Every Day Is Bird Day

by Paul Hond
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When the Iron Horse of WKCR was introduced, the crowd in Low rose and applauded, giving back what it could. Schaap thanked everyone for “giving me a bird’s-eye view of my own funeral,” and for “tolerating a middle-aged man who is soon to become an old man. You made me feel welcome.”

Schaap, who lives in his childhood house in Queens, among thousands of LPs and 78s, took a breath.

“I haven’t had a real life the way some of you have, and I acknowledge that,” he said. “But jazz has provided me my religion. Jazz musicians are my family. WKCR has been my home. I was there when I was 18 years old. I was there today.” A beat. “I’m going to take off tomorrow, but —”

Everyone laughed, but the poignancy of Schaap’s existence made itself felt. Here was perhaps the most knowledgeable jazz expert in the world, a cat whom Wynton Marsalis calls “an American treasure,” whom Jamie Katz calls “an idiot savant without the idiot,” a man who’s never been paid a cent during his 40 years of volunteer broadcasting at WKCR, even as he helped make the station the first name in jazz radio — and he was thanking his admirers for putting up with him.

Schaap has done much outside the booth as well. He’s been a teacher at Columbia, Princeton, and Juilliard, an audio restoration specialist, and a Grammy-winning producer and writer of liner notes. But he remains, at his core, a performer, the man behind the mic, blowing. Spinning. Swinging. Given his early associations, it’s no surprise that even his arrival at Columbia was marked by a golden stroke of time: He came a year after the strike of 1968, just as ’KCR was changing its format, expanding its jazz programming. Talk about hitting the beat. Papa Jo must have smiled.

But time, alas, can be a funny thing.

Back in Punxsutawney, things change for Phil in Groundhog Day. As February 2 recurs, Phil learns how to profit from his foreknowledge of events. He gathers data, memorizes it, uses it for personal gain. But for all his omniscience he still isn’t happy. Slowly, he begins to figure things out. He starts using his mastery to help others, and finally makes the breakthrough that allows him to graduate to February 3.

Phil Schaap faced no such difficulties this past Groundhog Day. After the Nighthawks packed away their instruments and the tables were cleared and Roy Haynes put on his hat, Schaap walked through the doors of Low Library. Outside, the nighttime snow fell light and feathery, the softest of notes. From the topmost steps of Low, the view of campus, with the buildings and trees aglow, was magical.

Schaap wasn’t ready for bed. He and about 30 undergraduates and recent ’KCR alumni headed down to the Abbey Pub on 105th Street near Broadway. It was an impromptu event, and Schaap was touched by the appreciation of people young enough to be his children.

A few days later, Schaap was asked how late he stayed out. For once, his memory failed to supply the exact time.

“All I know is that it was after midnight,” he said. “It wasn’t February 2nd anymore.”

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