Meet Nora Sheehan Schaaf

Meet Nora Sheehan Schaaf
Tessa Souter and Andrea Wolper BY

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We have about 30 musicians we actively follow. Concerts are a major budget line for us. We like hosting young people in jazz clubs. Most recall who they heard, the club, the night. All share a commitment to justice, fairness.
—Nora Schaaf
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Nora Sheehan Schaaf, along with her husband, Homer, has been going out to hear live jazz several times a week for sixty years. And while she may have visited jazz clubs from Havana to Krakow, when it comes to live jazz there's no place like home. From the couple's early days stealing kisses on the banquettes at the Village Vanguard, to introducing young people to New York's jazz scene in the present day, Nora is a true jazz advocate.

Tell us a bit about yourself.
An only child, I was born in Washington, D.C. during WWII in 1941. My birth allowed my father to be discharged from the U.S. Army. He shared with me his love of jazz, politics, and the Boston Celtics. My mother shared her love of Broadway theater and classical music. Both my parents were avid readers and community volunteers. We lived with my maternal grandmother in the South Bronx for several years while my parents saved to buy a small house in 1948 in Dumont, N.J.

I met Homer on a chilly September 30 in 1962, on a blind date in Boston. We have been married for fifty-four years. Jazz, opera, classical music, chamber music, good restaurants and wine have been part of our lives from the beginning. In the early years we only could afford rehearsal tickets for the Boston Symphony and later the New York Philharmonic. That remains a great way to hear outstanding orchestras. We have fond memories of Sunday matinees at the Village Vanguard, when they served burgers and rum cokes, and we listened to Gerry Mulligan. Kissing on the right elevated banquette was part of the fun.

I led New York City child welfare programs and served on not-for-profit boards for thirty-five years. For the past fifteen years I have been an enthusiastic volunteer helping children learn the joys of reading in the Summer Freedom School and After School Program at St. Ann's Episcopal Church in the South Bronx. Some of the children are strong drummers, dancers, singers. All are helped to enjoy good books.

What's your earliest memory of music?
The radio was always on. WPAT for music, WOR for news and talk shows, WCBS for fifteen-minute, and later thirty-minute, midday soap operas. I forget what station had Sunday afternoon thrillers like Suspense and The Shadow. I happily started singing in the children's choir at the Episcopal Church of the Atonement in Tenafly, New Jersey, at age seven. I still like church hymns, particularly with improvisation. I like almost anything by Bach and strong organ pieces. I have heard some of the world's finest organists: Marcel Dupre, Frederick Swan, E Power Biggs, Diane Bish. New York City has a wealth of great organs. I like the beauty of jazz renditions of church music and always attend trombonist Wycliffe Gordon's Gospel Hour on The Jazz Cruise.

And I can still see my mother's glowing face when she told me she had gotten my father the just-released 1950s LPs of Benny Goodman's The Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert. To top it off she saved up and bought him a turntable that flipped the record over so you could hear both sides. A few years later she got me a portable phonograph for my small bedroom. I went on to learn about diamond and sapphire needles, speakers, KLH radios. Headphones came later.

How old were you when you got your first record?
It was a 45 record of Bill Haley and the Comets' "Rock Around the Clock" in 1955, when I was thirteen. My dad gave me Dave Brubeck's Jazz Goes to College in 1960. He also gave me a stuffed Democratic Donkey for my door. My Massachusetts college roommate of four years studied organ and still plays—and votes Republican.

What was the first concert you ever attended?
It wasn't a concert, but I saw Mary Martin in Peter Pan in 1954, when I was twelve. I was mesmerized by Peter and the children flying, Tinker Bell needing the audience to help save her, Nana the dog, the music. Our grandson Christopher saw The Lion King this year. He wasn't as bowled over. My first jazz concert was Ahmad Jamal in 1960 or 61 in the cavernous Cage, a huge auditorium at MIT that no longer exists. There must have been at least a thousand people. Some of us took turns standing near the stage to watch him. My love of jazz piano started then. Piano trios are my favorite groups.

How long have you been going out to hear live music?
Sixty years. Homer and I have easily attended more than 2,000 jazz concerts.

How often do you go out to hear live music?
Three or four nights a week, sometimes more during the academic year. We sometimes go to Carnegie Hall or to Lincoln Center for classical music or opera, and then go to a late jazz set.

What is it about live music that makes it so special for you?
The richness of the sound. Watching musicians' absorption in what they are playing. Hearing the leaders talk about the music, the composer, predecessors who made the music their own. I especially like the commentary of pianists George Cables, Bill Charlap, Harold Mabern, Renee Rosnes, and orchestra leader and composer Maria Schneider.

What are the elements of an amazing concert?
A program which includes new compositions, and at least one and, better yet, two well-known standards. My night is made when I hear Renee Rosnes' first notes of Dizzy Gillespie's "Con Alma" or "Tin Tin Deo." Homer and I cherish the many times Tommy Flanagan played these pieces with bassists Peter Washington or George Mraz and drummer Lewis Nash in the 1990s. I yearn to hear Abdullah Ibrahim's "The Mountain" again. It is wonderful to see musicians' expanding careers as they play with different people, in different configurations. What a joy to see an ebullient Steve Wilson and his Analog Band at the Jazz Standard on Saturday, September 8. I like the influence of Cuban and Brazilian rhythms. I'm grateful to Gianni Valenti for bringing Leny Andrade to Birdland a decade ago. Dizzy's wisely has hosted her too. She is a seventy-five-year-old wonder who can still exude sexual fun.

What is the farthest you've traveled for a jazz performance?
New York City is the jazz capital of the world. There's no need to travel. We have dozens of clubs. We also have the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, Queens, and The Jazz Museum in Harlem. Everyone I know who has gone to the 1940s Armstrong home comes away loving the man and his wife even more for what they did for making jazz America's music. The last time I visited, it had a wonderful collection of children's books. I travel more than Homer so have visited clubs in Berlin, Dublin, Havana, Krakow, Oslo, Prague, and more.

If you could go back in time and hear one of the jazz legends perform live, who would it be?
Ella Fitzgerald and Tommy Flanagan. I heard Tommy dozens of times but I never heard Ella in person and they made some great music together. I'd have liked to have heard them live.

What makes a great jazz club?
Strong owners and managers who know what they want their club to be. They respect the musicians and insist that guests and staff respect them, too, by being quiet while they play. In the early days of Dizzy's Club Coca Cola in 2002, the thought was that it would be relaxed and some conversation would be okay. Within a year, original host Todd Barkan was emphasizing quiet at the request of patrons who wanted to enjoy the nuances of the music.

Which club(s) are you most regularly to be found at?
Homer and I are often at Smoke Jazz & Supper Club, the Jazz Standard, JJazz at Kitano, Birdland, Dizzy's Club Coca Cola, the Village Vanguard. We have about thirty musicians we actively follow and see when they are in the City. Some weeks there are so many that we have to pick and choose. Our children are successful adults on their own, we do not own a car or second home: concerts are a major budget line for us. We like hosting young people in jazz clubs. Most recall who they heard, the club, the night. All share a commitment to justice, fairness.

Is there a club that's no longer around that you miss the most?
The Chestnut Room in the old Tavern on the Green, where stride pianist Dorothy Donegan would play three rousing sets like no one else then or since. She is the first female jazz musician I saw. She also may be the first musician I heard talk about the serious challenges of being a person of color.

The Carnegie Hall Jazz Band of the 1990s led by Jon Faddis. It was special to hear great jazz musicians in a great concert hall. It was fun to hear their battles with Wynton Marsalis' Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.

Do you have a favorite jazz anecdote?
Summer 1981 or 1982, drummer Max Roach played a benefit concert at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan for the 150th Anniversary of Leake & Watts Children's Home, which was founded on that site. It was recorded but never released. At a rehearsal he talked to our then eight-year-old son, Bill, and signed a program for him. His message: Keep Straight.

Sunday, September 16, 2001, second set at the Village Vanguard: an ailing Tommy Flanagan, who rarely spoke much, fervently spoke of being an American, of growing up in Detroit, of his early jazz heroes, of being able to play around the world. We knew we would recover from 9/11 because of Tommy. He died of an aneurism two months later on November 16 at a much too young seventy-one.

How do you discover new artists?
From musicians, club owners and staff, friends, jazz publications and radio programs. We thoroughly enjoyed the July and early August Mondays this year when pianist Harold Mabern played at Smoke with twenty-five-year-old bassist Vincent Dupont, a recent graduate in Jazz Studies at William Paterson University in Wayne, NJ. The young man can play, and Professor Mabern was proud to have him shine. Drummer Joe Strasser was an important member of the trio.

Vinyl, CDs, MP3s?, streaming?
No to MP3. I like the return to vinyl. We have several large walls of LPs and CDs. New ones arrive weekly.

If you were a professional musician, which instrument would you play?
Clarinet. I can't hear enough of it. Gorgeous sound. My love for the instrument goes back to the 1950s Benny Goodman LPs. The late Englishman Gervase de Peyer kept the sound alive in the United States as a founding member of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Israeli Anat Cohen gets credit for bringing it to the fore again in jazz. I wish I could play the clarinet like Anat Cohen, Victor Goines and Gary Bartz.

What do you think keeps jazz alive and thriving?
Shared memories of the people who are eager to listen, slow to judge, willing to share the joys of the music, and believe in and work for freedom and justice for all.

Finish this sentence: Life without music would be...
Life without hope.

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