Phil Schaap taking it easy in the Dizzy Chair, where many jazz luminaries were interviewed. The original upholstery has been shredded for a fund-raising drive at the Columbia jazz station, WKCR-FM (89.9). (Photo: Corey Kilgannon/The New York Times)
For almost as long as Phil Schaap has been playing jazz records as a disc jockey at WKCR-FM (89.9), a red chair has been hanging around the station on the Columbia campus, where he was a freshman 41 years ago.
The chair had been dragged over from a nearby student lounge. Although it was a simple piece of furniture — a modest wooden frame with red upholstered padding — it was the deluxe chair in the station’s waiting room and soon became the seat of honor for renowned jazz musicians when they visited.
“We’ve always been a bare-bones station, and this was just a decent chair to have guests sit in,” Mr. Schaap, 57, said this week in the station’s studio on campus in Morningside Heights.
When Duke Ellington visited the station while on campus receiving his honorary doctorate from Columbia in May 1973, he was interviewed there while in the chair. From then on, it retained a certain “Duke Sat Here” aura and was reserved as a chair of honor for the untold numbers of musicians and personalities to follow.
On Dizzy Gillespie’s 70th birthday, a sound booth was set up around the chair for him to be interviewed -– the second defining moment: it was baptized as the Dizzy Gillespie Chair.
Now, with the station trying to raise money to continue operating, the chair is being used as a fund-raising tool during its station’s marathon broadcast (10 days of Dizzy round the clock from Oct. 13 to 22) to mark Gillespie’s birthday — he died in 1993, but would have turned 90 on Sunday.
The chair’s original red upholstery has been pulled off and chopped into 1,600 pieces to be “sold.” A piece is offered to any donor of $1,000 or more, as a shred of jazz history.
Mr. Schaap said he has put the chair up for sale in the past, but each time, the buyer donated the money but asked that the chair remain at the station. The station, which runs no commercials, operates on a $280,000-a-year budget. The university provides just a fraction of that.
If each person donates $1,000 the station will amass an endowment of $1.6 million, said Mr. Schaap, which will ensure its financial well-being for many years. Ben Young, a longtime D.J. at the station, walked in with a small metal box of red scraps of worn, red upholstery.
Was it leather?
“Naugahyde?” Mr. Young conjectured.
Most of the musicians have come by to be interviewed by Mr. Schaap, an encyclopedic jazz historian who has a collection of more than 3,000 recorded interviews of jazz figures.
On Tuesday morning, he was in the studio playing recordings of Charlie Parker and Gillespie together. As he spoke, his hands automatically found the combination of buttons, switches and dials to segue from “Hot House” to “Salt Peanuts” on CD and then cueing up “Slim’s Jam” on an LP.
Mr. Schaap plopped down on the chair, which has been redone with similar red upholstery, and rattled off a staggering list of names of jazz greats who sat there while being interviewed at WKCR through its 66-year history. Jazzwise, this included Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Charles Mingus, Stan Getz and Ornette Coleman. Other luminaries included Margaret Mead, Allen Ginsberg and Dennis Hopper. In all, more than 250 renowned musicians and others have been through since the station played its first record over the air (which, incidentally, was “Swing Is Here,” by an ensemble that included Benny Goodman and Roy Eldridge. Both have spent time in the Dizzy Chair).
Mr. Schaap alternated the music with extended pleas for listeners to call in and donate. Their donations will save jazz radio in New York, he said. If the radio station’s finances continued to sink, listeners would lose their daily dose of Charlie Parker.
In an adjacent room, a team of student D.J.’s fielded the calls, some of whom had not returned to their dorms the previous night. Out in the hallway, two mattresses were leaned against a wall. Jordan Paul, the station manager, confessed to spending the previous night sleeping at the windowless station.
The station regularly plays this type of multiday music marathon — including 11 days of John Coltrane in 2004 and two weeks of Billie Holliday in 2005.
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