IN THE CITY OF NEW YORK

Every Day Is Bird Day

by Paul Hond
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He picked up the trumpet in his teens, then put it down after college (“I knew I sucked”), and focused on his other instrument — his voice. Listening to Schaap narrate, say, the wrenching story behind Charlie Parker’s sublime and ruinous recording of “Lover Man” on July 29, 1946, one hears that this, too, is jazz: Here is an improviser with his own sonorous nasality, his own vocabulary, a master of the notes between the notes, a crafter of paragraphs delivered on coffee breath into the morning ether, a tough yet self-effacing pedant whose solos, often of Rollins-esque duration, thread their way through facts and dates and anecdotes and conjecture (“You don’t have to trust me,” he’ll say, or, “I bet some of you disagree with me,” or, “I know for some of you it’s a burden to hear a social studies lesson, but . . . ”) in their hot pursuit of Truth. He gives you not just words, but feeling, in avuncular New Yorkese — the inflections, the dramatic modulations, the crescendo and decrescendo, and the gravity with which he intones, as if reading scripture, “Charlie Parker was in no shape to play that day. His entire existence was unraveling, and there were many who were thinking the jeopardy was so severe that he would die.” A whisper. A hush. It’s the sound of awe before the splendid plumage of his subject, one that is largely of his own making. Schaap is a detective gathering evidence, a pointillist using dates for dots, an obsessive aggregator of minutiae who, in the more than 10,000 installments of Bird Flight, has constructed an audio portrait of Bird that should stand for all time.

Phil Schaap in WKCR studio, 1991But doesn’t he ever get tired of Charlie Parker, day after day after day?

“If something’s good to listen to, it’s good to listen to more than once,” Schaap said before the festivities at Low. “In any music of quality or depth, I find that a lifetime of listening is its own reward. It’s not a Charlie Parker thing — Bach would be the same.” And to Schaap, a history major, it’s not about the dusty past, either: In music, there are no yesterdays. Now really is the time. “All music is present tense when it’s listened to or performed,” Schaap said, echoing Stravinsky, who called music “the sole domain in which man realizes the present.” Schaap drew a parallel to sports: “The game of baseball hasn’t changed — OK, so the outcome of tomorrow’s game is different than today’s — but while it’s going on, it’s in the present. And the only way to contemplate music is in the present. That’s one of its charms.”

Still, when you play the same artist every day for almost 30 years (Bird Flight took off in 1981), the present can be precarious. Schaap’s challenge, each morning, is to acclimatize first-time listeners while keeping things fresh for the habitués. “You gotta get both audiences,” he explained. “‘I don’t know what art is, but I know what I like.’ You gotta get them. ‘I know more about this than anyone on the planet.’ You gotta get them, too. When you get both, ya done something. Rembrandt did something. Charlie Parker did something. And those people speak volumes to me.”

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