Every Day Is Bird Day

by Paul Hond
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Phil Schaap and Alvin Raglin, WKCRIn the center of the room, 12 round tables had been set up. The guests sat down to eat a $500-a-plate dinner (this was a WKCR fundraiser, starring the station’s golden goose) and to hear encomia from Schaap’s radio colleagues, including Sharif Abdus-Salaam ’74CC, the drummer Kenny Washington, Jamie Katz ’72CC, ’79BUS, and current station manager Michael Zaken ’11CC. The speakers testified to Schaap’s generosity, his warmth, his sensitivity, his humility, his devotion, his football injury freshman year, his steel trap memory, and his prodigious energy — early bird and night owl both. “He can go without sleep for months — almost,” Abdus-Salaam told the audience. “He does that so we can get as much as we can from what he has to offer.”

Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of History and no slouch for dates, noted that the previous day, February 1, was the 50th anniversary of the Woolworth’s lunch-counter sit-in. This led to a little badminton between Schaap and his old professor over Plessy v. Ferguson, a case that arose, as Schaap observed, in New Orleans, where jazz began. (Schaap often points out that jazz, with its integrated bands and audiences, helped hasten the end of segregation.) “One of the lessons of history,” Foner said, glancing at his former student, “is that perseverance is a tremendous virtue.” Former station manager Emi Noguchi ’10CC unfurled and read aloud an Executive Chamber Citation from Governor David Paterson ’77CC that was so long and laden with “Wherebys” that it began to suggest a burlesque of its verbose subject. In contrast, tenor sax colossus Sonny Rollins, a prince of the extended solo, sent a brief and perhaps unresolved telegram, also read by Noguchi: “Dear Phil, and I say ‘dear’ because you are quite dear to our jazz community.”

A defining Schaap moment was provided by Katz, the station manager at WKCR from 1970 to 1971. He recalled the night Schaap knocked on his door at Furnald Hall to inquire about working at the station. Katz invited the tall, friendly stranger inside and gave him a blindfold test. “McCoy Tyner, Live at Newport, ‘Woody ’n You,’” Schaap answered, quickly and correctly.

Katz was impressed. But now he really wanted to stump this guy. “So I put on a record my father had done,” Katz recounted, “and Phil said, ‘That’s “Cotton Tail” by Benny Carter, off Further Definitions on Impulse Records, and on piano, Richard Aaron Katz, born in Baltimore on March 13, 1924.’” Katz paused. “My father didn’t even know his middle name.” The audience laughed knowingly, but tonight it was Schaap’s staying power, not his famous memory, that was center stage. Katz said, “You’ve heard of Pipp and Gehrig?” He hooked a thumb behind him to indicate Schaap on the dais. “That’s Lou Gehrig.”

Phil Schaap was born on April 8, 1951, and grew up in what he calls the “jazz bedroom community” of Hollis, Queens. Roy Eldridge was a neighbor and family friend. So was Lennie Tristano. So was Milt Hinton. So was Lester Young. Schaap’s father, Walter Schaap ’37CC, ’41GSAS, a French history major, went to France in 1937 as a scholar and translator and befriended the jazz musicians there. He gave English lessons to Django Reinhardt and drank with Coleman Hawkins on Bastille Day ’39. Schaap’s mother, Marjorie Alice Wood Schaap, was a classically trained pianist. Phil’s babysitter was Papa Jo Jones, Count Basie’s drummer. Jazz was what Schaap ate for breakfast. It was his milk, his bread, his baseball cards, his grandpa, his weather. He learned things early, and remembered them.

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