Ever since they took the Teletubbies off tv at 8:30 am I’ve gone back to listening to WKCR’s Bird Flight every morning. I forgot what a great morning ritual this can be. I mean, I think I own almost everything Charlie Parker ever recorded (except I lost my copy of the bootleg where he plays behind Little Jimmy Scott, sometimes credited to Chubby Newsome, anyone know where I can find it these days?).
For the unfamiliar, here in NYC and streaming on the web, Columbia University’s WKCR (89.9 FM or www.wkcr.org broadcasts an hour and ten minutes (8:20 am- 9:30 am, EST) of nothing but the music of Charlie Parker, hosted by Phil Schaap, probably America’s greatest walking repository of jazz lore. It’s the perfect way to wake up, even if your whole day is fucked, at least you got a good dose of Bird to let you know what greatness a human is capable of. It’s something to look forward to whether you’re up and making coffee or lying in bed, it beats the hell out starting your day listening to the news and getting depressed before you’ve even gotten dressed.
In the week before and after WKCR’s yearly Charlie Parker/Lester Young birthday
marathon (their birthdates are Aug. 27 for Pres, Aug. 29 for Bird so every year KCR does a 72 hour extravaganza) Schaap, who has been working his way through the Bird discography in chronological order, has spent an inordinate amount of time dissecting the Dial session from 1946 that produced “Lover Man”, “Be Bop”, “Gypsy” and “The Blues”.
“Lover Man” is one of the milestones of American music (and the record that really got me into jazz courtesy of the late Bob Quine) and a record that Bird hated and didn’t want released at all. As Schaap has explained in painstaking detail, the severely strung out Bird was going through heroin withdrawal during the session and it sounds it. During the fast tunes (“Gypsy” and “Be Bop”) his incredible skills are greatly diminished for perhaps the only time in his recording career. But on “Lover Man”, one can hear and feel the sound of great pain, foreboding, pathos and all those other things anyone who has ever kicked a habit can attest to. It is a masterpiece and has rightly been acknowledged so from everyone from Mingus to Mr. Schaap.
Phil Schaap’s knowledgeand enthusiasm r eally brings all of this jazz history to life. To say he knows his shit is an understatement. He gives session dates and personal details, but he also gives his listeners so much more. Schaap fills the dactual gaps, no holds barred. Like letting us know that “Moose The Mooche” was named for Parker’s dope connection, and that Bird had signed over his royalties to Moose (whose real last name was Byrd) for the price of some smack. Schaap’s critics say he rambles too long on mike, but I find every bit of it fascinating. So much misinformation and fanciful elaoration has colored the Bird legacy (such as Ross Russell’s book Bird Lives) and there is much b.s. for Schaap to straighten out, and he does, par excellence. But he goes so much further and keeps things in perspective, after all it’s music that is important, the gossip might be interesting or fun or even enlightening, but it doesn’t make the music any thing other than what it is, and in Bird’s case the is, is brilliant. The other day Schaap managed to sync two turntables to play the ’46 “Lover Man” simultaneously with the version Bird recut in the early 50’s. This was to illustrate just how closely Bird managed to remake his own record, an astounding feat in the das before click tracks or even head phones. What other deejay would go to such lengths?
I came late to jazz fandom (I didn’t really get it until my early 20’s) but over the years I feel like I’ve gotten a pretty decent education in jazz just digging Schaap, who also hosts a Saturday 6-9 PM show called “Traditions In Swing” as well as many birthday salute marathons (coming up are John Coltrane on September 23 and Thelonious Monk on October 10). One year they did ten days straight of Sun Ra.
Schaap’s obsessive style of broadcasting in an anomaly in the modern world and I wish there were more like him. Why doesn’t cable radio have anyone like Schaap? What will happen to all the lore he carries in his head when he dies? Someday he’ll be gone and like the jazz greats he lives to herald, there’s nobody to replace him. So enjoy it now, nothing good lasts forever.
For those interested in developing an ear for jazz, Schaap teaches classes in jazz history at Swing University which is part of the Jazz at Lincoln Center complex. If I thought I could sit still for two hours I’d sign up (and I may still give it a shot). For more info try: http://www.jalc.org/jazzed/subs/swing_u.html