Every Day Is Bird Day

by Paul Hond
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Schaap in WKCR studio, 2010 / Photo by John Abbott In the 1993 movie Groundhog Day, the protagonist, a broadcaster named Phil, finds himself reliving the same day, February 2, over and over again. To Phil, it’s a curse: All he wants in life is to get hired by a network so that he can quit his job as a weatherman at Channel 9 Pittsburgh, where he’s forced to do undignified things like cover Groundhog Day. Now, by some cosmic joke, he’s stuck forever in Punxsutawney.

Only, what if it’s not a curse? What if it’s a gift?

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s flip to February 2, 2010, when a formally dressed crowd arrived at the rotunda of Low Library to honor another broadcaster, also named Phil, who joined the Columbia radio station WKCR on Groundhog Day 1970. To stretch the metaphor, this Phil never left his hole: after 40 years, he’s still on the air each weekday morning, hosting the long-running Bird Flight, a program devoted to the music and career of Charlie “Yardbird” Parker. And on Saturdays, he again boards a bus on Hillside Avenue in Queens, switches to a train at the 179th Street station, and arrives in Morningside Heights by dinnertime, to bring us Traditions in Swing.

Phil Schaap ’73CC is a New York original: a radio host, producer, archivist, educator, storyteller, a virtuoso of jazz history in general and Charlie Parker in particular, whose appearance in Low might thus be more aptly rendered in ornithological terms than in rodential ones. Schaap, tall, broad, with a wave of red hair, entered the room in a black tux, a storklike figure among the penguins (though storks are mute and Schaap is not). He shook hands, thanked the guests, chatted, ordered a Jack Daniel’s on the rocks, then headed to the bandstand, next to the dais, and greeted members of Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, who were warming up for a night of swing.

Over by the bar, the great jazz drummer Roy Haynes, who played with Charlie Parker from 1949 to 1952, and with everyone else since, stood in dark wraparound shades and sipped a bottle of mineral water, looking a good deal younger than his 84 years. Someone asked him what his relationship was to Schaap. Haynes replied, “I woke up this morning and turned him on.” A beat. “Musically, that is.” Nearby was a lanky, bespectacled man in his 60s, a student at Swing University, the jaunty name of Schaap’s series of adult education courses at Jazz at Lincoln Center. “I’ve taken Hard Bop, the Coltrane class, and Jazz 301,” this man said. “And I applauded Phil every session.” He called Schaap a “walking encyclopedia” and said that he burns a CD of “Bird Flight” once a month and mails it to his brother-in-law in Cleveland.

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