always wanted to meet her.” Karen studied guitar in Los Angeles at the Musicians’ Institute. “It was a crazy place that kicked my ass, mostly in the best possible way. It was so much information all at once, I’m still digesting it. I met and played with so many people from all over the place. Ron Eschete and Joe Diorio were the main guys I studied with. After that I met Jean Marc Belkadi who put a lot of it all together for me. He was just starting to write guitar books for Mel Bay, and I traded notational transcriptions for lessons with him.” Karen co-founded the acid-jazz band “Red Clay,” the house band at the Lava Lounge in Hollywood, with David Brown (Beck, Brazzaville) and played guitar for singer songwriter Jill Cohn. Karen completed her Bachelor’s degree in Los Angeles and got a Masters degree in Education and teaching certification from UCLA.
Karen moved to New York City for three years where she started teaching music full-time in an elementary school in Harlem. “I had trained to become a fifth grade classroom teacher, but when they discovered that my California credential wasn’t transferable to New York, they made me a classroom music teacher and I’ve been doing that ever since. I didn’t know anything about teaching music, but I did know about teaching and I knew about music, so I just put them together.”
Karen moved to the Bay Area with her then wife in 2000 and gave birth to their daughter in 2002. “That was a really creative time for me,” Karen recalls. “I started getting up in the middle of the night to compose while everybody else was sleeping. I eventually got enough material together to make “In the Moment” (2007), my first CD recording as a bandleader playing my original music. It was a tremendous milestone. Magic happened in the studio that day, it was palpable. A few months later I got into my car one day after teaching, started it, and heard my music playing from the KCSM 91.1 radio. It was super cool! Even got a shout out from DJ Jesse Chuy Varela, ‘An up and coming artist in the Bay Area,’ or something like that. As I kept at it, my confidence, connections and playing grew, eventually leading to my second CD recording “The Mystery of Life” (2010). This one got national and international attention, including a great review in JazzTimes magazine, ("A prodigious leap in jazz fusion") a write-up, photo, and “Leading Lady of Jazz” title in JAZZIZ magazine, and a European tour on a Fulbright Grant from the State Department.”
"Songs of the Danish People," Karen's third CD, was a studio recorded version of a solo guitar home recording that Karen made for her elderly Danish mother on Mothers Day. "She just loved these songs, and I inherited a fondness for them." While they have received acclaim and airplay on American "world music" radio, these recordings are popular in Denmark.
As her artistic career was gaining traction, however, her marriage was failing, ultimately leading to divorce and single parenting. “No regrets, but this cramped my style big time. Everything became about survival, parenting, and taking care of my elderly mother who was also living with us. Teaching high school music full-time was rewarding in many ways, but also exhausting. My own music pretty much went on hold. I played standards as a sideman once in a while, weddings and special events, and accompanied a number of Bay Area cantors including Sharon Bernstein and Marsha Attie. But I didn’t really develop my own music much during this time, it was all I could do to keep up maintenance.”
As things in her personal life have been settling down, Karen has returned to expressing and developing her unique sound and style on the guitar. With regular spots at the Ocean Ale House in San Francisco as a home base, her trio is back up and flourishing. Sideman gigs have been gaining momentum, as have solo event performances. Over the course of her lifetime, Karen has acquired a unique sound and skill set, and is eager to continue to make use of them. You can join her mailing list and follow her on YouTube and FaceBook.