[JPL] NYTimes: Billie Holiday on 'KCR

Steve Schwartz steve_schwartz at wgbh.org
Wed Apr 13 21:49:35 EDT 2005


April 10, 2005

Play Me Some Billie Holiday (for 360 Hours, to Be Exact)

In the wee hours yesterday, three undergraduates buzzed the front door of
WKCR, the radio station of Columbia University in Manhattan.

The students said they had heard that their classmate Patrick
Jarenwattananon, a WKCR D.J., was playing Billie Holiday records and they
wanted to wind down after their night of revelry by listening to the singer
known as Lady Day. They sat on the floor of the studio and watched Mr.
Jarenwattananon, 19, a sophomore English major, place a phonograph needle
onto an LP. Out came the buttery voice of Billie Holiday singing her famous
blues, "Fine and Mellow."

Afterward, Mr. Jarenwattananon, took the microphone and identified the
station as "Billie Holiday Radio" and announced that the station, as "our
tribute to the music and the legacy of Billie Holiday," was in the midst of
playing two weeks of Billie Holiday. The students looked at each other

They heard him right. WKCR-FM (89.9) is playing Holiday's music 24 hours a
day for 15 days straight - 360 hours of Lady Day with a bit of station
fund-raising in between. The festival opened April 1 and will end the night
of April 15.

Holiday died in July 1959 at age 44; Thursday would have been her 90th

She died of kidney failure in a Manhattan hospital, said Phil Schaap, 54,
the jazz historian and longtime WKCR D.J. who played his first Holiday
record at the station 35 years ago as a Columbia freshman. At the time, he
said, she was under arrest for narcotics and was handcuffed to the hospital

Mr. Schaap said he believes the station is playing all of the known Holiday
recordings, from her first (on Nov 27 , 1933) to her last (April 26, 1959).

Many of the recordings belong to the station, which has some 25,000 jazz
records, and to Mr. Schaap, who has about 20,000, as well as those of other
WKCR D.J.'s Some were borrowed from the Institute of Jazz Studies. Others
were recently bought on Internet.

The station D.J.'s labored to search out every live and studio recording,
not to mention outtakes and obscure interviews, radio performances and audio
tracks of her television appearances.

WKCR regularly plays multiday marathons dedicated to a single jazz artists,
including 11 days of John Coltrane a year ago. But this is the longest
marathon in the station's 63-year history. There are no commercials, but the
D.J.'s have been begging listeners to call in with donations to alleviate
the debt of the station, which is partly funded by the university.

About 2 am yesterday, Mr. Jarenwattananon sat at a radio console cluttered
with LP's and CD's and large bags of throat lozenges. From the bins of
Billie Holiday records, he had taken one of a 1952 Carnegie Hall concert. He
put on "I Cover the Waterfront" and the students leaned against the wall
drinking it in as Lady Day sang, "Will the one I love be coming back to me?"

"Not that you'd want to listen to Billie Holiday 24 hours a day for two
weeks straight," said one of them, Tessa Paneth-Pollak, 19, a Barnard
sophomore who is taking a jazz history class. "But you could if you wanted
to. "

Through a large window into the spacious studio next door, one could see a
young man with a wild head of curly hair and bleary eyes laid out on a
couch. It was the station manager, Matthew Herman, and he said he was taking
two weeks off from his academic schedule for the festival, and had not truly
slept since it began.

"After it's over, I'll sleep for a week and then deal with finals," he said.
"I've learned more at the station than I've learned in class anyway. Well,
it's a different kind of learning."

The room around him was littered with takeout food bags, paper cups and
empty Snapple bottles. Next to his head was a 500-tablet container of

The D.J.'s and fund-raising volunteers gather in this room. Scrawled in
marker on the window looking into the main studio was an organic chemistry
equation. The students take turns working the overnight shift, but since the
station has no windows and many D.J.'s have been skipping classes and been
virtually living at the station, they frequently lose track of day and

Some of the most unusual calls come late at night, Mr. Herman said,
including older listeners disputing historical details announced on the air.

"The other night around 4 a.m., some guy called in and said he wanted to
pledge $44 million," said Mr. Herman, 20, a Columbia junior majoring in
American studies.

He laughed and said that serious pledges have come in from all over the
country, and there have been contributions from jazz artists including
Charles Lloyd, Jimmy Heath and Roy Haynes, according to Mr. Schaap.

The WKCR studios, in a campus building on Broadway near 114th Street, hardly
resemble a Bohemian jazz den. There is no sign of Scotch and cigarettes, and
the interior has all the coziness of a dentist's office.

But as the music wafts softly throughout the studio - first "Travlin'
Light," then "Good Morning Heartache," then "Autumn in New York" - it is
clear that Billie Holiday continues to cast her unique musical spell over
the Ivy League undergraduates. Here the love for Lady Day is evidenced not
in finger-snaps or foot-taps, but technical discussion about the recordings
from students almost too tired to lift a record.

"Just being around the music is enough," said Dan Wong, 19, a Columbia
sophomore who is the station business manager and a news programmer. He was
sitting at a table in the studio eating a slice of ziti-topped pizza. "Just
being here, you feel part of it."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company 

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