Phil Schaap meets Red Bank's Johnny Jazz
Sadly, the jazz world lost another icon of the age. Phil Schaap was a jazz historian and radio disc jockey (WKCR), activist, educator (Columbia, Rutgers, Princeton and Juilliard), producer and 7 time Grammy winner. It has been said that every time you lose a legend you lose an entire library of knowledge and history. Such is clearly the case here.
For all the awkwardness surrounding his persona and for all the varied remarks made by some in the industry, his genius was undeniable. He was a walking encyclopedia of jazz. He could talk for hours about some obscure recording session for a long out of print and forgotten record and tell you not only who was playing on it, what tunes were recorded, how it came to be, and its significance to jazz history, but he would tell if it was raining outside and the color of the engineers shirt along with every other trivial detail about the date.
I first became aware of Phil when I was a student at Manhattan School of Music in the late 70’s. A few of us would take the walk down to 114th Street and Broadway—not far from the subway station—squeeze into a small jazz room at the West End Cafe and listen to some of the most incredible and historic jazz musicians. It was Phil Schaap, at the time a student at Columbia, who ran that room and curated the performances. This is where I first heard the “real deal” about jazz and began to learn the significance and the importance of the music. Sure, I loved the music, played it (sort of) throughout high school. My new college friends and I would sneak off to an empty cavernous room at the Union Theological Seminary where it was pretty secluded and happened to have a grand piano. Here we would have our jam sessions playing what we all thought was jazz at the time. We were all enrolled in a conservatory that had a distinct curriculum of classical music training. Some of these fellow students like Kenny Kirkland and Angel Fernandez and Kevin Twigg were much more advanced with Jazz than I was but they sparked something in me that I just had to learn more about this music. The West End Cafe was where we all got the other side of our education from. Somehow Phil Schaap managed to bring the true masters of the art form to play at this little college pub. It was such an eye opener and journey through history hearing people like like Sonny Greer, “Papa” Jo Jones, Vic Dickenson, Eddie Duram, Tiny Grimes, Doc Cheatham, Clark Terry, Lee konitz and so many more.
If you who are familiar with our organization (Jazz Arts Project) you may remember that we hosted Phil Schaap here in Red Bank as part of our Talkin’ Jazz series somewhere around 10 years ago. After a lecture, presentation and discussion about the great Charlie Parker we brought Phil to the other side of town to meet his number one fan, Ralph Gatta, who for some reason or other would never leave his own building.
Although they never met before that day, Ralph listened to Phil on the WKCR radio broadcasts every single day and came to believe that they were close friends through the airwaves who never met, or maybe like a kind of close knit family separated by geography. He recorded every broadcast on a portable cassette tape recorder that had long ago seen better days. As static laden and scratchy as it sounded, Ralph blasted them out all day while dancing around to the music he loved.
I seem to remember that I told Ralph in advance that I was bringing Phil Schaap so when the day finally came for them to meet he was beside himself with anticipation.
Marked by a long faded, hand painted sign was a small butcher shop turned convenience store on the west side of a little NJ town called Red Bank. For over fifty years, that sign, hung over a tattered screen door which in order to enter you would step up onto a small concrete stoop. The sign marked the entranceway to one man’s inner struggles, his big hearted generosity and his lifelong passion. It was a small butcher shop and local grocery store serving a diverse and ever changing community on the west side of town. The proprietor, Ralph Gotta renamed the family business and put up that sign after he took it over in 1963 upon the death of his father John Gatta. At the time, Ralph would have preferred to spend his life frequenting New York City’s premier jazz clubs as he had done in his earlier days. In the late 50’s and early 60’s Ralph would dress to the nines complete with fedora and gold chain pocket watch and frequent all the big city’s jazz joints. Clubs such as the famous Birdland is where he met and become fast friends with so many jazz luminaries of the day. Ralph claimed them all as friends because as he said, "I spoke their language, I was hip." all the famous names, Miles Davis, drummer Max Roach, saxophonist Lou Donaldson and his favorite singer Dinah Washington were in his sphere. Ralph eventually knew his ultimate calling however, was to run the family business back home. And so, giving honor to both his father and to the jazz music he loved so much, the sign went up reclaiming that spot on the block as “Johnny’s Jazz Market.” Although, not exactly connected as the raison d'etre, it was probably fitting that this town, Red Bank, the town that birthed the great William “Count” Basie, had a shop called Johnny’s Jazz Market.
Over the years Ralph lived and worked on that block and witnessed the surrounding area change from an Italian and Irish neighborhood, to a Jamaican and Puerto Rican neighborhood, to an African American neighborhood and ultimately to a mixed melting pot which would include a large Mexican American contingent. He heartedly embraced these changes and the diversity it embodied and continued to serve his community with the same fairness and compassion that his father always had shown. Ralph was well known and well liked in the community. He was also quite generous, often helping out people who could not pay for groceries. After Ralph passed, a memorial tribute was held just down the street from his shop in a pocket park that this community has now named a in his honor, "Johnny Jazz Park". At that ceremony his brother, recounted a time when Ralph stood up to racial segregation during his stint in the Army in the 1960s. “While on duty in Virginia, at a time when racial segregation was the norm, my brother went onto a bus and sat in the back because, as he said, ‘that’s where all the cool cats sit, at the back of the bus.’ The bus driver came over to him and told him he had to move to the front, and he refused.”
Ralph was a bit eccentric in nature and spoke with a slang laden hip, cool, jazz cat vernacular, but was a beloved character in the town. He kept his store hours long into the night 7 days a week and seemingly never left the shop. A visit to his store wasn’t just a shopping trip it was an adventure and a unique experience. If you ventured in, you had the feeling you were in an old movie from a time long ago. But there was something else. Yes, it was a one stop shop for milk, bread, pork chops, pigs feet or chorizo; ham hocks or salt pigs tails, spaghetti sauce or beans and rice, green plantains or parmesan cheese; a virtual trip around the cultural culinary landscape …but you couldn’t leave until you had filled your soul with his own energized brand of Jazzeology. A drop the needle listening adventure with conversations about jazz musicians, the great jazz clubs back in the day, and an array of amazing anecdotes.
All of this, amongst a grubby museum of jazz memorabilia and with a signature raspy voice, Ralph preached the gospel of Jazz from behind that refrigerated glass meat counter, the pulpit of jazz. And all the while his beloved jazz music would be blasting out of the speakers;
Everywhere you looked, peppered among the dusty cans of Goya beans, sardines and Cafe Bustelo, jars of hot sauce, boxes of cereal and detergent, paper towels, brooms, brushes and various bric a brac was hundreds of things you would never see in such a market like this. The store became Ralphs notebook of memories; birth dates, death dates, song titles, snippets of lyrics, names and quotes of jazz greats. On the walls, on every wall, on every available space, you would see photos, album covers, hand lettered signs “I love Diz” “Bird Lives” etc. that Ralph would dash off in magic marker on any and every available surface, including butcher paper, roughly torn cardboard, window shades, anywhere and everywhere and attached to every wall, ceiling, shelf and nook and cranny was something about jazz. One of Ralph's close friends, Gilda Rogers, said she learned about jazz history through her friendship with Gatta. Sadly Ralph passed away in 2010 and his Johnny's Jazz Market is long gone
But back then when the day came to meet his idol, Phil Schaap, Ralph was smiling ear to ear. He danced around the store proudly showing Phil all the hand made shrines he had put up honoring all the jazz masters.
I believe that in Phil, Ralph felt he met a kindred spirit and finally felt justified and legitimized for his life long passion and eccentric ways. In reality, they both strived to spread the good word about jazz. Ralph served up a slice with everyone who came into his store and Phil spent his whole life preserving and presenting the music on his radio broadcasts, college courses and lectures. They both preached the gospel of jazz in their own way.
From one of the signs hangin in johnny's jazz market back in the day... “ya gotta blow whatcha feel”.
RIP Phil Schaap. Say hey to Ralph for us.