December 01, 2010

Christmas Bird

By Paul McGuire © 2010

After I lost my job after the dotcom bubble burst, I humped the morning shift at a neighborhood bar in Brooklyn. Initially, I worked four days a week, taking off one day a week to dedicate myself to interviews and finding a job. I gave up looking for a job after six months and called the bar my office for five days a week for the next three years. I showed up 9am on weekdays to open the bar and usually worked through the end of Happy Hour at 6pm.

Shap, one of the morning regulars, must have been in his late 60s, but Sully told me that he thought he was 75. With a full head of silver hair, Shap looked good for his age, whatever it was, considering he spent four or five hours a day inside the bar five days a week, only skipping Tuesdays and Sundays.

Shap dressed like a college professor -- with corduroy jacket with patches on the sleeves and a wrinkled dress shirt. I think that's what he did before he retired. Shap drank whiskey and soda but with no ice. He'd nurse two or three drinks in five hours and sat the end of the bar for hours on end attempting to finish the NY Times crossword. When he was done with the puzzle, he'd engage in spats with Sully, the resident encyclopedia of sports statistics and knowledge of everything sports. Sully knew that Shap grew up in Boston and always gave him shit about the Red Sox. Shap took his guff mostly because the Celtics won more championships that Sully beleaguered Knicks.

What Sully was to sports, Shap was to jazz music. I had been serving him for four days a week almost a year before I discovered his passion for all things jazz. One Tuesday morning, I pointed at his empty stool and quizzed Sully.

"Where does he go on Tuesdays and Sundays when he's not here? Sundays is for church right? Is he religious something?"

"Shap? That cheap Jew?" barked Sully. "You've seen how he tips. He's a full-blooded Jew as much as I'm a full-blooded McCatholic. He's a bad member of the tribe too because he's in here drinking on Saturdays."

"So Sundays? What's he doing?"

Sully told me that Shap took Sundays to visit his adult children and grandkids. I never even knew he had kids, something he never talked about. Some barflys bombarded you with unsolicited tales of their entire life story, while others don't tell you a lick. Shap was in that group that rarely spoke about his personal life outside the bar. Mostly everything out of his mouth was sports or politics.

"What about Tuesdays?"

"He's got that radio show. You know, on one of those college radio stations at the far end of the dial. I dunno if you can even hear it out in Brooklyn. Signal is too weak."

Radio show? I quickly discovered that Shap was a jazz historian who hosted his own show on NYU's radio station. He took the subway into Manhattan every Tuesday, and dragged a dozen or so LPs with him to the Village. Shap hosted the same show for over thirty years. He didn't get paid a dime and had become sort of a legend among the students who worked at the radio station over the years.

Shap taught literature at NYU for a decade and wrote record reviews for jazz magazines on the side. He got paid to write about his passion as he collected thousands of records, including thousands of hours of live bootlegged recordings of his idol Charlie Parker, otherwise known as "Bird."

Shap's biggest claim to fame was when Miles Davis accepted his invitation to drop by the studio in the late 1980s, and in his trademarked gravely voice, Miles told an elaborate story about how Charlie "Bird" Parker had arranged a series of gigs in Chicago.

"When Bird couldn't cop any smack, he drank cough syrup and whiskey. He'd get blind drunk and pass out and sleep for hours on end. He missed a lot of gigs that way. Bird owed a huge debt for failing to show up to four gigs in Chicago. The club was owned by a slick cat named Morris and Morris had friends with the mafia. Bird was scared that they were going to kill him, so he agreed to work off the debt, but with a crazy schedule -- Christmas Eve through New Years -- with only Christmas off, and three sets a night plus five on New Year's Eve. Bird rounded up a couple of his friends in New York and formed a band for the Chicago shows. I didn't want to go, but all of the clubs in the city were closed on the holidays. I didn't have any money to go home to St. Louis and visit my family for Christmas. I figured that I could get out to Chicago, earn some scratch, and then take the train down to St. Louis after the holidays. We took the train to Chicago and played our first gig on Christmas Eve. Bird didn't cop enough dope before we left New York and he started taking Seconals, which were these red pills that were heavy sleeping pills. We showed up to Chicago with only one rehearsal under our belt. Bird was useless and all fucked up on Seconals, so I picked the songs to play. On our first night at the club, the joint was packed for a special Christmas Eve show. Bird stumbled on stage and played when he wasn't nodded out. Most of the time he wasn't even playing the same songs as us -- but at least it was in the right key. That's the thing about Bird, even as fucked up as he was, he knew we were in F and just started playing the first tune that came to mind that was also in F. For the second set, I had kick him in the shin to wake him up for his solos. The next morning, I saw Bird in the lobby of our hotel. He said that his shins hurt and I told him it was because I had to kick him all night because he kept nodding out. That's when he told me, 'Miles, never take Seconals and play chromatics. You'll go crazy.'"

Paul McGuire is the author of Lost Vegas.

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