About a week ago, the Beloved (who knows more about jazz than most people) told me excitedly that the latest issue of The New Yorker, a magazine I have been reading with some reverence since the late Sixties, had a Profile on the jazz broadcaster Phil Schaap, who’s been part of my musical consciousness for just as long. My first thought was, “Thank God! The New Yorker has rediscovered that jazz exists!” My second thought, an admittedly ignoble one, was “Why did it have to be a Profile of Phil?” Both those outbursts — idealistic and gloomy, require explication.
I first began reading the magazine because I so admired William Steig and the jazz critic Whitney Balliett. Years later, Balliett told me that when the mythic editor-in-chief William Shawn died, Tina Brown found jazz both reactionary and inexplicable, alien to the young moneyed readers she hoped to attract. Aside from a few surprisingly tepid pieces by Gary Giddins, The New Yorker seems to have considered jazz another version of model trains in the basement, not worth notice.
So a Profile of Phil Schaap, who has devoted himself to jazz with Messianic fervor, seemed at first a turning point. For one thing, it wasn’t a piece about The Death of Jazz. And although Remnick’s reportage was often snide, Schaap — in action or at rest — offers even a casual observer mountains of evidence for that point of view. But Remnick fixated on Schaap as anomaly — a flagpole sitter or the last maker of wooden shoes in Canarsie. It was The Subject As Freak, as Amiable Oddity, echoing Joseph Mitchell’s portrayal of Joe Gould.
It may not have been Remnick’s intent, but someone who knows little of jazz as a music, who thinks it arcane, will have those preconceptions reinforced. “Look how weird jazz is!” Remnick appears to be saying. “Look at Phil Schaap, its New York spokesman!” It would be sad if readers came away with the vague, subliminal notion that they had been reading an essay about jazz because Schaap plays it on WKCR-FM every weekday morning. For all his good intentions and his desire to keep jazz alive, Schaap is an entity quite distinctly different from the music he occasionally lets us hear: the Commentator isn’t the Text, and often obliterates it.
I wrote this Letter to The Editor. Wonder if The New Yorker will print it. Tune in tomorrow, precisely.
I’ve been listening to Phil Schaap for thirty years — a lifetime of words — and found Remnick’s Profile both wickedly accurate and sad. Ironically, Schaap can no longer separate his cherished facts from the music he wants to preserve. Lost in the brushstrokes, he no longer sees the painting. But Schaap isn’t Charlie Parker and his monomania has little to do with jazz itself. To hear jazz in its native habitat, unsullied by talk, let Remnick visit The Ear Inn any Sunday night. I’ll buy the first two rounds.
Postscript: I do not know for how long The New Yorker keeps pieces online, but at this moment, anyone can go to www.newyorker.com and read the Schaap Profile. Reactions, anyone?